Navigating the grocery store was a shock when I went to college. I grew up with my mom buying everything for the household, and suddenly I was alone and struggling to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner a reality. How did I create a budget? What's the deal with leftovers? Just like everything in college, grocery shopping was a learning curve and I made plenty of mistakes along the way.
During my freshman year I had no concept of budgeting when it came to grocery shopping. Even though I was able to find a paid internship on campus, I still had to embrace frugality. Food was a high priority in my food budget, but once I added on the price of textbooks and transportation home for the weekend, I couldn't justify spending money on expensive teas.
At my college, all freshman and sophomore students were required to have a meal plan, but that still didn't stop the majority of us from stocking our tiny mini fridges with our favorite essentials. We were also not allowed to have hot pots, slow cookers, or rice makers in our room, so we got crafty with healthy microwaveable meals and to-go containers of lettuce from the dining hall.
5 Things I Learned About Grocery Shopping in College
Despite struggling at first, I learned some important grocery shopping lessons in college that I still use today as a young adult. Whether you're just heading to college or are already a meal planning guru, these grocery shopping truths are things we can all learn from.
1. Easy Mac is not (always) the easiest solution.
I ate an inordinate amount of Easy Mac my freshman year of college. I kept boxes and boxes underneath my bed just in case I was hungry. The truth was that I hated my college's cafeteria. The food wasn't bad per se, but it was nothing compared to the meals my mom made in her kitchen.
By the time I was a senior in college, I learned that Easy Mac wasn't the convenience food I actually craved. It didn't make me feel good physically or mentally, and it didn't save me as much money as I thought it did. For example, a box of Annie's Mac and Cheese can actually be cheaper per serving. Sure, you're giving up the convenience of a single-serving meal, but it was worth it for me.
Convenience foods look a little different for me now that I'm out of college, but I always think about the lessons I learned from my love affair with Easy Mac. Sometimes you need something quick, but still substantial, so I love buying frozen meals from Trader Joe's. Instead of adding chips or cookies on the side, I always pack my meals with salads or mixed veggies.
My recommendation is to find the convenience foods that make you feel great (no judgement if that's Easy Mac!) and are worth their spot in your budget.
2. Couponing is your reliable, loyal best friend.
As a high-school kid, I didn't understand the concept of couponing. I always saw it as a waste of time and didn't think that it made a difference. But once I went away to college and started to grasp the concept of money better, I realized that couponing was not the scary concept I saw on TLC.
Although my school was in the center of town where life didn't center around the college, it still seemed like our local Stop & Shop catered to the students that frequented the store. My love affair with Stop & Shop grew because not only did it remind me of home, but it also always seemed to have the best coupons and sales. Now when I go grocery shopping I always check online if the things I need on my list are on sale. Or as soon as I get to the grocery store, I flick through the penny saver that is normally available as soon as I walk in.
Learn more: 5 Money-Saving Tips from a Coupon Clipper
3. The best time to grocery shop is during the week.
In college I always thought it was easier to go grocery shopping on the weekends. Due to group projects, school work, scheduled dinners with friends, or studying, I couldn't fathom finding time in my schedule to make the trek to the grocery store. But I learned quickly that grocery shopping on the weekends can sometimes be a nightmare. I wasn't the only one that thought grocery shopping on the weekends was easier, and more likely than not I was met with a packed grocery store.
Simply put, grocery shopping during the week is less of a hassle. Now that I am out of college I still find it so useful to pick a day in the week to pick up groceries. Not only is it less crowded, but I also have time to wander through the aisles and try out new items without feeling the rush of the crowd.
4. Make a list and check it twice.
I will always be the type of grocery shopper that loves to go aisle by aisle, looking for new items to try out. One of my best friends can attest that a shopping trip with me normally takes at least an hour.
But during my college years, the biggest tip I learned is that it is always important to go to the grocery store with a list. I found that when I went to the store without a list, I was more apt to buy things that weren't necessarily the best for me, or things that were just too expensive (hello, Oreos!). The key to making a grocery shopping list is to make sure you listen to your body, and always go through two or three times and question if the item something you should be purchasing.
5. Meal prepping is the new leftovers.
I had always heard that meal prepping was the best way to save money and make sure you eat well. I was worried it really just meant I was going to eat super-boring leftover grilled chicken for five days straight. But during college I learned that you could add mixed vegetables, switch it up and make a stir-fry with noodles or rice, throw tomato sauce on it, or add a salad on the side. The key to meal prepping isn't to plan out boring food — it's to make things easier on you and to make cooking more enjoyable.
I also learned that meal prepping not only saved me money at the grocery store, but also helped me waste less food. Meal prepping overall helps me stay on track with my grocery list (see #4) and stops me from purchasing things that will go to waste in the fridge.
Did you learn any grocery shopping tips in college? Share in the comments!