I remember the first time I ever went grocery shopping as a freshman at the University of Alabama. The local store was organized much like the stores in my hometown of Mobile, so I had very little trouble finding the items I was looking for. Plus, my parents had always taken me with them on their grocery runs, so I had a pretty good idea of what I was looking for. However, as I casually perused the aisles, I noticed that many of my fellow students had looks of utter confusion on their faces. And a small mob had congregated in the aisle containing ramen noodles, Easy Mac and other microwavable "meals."
Three years (and countless similar grocery trips) later, I now realize that my bewildered peers had never been taught how to shop for their food. It wasn't their fault, of course. They'd just always had their meals bought, prepared and served by their parents. They'd never needed to shop for themselves, which led to complete confusion when they finally had to do so.
So, if you're shopping on your own for the first time, the following list will offer you a collection of nutritious, cost-effective and tasty foods that will hopefully let you step out of the cereal and pasta aisles and keep the dreaded "freshman 15" at bay.
Fruits should always have a place on your shopping list. Not only are they nutritious, but they're also cheaper per serving than most junk food. Plus, fruits are versatile. You can eat them raw, chop them up for a dip of some kind (personally, I like apple slices slathered in peanut butter) or blend them into a delicious smoothie. Some great options include:
• Avocado (if you're a guacamole lover, like myself)
I know what you're thinking. "You're telling me to eat my veggies? What are you, my mom?" And I get it. Most people have one or two vegetables that they can't look at without gagging a bit – it's canned spinach for me – but the truth is, vegetables should have a place in your diet. Veggies are chock full of nutrients, can be eaten in essentially unlimited quantities because they're low in calories and are high in fiber, which means you'll fill up faster and won't eat as much. Here are some good choices:
• Baby carrots
• Frozen broccoli
• Spinach (I know what I said, but spinach is a great source of beta-carotene, a disease-battling agent that protects your heart. It's a good thing to have in your diet. Even if it tastes gross.)
• Green or red peppers
Protein is an essential component of your diet. It's what stimulates bone and muscle growth, and it can help you raise your energy level for those late night study sessions. An easy way to get protein into your system is, of course, to eat meat. Lean meats like chicken and seafood contain less calories and fat than red meats like beef and pork, and, depending on the cut, generally cost less as well. However, the college student's best friend is – and always will be – the ever-versatile egg. Eggs are quick to cook, cheap (usually between $2 to $3 per dozen) and can be prepared in countless ways. Vegetarian? No need to fret. These protein sources include some excellent vegetarian options:
• Quinoa (This is a great vegetarian option, but because of its many health benefits, even non-vegetarians should consider including quinoa in their diet. Check out this slideshow for some great quinoa preparation tips.)
• Frozen shrimp (non-breaded)
• Frozen chicken tenderloins
• Black beans (another great vegetarian option)
Bread and Grains
When it comes to breads, grains and pastas, I always try to remember the old adage "everything in moderation." I love bread and pasta, and I'd eat both every day if I could. But, both are pretty high in carbohydrates, which are great in moderation, but can easily be converted into unwanted body fat when consumed in large quantities. Just remember to always go for whole grain options and limit yourself. Here are some solid options:
• Whole grain bread
• Long-grain or brown rice
• Whole grain cereal (I'm a Cheerio's and Raisin Bran man, myself)
• Cous cous
[Read: Whole Grains, Whole Diet.]
If your schedule is anything like most college students', sometimes you simply don't have time to cook a full meal. Maybe you only have an hour between your last class of the day and study group, or maybe you have a classy date with an intentionally uncomfortable library chair. Whatever reason for your time crunch, you usually won't go wrong with these quickly-prepared snacks and meals:
• Protein bars
• Single-serving soups
• Trail mix
• Frozen dinners (Pay close attention to the nutrition facts on these. A good frozen meal will be high in protein and relatively low in fat content.)
• Cereal bars
• Peanut butter (Chunky, if possible. It has a higher protein content and fills you up faster than creamy will.)
• Salt and pepper
• Garlic cloves
• Olive oil
[Read: How to Be Healthy in College.]
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Steven Holbrook is a senior majoring in journalism at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. In addition to finishing up his degree, he is currently working on attaining his personal trainer certification. He wants to use his fitness journey to help others attain their own fitness and nutrition goals and will be blogging throughout his senior year. He loves a good omelet, aggravating his dog allergies and superhero t-shirts.