What food to take when you're starting university

Student shopping in the supermarket

When you're filling your uni food cupboard, you want more than just endless tins of beans...

Gearing up for the big shop? Whether it's your first time or your fiftieth, here are some tips to help you shop smarter and eat better.

We'll get straight to the point: the secret to good eating is good shopping. With that in mind, here are the three commandments:

  • make a list
  • set a budget
  • do not shop hungry

A list will help keep you focused, as will a budget. As for not shopping hungry, we mean it: you will absolutely come home with six whole rotisserie chickens (one of which you'll eat on the bus) and all the chocolate, but without toilet roll, bread or any dignity.

Buying the basics

Food-wise, whatever your dietary preference (omnivore, veggie, vegan), it's good to have some ingredients that will keep for a while, like pasta and rice, and stuff in tins or cartons: chopped tomatoes, baked beans, tuna, lentils and chick peas are all cheap, useful options that can be turned into dinner with minimal fuss. Pasta sauce and pesto are your friends, too.

You'll also need cooking oil (olive if you can afford it), spread, and some basic seasoning – mixed herbs, salt and pepper, soy sauce, stock cubes, curry powder and chilli powder will give you lots of meal options. 

What fresh ingredients you buy will depend on your budget and diet. If you're buying meat, think ahead – how long will it keep, and can you freeze some? Eggs are a good go-to and last a while, and potatoes should be on everyone's list; then you've got cheese, veggie bits like tofu, and vegetables. Go with frozen veg if you can as they're quick to cook and keep for ages, and freeze any bread you get, too, then just defrost slices in the toaster when you need them. 

There. Armed with those ingredients you'll be able to make a few different pasta dishes, stir fries, curries, chillies, soups, baked potatoes and – if all else fails – beans on toast. As you get more confident you'll learn recipes and tailor your shopping to your needs, but this will get you started.

Other essentials

Don't forget toast toppers like peanut butter, jam, honey and Marmite for the moments when you need to eat sharpish. And drinks, too. No, not value vodka: tea, coffee, soft drinks. Alright, vodka if you must.

You'll need cooking gear: knives, spoons for serving and stirring, scales, two saucepans (get one size bigger than you think you need, you won't regret it), a sieve or colander and a frying pan – or even better, a wok.

Get a few plastic storage containers for saving / freezing food, too. Forum user Metalheadgooner did just that. “If you're making something like a stir fry, curry, spag bol etc, make a big batch then freeze what you don't want to eat. I was able to have at least one dinner from the freezer a week this way and saved so much money.”

Vegan eats

All the major supermarkets have vegan alternatives for milk, cheese, meat...you name it. They can be tasty but expensive, so embrace cheap vegan staples like beans, pulses, mushrooms and tofu. Mix any / all of them with fried onions and garlic, tomatoes and chilli powder and boom: vegan chilli. Chuck in Marmite for extra B vitamins / deliciousness.

Healthy shopping

A healthy shopping list includes lots of vegetables (frozen is fine), not too much red meat or dairy, some fresh fruit, and wholegrain bread / wholewheat pasta / brown rice. Pulses like lentils are amazing, whether you're veggie or not – they're cheap, packed with protein and vitamins, and all you need to do is drain a tin and chuck them into whatever you're cooking to add instant health.

Snack-wise, things like nuts and dried fruit are great. They look expensive at first, but eating mixed nuts and a banana is actually much cheaper overall than buying loads of fancy snack or protein bars – and sorry, custard creams aren't a health food, even if you do sit ups while eating them.

Saving money (and time)

  • Shop with someone if you can, to share the costs (and the hassle of carrying the bags)
  • Cook in bulk. Never make a meal just for one day: double the ingredients and stretch it out over two, or triple them and freeze some portions for another time.
  • Shop near closing time, when supermarkets might discount some of their prices. “Final round of reductions will be about 1-2 hours before closing if the store isn’t 24 hours, but about 7/8 ish if it’s a 24 hour store,” says user olliel2001, a Tesco employee.


Have it when you can, and make it count. Cereals are loaded with sugar and own-brand ones can taste of sadness. Instead, try cheap and cheerful overnight oats: stick some porridge oats in a storage box. Add milk, plus peanut butter / honey / raisins or anything else you like, close the lid, shake, and soak overnight in the fridge. Healthy breakfast: sorted.

Now head to our food and drink forum for recipe ideas, and happy eating!

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