How to Outfit Your College Pantry

College (or university) is a time in your life when you are learning many things. Outside your academic studies, college may be when you learn to live on your own, to keep up your own home, and so on. A big part of that is learning to cook for yourself, and it is easiest to cook regularly if you keep some ingredients on hand. That's where your pantry comes in.


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    Set aside some space in or near your kitchen to store food. If your kitchen does not have any obvious pantry space built in or is short on overall storage, see if a bookcase nearby (perhaps in a coat closet) or other movable storage could work.
    • Try to find a space that is clean, dry, cool, and dark for your pantry. The cabinet just over your stove may not be the best choice.
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    Buy items as you need and use them. This means that you will acquire the items in your pantry gradually (thus avoiding any major, up-front expenses) and it also means that you will buy only those things you are prepared to use.
    • Consider bringing some things from home to get you off to a "free" and easier start. Get your parents' permission first, though.
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    Start with the basics. Spaghetti sauce in jars and boxed pasta are easy staples to start with. Even when you move on to slightly more sophisticated meals, they'll be handy things to keep around for that day when things get especially busy.
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    Include other sources of starch. Rice, flour, oatmeal, and potatoes are all starches that will keep for a good long while in the pantry. While you most likely will not eat these foods alone, they are all good for extending other meals.
    • Store flour, rice, oatmeal, and the like in airtight (and bug-tight) canisters or jars. If you don't have dedicated canisters yet, you can save large jars from items you buy.
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    Have dry storage for things like onions and potatoes. There's generally no need to refrigerate either, so long as the space is relatively cool and dry and has good air circulation. A basket or bin with holes in it will help.
    • Potatoes should be stored away from a light source, to discourage sprouting.
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    Include some canned goods. It's generally healthier and far cheaper to use fresh vegetables and make your own soups, but having a few cans on hand for the busy moments doesn't hurt. You can also stock cans of things like tomato sauce, beans, and mushrooms, if you like to use those in cooking.
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    Include some breads. You can buy regular bread, or you can buy food like pitas or tortillas. Some tortilla chips can also go well with food like tacos and chili.
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    Decide whether you'll do any baking. If you intend to bake, you will need baking staples like flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt.
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    Use your freezer as part of your pantry. Frozen meats are very convenient, especially if you have a microwave in which to defrost them. (Otherwise, defrost in the fridge a day in advance.) Frozen vegetables may not be quite as good as fresh ones, but you may find that they are easier to keep on hand than fresh.
    • If you love smoothies, you might consider getting frozen fruit, too, or freezing your own fruit. You can also learn how to freeze cooked foods and ready-to-cook foods for yourself, for quick meals later.
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    Start to build a selection of seasonings, according to what you use. These are herbs and spices, as well as the ubiquitous salt and pepper, and include condiments like soy sauce, ketchup, and vinegar.
    • Seasonings add flavors to your cooking. Some can be fairly expensive, so start with one jar of spices at a time.
    • You don't need every spice; just the ones you use. Find out what your recipes call for and just buy that.
    • Look for a few seasoning mixes, or mix your own. Italian seasoning is generally just a mix of oregano, basil, rosemary and parsley. A jar of chili powder or taco seasoning can dress up some basic meat and veggies so they'll taste good in a tortilla. Do watch for added salt in seasoning mixes, though.
    • Some grocery and health food stores may provide samples of spice mixes for free. This is a good opportunity to get a sample package or two spice mixes.
    • Look around for a source of spices in bulk or in packets, rather than in little, glass jars. You may want to buy spices the first time in those glass jars, but refill them with spices in less expensive packaging.
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    Supplement your pantry with regular trips to the store to get perishable foods, such as eggs, dairy, and fresh fruits and veggies. If you plan a bit, you may be able to keep these trips to about once per week.
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    Learn which ingredients last longer than others. All foods will eventually spoil, but some things will last longer than others. Buy your quantities according to how quickly you use each item.
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    Use up and replace the items in your pantry. As you use something up, or get close, put it on your shopping list, as long as it is something you use regularly. Keep a shopping list pad near the pantry with a pencil, so that's it's really easy to update missing ingredients.
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    Keep the ingredients around for one or two pantry meals that you can do if you haven't had the time to go shopping. Spaghetti and tacos are two fairly easy choices.


  • Ramen soup is a good staple for cooking on the cheap. Treat it like rice or something - don't just boil it and throw in the dried seasoning packet. Cook the noodles and then stir-fry them with cheese, mushrooms, cubed meat and vegetables. Save the seasoning packets for when you want a beef, chicken or pork stock for soup.
  • Having a pantry and cooking for yourself can both save tremendous amounts of money compared to buying prepared foods or going out to eat in a restaurant. You'll also know more about your food if you cook it yourself. However busy you are, it's likely in college that you'll still have more time than money, so invest some time in yourself and learn to cook.
  • Every now and then, look in the back of your pantry. See if there are things there that are spoiled. Just as importantly, see if there are things that are still good that you could use up before they spoil.
  • Try less common canned vegetables like water chestnuts, mushrooms, pimentos. They can make a good accent to a meal and keep it from getting boring.
  • Fruit and produce, look at the mark-down bin. If you get used to eating it when it's less than perfect it costs a lot less. Just be sure to eat it right away; most fruit winds up there for freshness.
  • Make your own list. The suggestions here are examples, but you will discover your own cooking style, and it may differ from the list here.
  • Prepared cereal is an easy thing to put in a pantry, but it's also one of the most costly and heavily packaged things you can eat regularly, especially considering what it is. Challenge yourself to come up with alternate breakfasts, at least a few times a week. Also, try your own additions to plain oatmeal (almost any fresh or dried fruit is good), or learn to make muesli or granola yourself.
  • Don't rule out dried beans. They may take longer to cook, but most of it is not your time, and they are healthy and inexpensive.
  • Buy a little at a time, especially at first. Once you've learned how you cook and what you cook, you can keep appropriate quantities of the right ingredients on hand or simply buy a little extra each time you go grocery shopping.
  • You may notice that this article does not suggest stocking up on TV dinners and prepared foods. You may want to keep a couple of cans of soup around for term paper nights or finals week, but you shouldn't rely on them all the time. They're costly and often high in salt and additives. They also have much more packaging than other foods. It is also a good idea to get into the habit of making your own meals, so that you're aware of how easy it is to cook. The best way to learn to cook is to practice often.
  • Part of keeping a pantry is trial and error. You will have to find your own balance and your own cooking style to know what to keep in your pantry.


  • Throw away spoiled foods. You may make a point to catch things while they're still good next time, but a little bit of money spent is far less costly in the long run than food poisoning.
  • Learn about and practice safe food handling, especially as regards meats and eggs.
  • Don't get too much. You'll likely have to move out at the end of the year, so the giant jar of peanuts you see mid-April may have to be tossed out in May/June.

Things You'll Need

  • Pantry space set aside
  • Ingredients as outlined above
  • Shopping list and pencil
  • Carrying bags

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