Grocery Shopping on a Student Budget

Hospitality Services understands that saving money is important on a student budget. While you are at home during COVID-19, we wanted to provide you with a few strategies to spend less on groceries while still eating well, including how to plan ahead, grocery shop and cook smart.

There are certainly benefits of taking time to plan and budget for food including:

  • Saving Time: planning out your meals can reduce unnecessary trips to the grocery store and reduce the amount of time spent at the store and in public.
  • Reducing waste: purchasing only what you will eat and need will reduce the amount of food waste in your fridge 
  • Reducing Cost: taking advantage of sales, what’s in season and comparing unit costs in the store can save money in addition to preparing and sticking to your list
  • Eating Well: taking time to plan out your meals is an investment in your health

Here are Three Tips for Eating Well While Spending Less:

Planning Ahead

  • Take inventory: Check your cupboards, fridge, and freezer before going to the grocery store to see what you currently have
  • Look at sales: Check online flyers and coupons for what’s on sale. However, only buy what you will eat, or it could be a waste.
  • Make a list: Plan meals for the week based on the ingredients you currently have, what’s on sale, what’s in season and some recipes you find through website, cookbooks or blogs. Produce in season tends to be cheaper than other items!
  • Have a meatless meal: Plan for at least one “meatless” meal per week by using a meat alternative such as beans, chickpeas or lentils. These are high in protein, versatile and almost always cheaper than animal proteins!
  • Eat before you shop: Have you gone grocery shopping before on an empty stomach and left with more than you needed? One way to help with this, is to eat something before you shop to reduce those impulse purchases.

Grocery Shopping

  • Compare unit prices: Comparing unit prices of similar items can save money in the long run. Here’s an example of unit pricing on two different sized boxes of cereal, showing the larger box of cereal is a better buy, even though it costs more: 
Size of cereal box Cost per box Unit price  
2kg box $11.80 $0.59 per 100g 
1kg box $7.00 $0.70 per 100g  
  • Go for no name brands: no-name/store brands are more often cheaper than brand names. Be careful when foods are advertised “on sale”; the no name brand may still be cheaper!  
  • Watch for placement marketing: Products placed at eye level are often more expensive, so watch for bargains above and below eye level on the shelves!
  • Bring your own bags: Plastic bags often cost extra, so remember to bring your own reusable shopping bags to save money. Note: during COVID-19 many locations now tell you not to bring bags into the store or require that you pack them yourself. You can still help by loading your purchased items into your cart and once you get outside, transfer the groceries into your reusable bags to reduce your plastic waste.
  • COVID-19 Tips: For grocery shopping tips during COVID-19, visit our previous blog post “Supporting your health during COVID-19”
  • Take advantage of sales: Some products have a long shelf life, so buying extra when on sale is a great way to save money in the long run. Grain products are a good example including rice, pasta, rice noodles. Bread can also be stored in the freezer for longer periods. Be sure to check those expiry dates still!
  • Ingredient swaps: Some ingredients are less expensive in different forms, for example purchase:
  • bagged milk instead of milk carton
  • block of cheese instead of pre shredded or sliced cheese
  • canned fish instead of fresh fish
  • Frozen fruit instead of fresh fruit

Cooking Smart: 

  • Cook at home: Cooking at home as often as you can save money compared to eating out or ready-made foods. Even things like making your own fruit tray or making your own salad over bagged salad can save a lot.
  • Cook in bulk: Plan to cook in large batches so that you have leftovers for lunch the next day. Purchasing those bulk ingredients saves money.
  • Practice FIFO: Plan to use foods before they expire. The First In – First Out technique can help reduce food waste by making sure older foods get used up first.
  • Use Leftovers: Get creative with leftovers by using them to create new dishes. For example, using left over chicken for a stir fry the next day. This will ensure no food is wasted! For example, over-ripe fruit can be used in baking and smoothies, or you can freeze them for later use.
  • Store appropriately: Storing food appropriately can help reduce food waste, such as keeping produce in the fridge to delay its ripening process.

We hope these tips help with grocery shopping during COVID-19 home isolation.

It’s important to note that purchasing groceries isn’t always an option regardless of how well someone budgets food. Food insecurity, defined by Dietitians of Canada, is “the inability to acquire or consume an adequate diet quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so”. Food insecurity can be affected by many factors in a person’s life, many of which are not in their control.  

For those needing support with food, one resource on campus is Swipe it Forward Queen’s that was developed for short term urgent support. Other resources are on our Food For You page.

For our students who have been hit hard by COVID-19, there is some emergency relief available to you. Meal Exchange offers a one-time $200 grocery gift card, which will be sent by mail (please note that the postal system is slower than usual). Click here to fill out the form.  Cards can be redeemed at Sobeys, IGA, Garden Market IGA, Foodland, Safeway, FreshCo, Chalo! FreshCo, Thrifty Foods, Lawtons Drugs, Needs, Fast Fuel and Price Chopper locations. 

Co-written by Deanna Pinder, BASc, MPH(c)

Deanna is with Queen’s Hospitality for the month of March as a Dietetic Intern. She completed her BASc in Applied Human Nutrition at the University of Guelph, and is currently in her MPH in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Toronto. Deanna’s passion for nutrition first began in high school after starting a plant-based lifestyle, and has continued on as she works towards becoming a Registered Dietitian. She is a passionate advocate for the social determinants of health, public health, and women’s health.

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