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Your Guide to Grocery Shopping in College

Grocery shopping in college doesn't have to be scary. Here's a good basic college grocery list and a bunch of tips on how to do grocery shopping right.

I moved out of the dorms after freshman year of college because my roommate and I decided we wanted a kitchen. We were both sick of eating on campus, and neither of us could afford to eat out all the time. So at the beginning of our sophomore year, we moved into an on-campus apartment. Once we had all our furniture and clothes and dishes put away, the only things left empty were out pantry and refrigerator. So we went grocery shopping.

That first time completely overwhelmed me. I had never grocery shopped for just myself. I come from a family of five, so my sole experiences with food shopping with my mom ended in a cart piled high and a $150 bill almost every time. I had no idea how to shop for just myself. I panicked through every aisle, and it took me a couple months to figure out what and how much to buy in order to feed myself well while not wasting food. Luckily I learned: grocery shopping in college doesn’t have to be scary. Here’s a good basic college grocery list and a bunch of tips on how to do grocery shopping right.

College grocery list ideas

These simple and basic foods are cheap, healthy, and widely available. Obviously, you can buy whatever you like best. But this grocery list includes some great choices for college students on a budget! Many even work well in a dorm, especially if you have a mini fridge and microwave.

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Beans
  • Bell peppers
  • Cereal (look for low sugar; dry cereal also makes a quick snack)
  • Cheese sticks
  • Coffee (making it yourself can save you tons of money—don’t worry, Starbucks will still be there)
  • Eggs
  • Garlic
  • Hummus
  • Lentils
  • Oatmeal (look for low sugar)
  • Onions
  • Peanut butter
  • Popcorn
  • Rice (preferably brown)
  • Salsa
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Tortillas
  • Tuna fish (look for low sodium)
  • Whole grain bread
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Yogurt (look for low sugar)

Another pro grocery shopping tip: buy plain frozen vegetables (provided you have a freezer, of course). Contrary to popular belief, frozen veggies are still super good for you!

Before you grocery shop

  • Make a list of what you eat, at least for a week or two. That way you know what you actually need to buy. For example, my family keeps a lot of cereal at home, but I prefer yogurt for breakfast. So in college I started out buying cereal like my parents did, but realized I just let it go stale.
  • Look at your list and see what kind of foods are on it. Are you eating a lot of meat? Try to add some veggies in there. Are you buying a lot of fruit to snack on? Make sure you also get nonperishable snacks for when you run out.
  • Figure out how much time you have to prepare meals. See what your schedule is like for the week ahead so you know how many meals to buy for. You’ll also figure out if you need to look for super easy or even premade meals (keep in mind those are usually more expensive), or if you can spend a little extra time on food during the week.
  • Look up some simple recipes to make. Make a list of the ingredients they require so you don’t forget something while you’re shopping—or buy extra stuff you don’t need. (If you’re still in a dorm, you might want to try these recipes.)
  • Decide on a budget. I’ve found that I spend $70–$80 on groceries on weeks I buy meat and $40–$50 on weeks I don’t. If I buy meat, I typically get one or two pounds each of beef and chicken and freeze most of it. Depending on how much I cook, this can last a month or two. It may be different if you buy a lot of frozen or organic food. Don’t panic too much if you go over your grocery budget the first few times; it’s all about finding out how much you spend on average and then trying to stick to that.
  • Look for deals and coupons. There are lots of money-saving apps out there, websites with coupons, and grocery store circulars. But don’t get suckered into buying food you don’t really need just because you got a coupon for it!

Related: Budgeting Basics and Spreadsheet for College Students

While grocery shopping

  • Do not shop hungry. You really do spend more money at the grocery store if your tummy is rumbling, and you will end up forgetting to buy items you need because you’re in a hurry to leave and go eat. I have done this. Don’t be like me.
  • Pack on the pounds the first time you grocery shop. Okay, not exactly. I’m talking about an old school tradition, where parents of newlyweds would gift the couple a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, and other pantry basics for their new home. If you know you want to cook and bake some in college, you’ll need those items. Get some flour, sugar, baking soda, cocoa, and spices you use often (if you haven’t used spices before, Italian seasoning, garlic, and taco seasoning are good places to start). This will be more expensive than your average grocery shop, but you won’t need to replace these items often.
  • Mind the aisles. The first times you shop by yourself, it can be good to go down every aisle to get a sense of your local grocery store’s layout. But aisles are also treacherous, because that’s where you’ll find all the foods with lots of salt, sugar, and preservatives. Aisles are also typically laid out so your eyes and brain trick you into buying the bad stuff. So try to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store if you can, and venture into the aisles only when you need to.
  • Compare prices on meats. Usually, prepackaged meat is cheaper, but occasionally the butcher counter will have good deals.
  • Don’t forget to purchase things to package leftovers in. Reusable containers are your friends.
  • Do a last-minute cart check. When you’re done shopping, look at your cart before you check out. Do have everything on your list? Are you all set for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks? I’ve made the mistake of buying mostly snack food and then not having anything for dinner, so I ended up going out that week even though I was trying not to. Make sure you buy for all your meals.
  • Freeze things if you can. If you bought meat, decide how much (if any) you want to freeze. I try to separate mine into single-pound units and freeze those by themselves, because that’s how much I typically use in a recipe. I wrap each pound in cellophane and then aluminum foil, and also put the date it was frozen so I know what to use first.
  • Keep your pantry and fridge relatively organized. Try to keep stuff you use often near the edges of the shelves for easy access. On a related note…
  • Every month or so, go through your pantry and fridge. I had a roommate who bought a bottle of cooking oil every week because she either forgot she had it or couldn’t find it because her shelf was so unorganized. You might get more ideas for things to cook, and you won’t forget about items you bought a while ago and never use.
  • Come up with a system. Once you know what you typically buy in a given week, it’s a good idea to see if your grocery store has an app and a rewards program. Usually, apps will have coupons that you can go through and add to your reward card. Then the coupons will be applied automatically when you scan it at check out. It’s a relatively quick way to save a little each week.

After you shop

  • Freeze things if you can. If you bought meat, decide how much (if any) you want to freeze. I try to separate mine into single-pound units and freeze those by themselves, because that’s how much I typically use in a recipe. I wrap each pound in cellophane and then aluminum foil, and also put the date it was frozen so I know what to use first.
  • Keep your pantry and fridge relatively organized. Try to keep stuff you use often near the edges of the shelves for easy access. On a related note…
  • Every month or so, go through your pantry and fridge. I had a roommate who bought a bottle of cooking oil every week because she either forgot she had it or couldn’t find it because her shelf was so unorganized. You might get more ideas for things to cook, and you won’t forget about items you bought a while ago and never use.
  • Come up with a system. Once you know what you typically buy in a given week, it’s a good idea to see if your grocery store has an app and a rewards program. Usually, apps will have coupons that you can go through and add to your reward card. Then the coupons will be applied automatically when you scan it at check out. It’s a relatively quick way to save a little each week.

Related: How to Eat Healthy in College (on the Cheap!)

Grocery shopping can be overwhelming, especially as a college student, but it doesn’t have to be. As I’ve gotten more comfortable with it, I’ve begun to enjoy cooking and trying new recipes. I’ve started eating healthier too, because I’m more conscious of what I’m buying when I shop for food. I don’t want to waste my money on junk! Learning how to grocery shop has been a process, but it’s also been a fun. Hopefully, these tips will make it easier to skip the panic and go straight to the fun part of buying food on your own in college.

So, college students: what is grocery shopping like for you? Did we miss any good foods for the shopping list or life-changing shopping tips? Let us know on social meda!

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