Student food shopping tips

By admin
Category: Practical | Date: Tue 02 Dec, 2008

I remember the first time I went and bought groceries for myself, when I was eighteen, and about to head off to uni. I’m pretty sure rice and pasta featured on the list – and formed a good part of my student diet for the next three years.

Many undergrads are in a similar position to that, starting uni without much experience of grocery shopping. I was shocked at how much meat cost, and having little clue on what could be frozen and what couldn’t.

Here are a few tips for grocery shopping that should make life (a) less of a hassle and (b) a bit cheaper.

Check offers online

If you have a choice of supermarkets nearby, it’s worth checking what’s on offer where: sometimes, basic items like bagels, tortilla wraps, and squash (I think that’s what you call “kool-aid” in the US?) are half-price in one shop and full-price in another.

Most big supermarkets here in the UK have offers listed on their sites, so try looking for the shops near you to see what’s cheap where. If you search Sainsbury’s online shop, you can find all their offers – other shops which don’t offer home delivery (like Somerfield and Morrisons) only list a selection of their offers online.

Question whether it’s REALLY a bargain

One advantage to checking offers online is deciding beforehand what’s going on your shopping list and what isn’t. Sure, a giant box of biscuits at half price might sound good value – but unless you were going to buy biscuits anyway, it’s not worth the money. And any items with a short lifespan – fruit and veggies, chilled produce, etc – may go off before you have a chance to eat them all.

Think about freezer space

I admit that the question “will it freeze” is somewhat less exciting than “will it blend“, but it’s a useful one to have in mind. Most fresh meat and fish (mince, chicken, prawns, etc) will freeze just fine, as will bread products (loaves, rolls, bagels, pittas, wraps, etc). Foods with a high water content, including most fresh fruits and veggies, won’t freeze well unless you cook them or treat them in some way first.

Technically, you can freeze most things without them becoming harmful to you in anyway, but as the Food Safety and Inspection Service points out:

Being able to freeze food and being pleased with the quality after defrosting are two different things. Some foods simply don’t freeze well.
Freezing and Food Safety

Most products will indicate on the label whether or not they can be frozen. If you’re checking the reduced fresh foods section for items with a “use-by” of the current day, see if they can be frozen: it’ll mean you can keep them for up to a month.

Check the date

And on the note of “use-by” dates, make sure you always check the date on fresh produce. One good tip is to reach to the back of the shelf for items with a date further in the future – be careful that you don’t end up buying a huge pack of chicken breasts that all need using before tomorrow.

The different types of date on products shouldn’t be too confusing:

  • “Best before” means that you’re perfectly safe to eat the product after the date, but it’s not guarenteed to be in tip-top condition. This often applies to items with a long shelf-life, like crisps (chips to US readers).
  • “Use by” means what it says: you should use the product by the date indicated. If you freeze it, make sure you freeze it before the use by date – ideally, on the day you buy it.
  • “Display until” is an instruction to the shop staff, not to you. It typically appears on foods larger than a single serving, and prevents the shop from selling foods on the “use by” date. The reduced section often includes foods which have reached the “display until” date, but which don’t need to be used for a few days.

Over to you

Further reading:

  • Student food and cooking, from Which magazine – Includes advice on good nutrition, as well as food shopping on a budget.
  • Student Survival kit, from BBC webite – Again, tips on nutrition, cheap food and food shopping.
  • Freezing advice, from Delia Online – If you’re not sure what you can and can’t freeze, check here first.

Have you got any great tips for making food shopping easier and cheaper? Share them with us in the comments!

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