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Aug 14 2017
by Nancy Canevari

The Guide to Grocery Shopping and Meal Planning on a College Budget

By Nancy Canevari - Aug 14 2017

College is the first time that most people have to go grocery shopping for themselves, which can be extremely daunting if you’ve never done it before. Between classes, extracurriculars and getting adjusted to life in a dorm, trying to shop for food and cooking all your meals for yourself may sound impossible. Thankfully, Fresh U is here to help you with some advice for grocery shopping and meal planning on a student budget, which will leave you with more than enough time to explore campus with your new roommate.

Grocery Shopping

1. Read the weekly circular.


You may think it takes an unnecessary amount of time, but as someone who grew up in a household that received the Shoprite circular every week, I can tell you that it’s a guaranteed lifesaver. This is where you’re going to find out what types of produce, meat and other products are on sale for the coming week, which will help you out when you’re making meal plans and grocery lists. If you know that chicken breasts are going to be half price for a week, you’ll know to base your meals for the week around chicken.

2. Make a shopping list.


This is possibly the most generic piece of grocery shopping advice on the planet, but everyone says it for a reason: You are much more likely to stick to your budget and avoid impulse buying if you have a list of everything you need to buy for the week already written down.

3. Stock up on coupons.


Again, it sounds time-consuming until you realize just how much money you can save with coupons. It’s also easier than ever to get coupons because there are a number of websites that gather coupons from various stores — no need for clipping newspapers. Red Plum, Smart Source and are good places to look.

4. Store brand, store brand, store brand.


I don’t know when store brand materials started getting so much hate, but they’re such a great way to save money on basically the same product. Most of the time, the ingredient lists for name brand and store brand items are virtually identical, so you’d rarely be able to tell the difference between the two, except in your bank account.

5. Don’t buy things on sale if you weren’t going to buy them in the first place.


It’s tempting to grab a bunch of a certain item if you see that it’s on sale, but if you weren’t planning on buying it in the first place, you may end up spending more money than saving.

6. Only buy in bulk when it makes sense.

Duong Tri via Unsplash

Some foods (flour, rice, pasta) that you can keep for a long period of time are great to buy in bulk, especially when those items are on sale. Raw meat and fish are also decent things to buy in bulk if they’re discounted because you can always freeze them to eat later on. Things like produce, on the other hand, are best not to buy in bulk because they’ll likely go bad before you can eat them, which means that you’re wasting money by throwing food out.

7. Find substitutes for expensive ingredients.

Andrew Itaga via Unsplash

If you’re making a recipe that requires a very small amount of an expensive ingredient, you may want to look for a cheaper substitute to save you some money. There are times when ingredient substitutes will yield a worse product, so make sure you’re doing your research on what good substitutions are (you can find some good examples here), but if a recipe you’re making calls for a teaspoon of an expensive spice you’ll never use again, this may be a valuable tip.

Meal Planning

1. Keep non-perishables on hand.


When you have ingredients in your kitchen, it’s going to be much easier to cook something and avoid ordering takeout. Keep your kitchen stocked with ingredients that don’t go bad quickly and that are easy to prepare (pasta, rice, canned beans, jarred tomato sauce), so that you only need to pick up a few fresh items to make a meal or make one from the nonperishable items alone.

2. Plan around your schedule.


When you’re planning out your meals for the week, make note of which nights you’re free and which you have meetings, sports practices or work. Save easy recipes for those nights, or make a double batch of food on nights when you’re free so that you can eat leftovers.

3. Stick to a limited number of recipes.

Lan Pham via Unsplash

You’re a college student. You’re tired all the time, you have a thousand responsibilities and you haven’t eaten anything nutritious in weeks. You realistically don’t have time to learn how to make a bunch of complicated recipes, and if you try to do so, you’re just going to cause yourself unnecessary stress. Find a small number of recipes (like stir fry and soup) that you enjoy making and that are quick and easy to prepare, and focus on those. Whether you’re making the same meal every night or are making a large batch and eating leftovers throughout the week, you’re going to save time and avoid stress.

4. Portion out meals and snacks ahead of time.


If you have snack items you’re taking with you when you’re around campus (crackers, nuts, granola), portion those out ahead of time so that you can grab a bag and go. Do the same with meals if you’ve made a large portion of food so that you can just stick a Tupperware in the microwave and eat. You’re more likely to eat pre-prepared food (and save money) if it’s easily accessible to you.

5. Factor in takeout.


As a college student, you're going to be ordering takeout or going out to eat at least a few nights a month. If you factor in those nights in your meal planning, you'll know how many nights you'll realistically have to cook for and you won't end up making unrealistic promises to yourself, like attempting to give up takeout altogether.

If you’re stressing about grocery shopping and cooking in college, hopefully these tips helped you out. Remember, like everything to do with college, this is a learning process, so don’t stress if you aren’t making complicated meals every night right away — you’ll get there eventually. For now, happy (stress-free) shopping!

Lead Image Credit: Pexels

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Nancy Canevari - Smith College

Nancy is a junior editor for Fresh U. She is a sophomore at Smith College and plans on double majoring in secondary education and English, with a concentration in creative writing. She's originally from New Jersey, a place she views with one part love and one part exasperated disgust. She loves dogs and young adult high fantasy novels a bit too much and spends most of her time drinking tea and yelling about politics. Follow her on Instagram @fearlesslynancelot for some solidly mediocre content.

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