I live in a college town. At our supermarket, you can tell who the students are by the contents of their carts. Boxes of frozen pizza. Dozens of ramen noodle packages. Chips. Lots of chips.
Standing in line with student customers over the years, I knew I wanted to teach my son a different approach to shopping when he went off to college.
As a junior, he left the residence hall to move into a house with four roommates and a big kitchen. Foregoing a meal plan, he was sure he could save money by eating independently. We budgeted $300 a month for his food. While that seemed plenty adequate to me, he soon learned that, to stretch those funds, he needed to get strategic about what and how he ate. Fast food several times a week wasn’t sustainable. Nor were pricey, ready-to-eat meals.
When I visited midway through the term, I took him grocery shopping. I should have done so at the outset, as we both discovered there was a lot to learn. Parents who’ve been in charge of the family’s shopping take for granted a process that’s actually rather complicated.
As a result of grocery store “field trips” with my son, I’ve put together these tips for fellow parents who want to help their students eat well on a budget.
1) Scout out the best place(s) to shop.
Determine where it makes sense to buy groceries. Location is important, especially if your student lacks a car. My son chose a store he could bike to, carrying his purchases home in a backpack. It also happened to be a Grocery Outlet, with great deals on surplus overruns.
Is there a supermarket on a convenient bus line? If roommates have a car, coordinate shopping together, or maybe there is a car sharing service, like Zipcar, on or near the campus. At discount warehouses like Costco, housemates can buy bulk quantities, splitting the cost. Is there a local farmers market? That can be an appealing option for fresh fruits and vegetables, which most college students don’t get enough of.
2) Get a store discount card.
Major grocery store chains offer lower prices to customers who sign up for a loyalty card. Most students can’t be bothered to use coupons or track store ads in newspapers, but a discount card is a simple way to maximize savings. And there’s generally no need to carry the card itself — you punch your phone number in at the register.
3) Buy store brands.
Your student may not know the difference between a “name brand” and a “store brand,” or even what a particular store’s label is. Point them out as you go through the aisles, and note the typical price difference. When my daughter, a health-conscious, organically inclined vegetarian, moves off campus in a year or so, she will be more likely to shop Whole Foods than her brother, and she’ll find solid savings in the chain’s “365” label.
4) Understand value.
Cheaper isn’t always better. This was an important lesson for my son. While he finds it tedious to read labels, he learned that you must compare “like with like” when it comes to determining the best value. Take bread. He found a loaf for $1.99. The one I suggested cost twice that. “Why would I pay $4 for a loaf of bread?” he challenged.
We discussed the difference between “enriched wheat flour” and “whole wheat flour,” and why the latter should be the first ingredient on the list. We looked at additives — preservatives and dough conditioners, but also sugar and the names under which it masquerades. If you’re concerned about health and keeping your energy levels high (which he is), I asked him which loaf of bread would serve him best. While more processed foods are often cheaper, they aren’t a better choice. The healthier loaf costs twice as much but it’s heavier, denser and more nutritious — full of seeds and grains instead of just air!
The last thing my son wants to spend time on is cooking but it’s necessary if you want to make your food dollars stretch. Sometimes you gotta turn on the stove.
5) Do the math.
Elementary calculations are essential when shopping. My son wanted grated cheddar to melt on tortillas. “Which one is the best deal?” I quizzed him as we surveyed a wall of packages. Reading shelf tags, we looked at price-per-unit, determining the cost per ounce. Is 3-for-$5 a better deal than $2.50 each? What’s the quantity in each package, in order to know? Larger quantities usually cost less. But if you buy a quart of yogurt instead of individual cups and half of it ends up moldy, you’re better off paying more for smaller sizes.
6) Balance cost vs. convenience.
The last thing my son wants to spend time on is cooking. For some students, it can be a fun and communal activity. Not for him — he regards food as a means to an end. Crack a couple eggs and scramble them in a pan? Too involved. Heat water? He’d rather not.
Yet he came to realize that minimal cooking is necessary if you want to make your food dollars stretch. Oatmeal was our teaching example. A box of eight instant packets cost about $3.00. A whole container of quick-cook Quaker Oats cost about the same and would last for weeks. Less than five minutes’ preparation time, probably 10 times the cost savings. Sometimes you gotta turn on the stove. That said, convenient choices like bagged salads can up your student’s intake of leafy greens, which they might otherwise skip.
7) Use a blender!
Speaking of leafy greens, a blender is a bonus. Eating healthfully matters to my son, but he doesn’t like the trouble of preparing fresh produce, especially chopping and slicing fresh fruits and vegetables. Being big smoothie fans at home, we got him a blender to create easy, healthy breakfast drinks. It doesn’t take much effort to toss in a handful of fresh pre-washed, chopped spinach or kale from a bag, a banana, some strawberries, an apple or carrot, and some chia or flaxseeds for good measure. A NutriBullet is a more compact and convenient option, using the same container to prepare and hold your drink— my daughter uses one in her dorm room, keeping ingredients in her personal fridge.
8) Focus on healthy basics.
When your student moves into a house or apartment for the first time, help them prepare a shopping list of essentials:
- For simple cooking, have olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and a few other herbs and spices on hand.
- Milk, eggs and low-sugar yogurt provide cost-effective protein, though so can legumes like beans and lentils combined with a whole grain like brown rice. Peanut butter, too, is a cheap and easy staple.
- Whole-grain bread is a go-to for sandwiches, and tortillas make breakfast burritos and quesadillas easy.
- Choose easy-to-eat veggies: baby carrots, snap peas, cherry tomatoes, raw broccoli, bagged salads.
- Take-and-go fruits like apples, bananas, grapes and easy-peel mandarin oranges are good choices, while berries – fresh, or frozen in smoothies – provide powerful nutrition.
- Cereal/energy bars are popular, though they can be expensive and sugar-laden, if you don’t shop carefully. Better yet, make them with your student—they’ll be tastier and much cheaper, and they freeze well. Google “homemade energy bars” for a multitude of recipes.
- While meat is expensive, chicken tenders can be frozen and readily added to simple cooked dishes, and wild-caught salmon filets on sale offer a healthy source of protein in salads, scrambled eggs, or on their own once a week.