A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Eat healthy, save cash with this college grocery list

Illustration, healthy plate portions for a balanced mealInstant macaroni and pizza delivery are college staples.

Like most foods filling college student fridges and pantries, these items are calorie-dense. At best, they leave students with a little weight gain. At worst, they start students on a long road of unhealthy eating and future health concerns.

Tips for a college grocery list

College might be the first time teenagers learn to prep their own meals.

“It’s essential for a college student to develop habits of buying and eating balanced meals,” said Brittany Powelson, a Marshfield Clinic registered dietitian. “And it’s possible to do this on a budget with practice.”

Powelson suggests writing a college grocery list around MyPlate’s five food groups and portions:

  • One-half plate – fruits and vegetables
  • One-quarter plate – whole grains
  • One-quarter plate – lean protein
  • Add dairy on the side

Modify typical college cuisine

When typical college cuisine is unavoidable, increase nutrition density by thinking about the five food groups.

Here are examples:

  • Macaroni and cheese: Add canned tomatoes or frozen broccoli.
  • Pizza: Add a side salad and cup of fruit.
  • Chips: Dip tortilla chips into salsa mixed with black beans.
  • Ramen noodles: Add frozen peas and carrots.

Complete meals with a cup of low-fat milk, a serving of cottage cheese or a piece of string cheese to better meet MyPlate guidelines if no dairy was included in your meal.

Graphic - Ways to create healthier meals from typical college cuisine options

Example college grocery list

Powelson offers these tips for each food group:


Packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, not calories, vegetables offer convenient options, like baby carrots. Or, if you have a meal plan, opt to get vegetables in the cafeteria to avoid worry about freshness.


In-season fruits are cheaper and tastier. Apples, oranges and bananas are almost always lower in cost and can be kept at room temperature. 


Night-out “grain products” can’t substitute for whole grain foods. They may be slightly more expensive, but whole grains are better for the body than enriched grains. Look for 3 grams of fiber per serving.


Fill up faster and stay full longer. Protein snacks and sides provide energy for long days of classes and studying. Eggs, peanut butter and canned tuna are relatively cheap protein options.


Go for the low fat versions for dairy products to reduce your saturated fat intake. And bonus — skim and 1 percent milk are lower in price than 2 percent or whole milk.

“In any food group, a student can purchase the off-brand option,” Powelson said. “The nutrition density doesn’t vary greatly between expensive name brands and less-expensive off-brands.”

Print the college grocery list for your next shopping trip.

Download and save grocery list


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