Learning how to grocery shop

The Not-So-Starving Student

by Rebecca Reichl

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There's something about that first solo, totally independent grocery trip that sends a little shiver of excitement up your spine. So many possibilities, so little time! The problem is, whether your menu revolves around cereal, boxed mac 'n cheese, or organic granola bars, it's way too easy to spend your entire month's food money on a week's worth of groceries, leaving you staring at your calendar imagining weeks of hunger ahead. Before resigning yourself to a dismal life of bread and water, take some preemptive action and prepare for a life of gastronomic satisfaction.

Budget Wisely

The absolute first thing you need to do is make a budget. Before you start reveling in your newfound cuisine freedom, figure out how much you can spend on groceries weekly. What you can afford unavoidably decides what you can buy. Set a dollar amount and plan on sticking to it. Banish the temptation to justify overspending. After all, food is a necessity, right? Try to set a reasonable limit, but know that it will take some trial-and-error to figure out exactly what your needs are and make a strategy.

Plan Ahead

Next, sit down and make a plan. I know, I know. With after school schedules, work schedules and social schedules, the last thing you want is another "to do" list. Don't worry. You'll only need to do this a couple of times. Before you know it, you'll have grocery skills to put your mom to shame. So sit down and map out a menu for the week. It doesn't have to be fancy; look at your day-to-day lifestyle and plan accordingly. If you pack a sandwich every Wednesday or like to cook a gourmet meal every Saturday, write it down. Try to map out a solid week's schedule you can use to determine your needs and make a list. Most importantly, don't use "I might change my mind" as an excuse not to plan at all. Freedom is one of the beautiful things about life on your own, and no list should get in the way of that! A moderately flexible framework, however, can spare you both checkout surprises and hungry nights.

Be Realistic

Don't forget that you actually have to eat this stuff. It's a common temptation to be over-inspired in healthy eating, or underestimate just how much food you actually need to get through the week. You blaze into the grocery store, emerging triumphantly with a month's supply of raw veggies and bran cereal or seven cans of SpaghettiOs and a loaf of bread. It's important to buy food you actually want to eat, because it will all be wasted when you retreat in despair to McDonalds because you can't take one more veggie wrap or you're just plain starving.

Shop Sparingly

Don't worry. This doesn't mean filling your basket with kiddy-sized portions. The fact is that the more frequently you are in the grocery store, the more money you'll spend. You run in to pick up a gallon of milk, and the next thing you know you're checking out with a carton of cereal, a box of cookies, and the magazine with your favorite celeb on the cover. Planning ahead for a week or two will keep you out of the grocery store and your money in your pocket.

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Buy Basic

Basic staples such as pasta and rice go a long way for a little bit of money. Throw some vegetables in with last night's pasta noodles and you have lunch on-the-go; vary up your rice with a little salad dressing or some soy sauce. These kinds of foods fill you up and give you the chance for a little creativity.

Splurge Occasionally

No matter how small your food budget, it's always a good idea to leave a little wiggle room for some "happy" food. Let's face it, sometimes you just have to have something sweet, or something salty, or something whatever, and if it's not in your cabinet, you will go elsewhere to find it. Think about it this way: a half-gallon tub of ice cream from the grocery store costs about the same as an ice cream cone at the local ice cream parlor. Buy it on sale, and you'll have a couple weeks' worth of desserts, not just one night's. Just beware the urge to sit down and eat the carton in one sitting!

Plan for Social Expenses

It is inevitable that when you have guests over to celebrate your newly established domain that they will empty your cabinets, destroying the most carefully planned budget. Five hungry friends can speedily consume a week's worth of groceries. When a party-food occasion comes along, it's often a good idea to use your entertainment budget, not your regular grocery money.

Eating well doesn't have to mean poverty, and a low budget doesn't have to lead to starvation! With a little care, you can have both a well-stocked pantry and money in your pocket.

Take the Next Step

  • The first thing you need to do is make a budget. Figure out how much you can spend on groceries weekly. Set a dollar amount and stick to it.
  • Get cash back on the groceries you buy. Checkout 51 can show you how!
  • Continue to trim food costs by visiting our food & groceries section to get tips and tools for keeping more of your hard-earned dollars in your pocket.

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