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10 Grocery List Essentials for the College Cook

Let’s face it – with the constant busy work, weekly meetings and required obligations of daily college life, cooking a gourmet meal at the end of the day is probably the last thing on our minds. Besides, with an endless array of delivery options right at our very fingertips, it can be hard to see the point in firing up the oven. It’s easy to be lazy in the first year or so when the dining halls provide all your basic needs, but once you hit apartment life, it’s time to face reality. Cooking may seem like a daunting task to some, but with a little creativity and these 10 essentials always within reach, you’re well on your way to becoming the next Bobby Flay (okay, not really, but we can dream, right?).

1. Olive oil 

High in antioxidants, prevents disease, reverses the signs of aging, and is known as one of the healthiest fats on earth – it’s safe to say there’s not much olive oil can’t do. What’s even better? The benefits go beyond your health. Olive oil is the perfect partner to almost any type of cooking you’re looking to do. It can roast, sauté, pan fry, drizzle and even bake. This kitchen superhero is hard to beat in the culinary world, and a little bit of EVOO, as Rachael Ray would say, will be the perfect start to your gourmet meal.

Try out this roasted veggies recipe to see this super oil in action.


2. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts

For many young college students, chicken can be hard to get excited about when it’s not deep fried in oil or smothered in BBQ sauce. But with a little creativity and just a few extra ingredients, the chicken breast will be your new go-to protein. Chicken can be cooked a number of different ways and none of them require too much effort. In a rush? Fire up the stovetop and throw some olive oil in a pan. In a short flip or two, you’ll have a perfectly cooked chicken breast in no time. Have some time to spare? Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and stick the chicken in for about 30 minutes. The easiest way to ensure your chicken is cooked properly is waiting for the juices to run clear and checking to make sure there is no pink on the inside. No matter how you go about it, always be sure to season beforehand with salt and pepper or any variation of seasonings. An unseasoned chicken breast is going to be bland, but it doesn’t take a lot to make things interesting. There are plenty of other ways to spice things up including coating it in breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese, smothering it with pesto or marinating it in Italian dressing.

Check out this simple Parmesan-crusted chicken recipe to get you started.


3. Greek yogurt

You’ve seen it on the shelves, you’ve viewed the ads and you’ve heard the health benefits, but you may still be unaware of all this protein powerhouse has to offer. Greek yogurt not only serves as a nutritious and delicious midday snack, but it can also be a fabulous add-in or substitute to many classic recipes. It can add a certain creaminess to any dish and its taste has been proven to mimic the likes of mayonnaise and sour cream. That parmesan-crusted chicken recipe above? Try swapping the mayonnaise with Greek yogurt and see what you think. Not a fan? No worries, try a classic yogurt parfait with fresh fruit and granola. There’s more than one way to incorporate it into your cooking.

You’ll never look at mac and cheese the same way again after this creamy Greek yogurt mac and cheese recipe


4. Lemon juice

Normally thought of as the star of the perfect lemonade or cocktail recipe, this citrus fruit can do wonders for your cooking. A large bottle of lemon juice kept in the fridge will last you for months and can be used in a variety of ways. Use it in your fish, chicken or pasta recipes to take your dish to the next dimension.  

See what a little lemon can do to your seafood with this lemon butter salmon recipe


5. Frozen veggies

With the high amounts of sodium and additives found in most products, frozen foods tend to get a bad rep among consumers today. Even so, many of the healthy options, including the fruits and veggies, are actually packed with nutrients and frozen at the peak of perfection. This means two important things for lazy college students like us: nutrition and convenience. It’s rare that we’re able to find these two things in one and with the incredible variety that’s now available in the frozen aisle, it’s easy to see why you should be adding them to your grocery list.

Still not sold? Here are 17 dinners to make with a bag of frozen veggies. 


6. Pasta

I think we all know how useful having a box of pasta in the cupboard can be – especially on those nights when we don’t have time to fuss around in the kitchen. With only 8-9 minutes to al dente perfection, boiling up a pot of pasta can be the perfect start to any meal. With so many varieties and super simple ways to incorporate a little flavor, pasta may just be the easiest way to cook a satisfying meal in a matter of minutes. Need a little protein with your pasta? Try adding some of the delicious chicken or fish you just made.

A really simple pasta recipe from Real Simple. 


7. Marinara sauce

If you’re anything like me and could live off of Italian food, it’s easy to see why marinara sauce should be kept in your pantry. Not only is it the perfect pairing for your pasta, but it can also be added to your favorite protein. Mix it into ground turkey, create your own pizza burger or use it for a simple chicken Parmesan and you have yourself a meal.

Yummy turkey meatballs and the marinara sauce to match form these easy meatball subs


8. Pesto

As the final addition in my trio of Italian essentials, pesto sauce may just be my favorite. This simple yet brilliant combination of basil, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese can cure even the blandest of dishes with one simple dollop. Add it to your pasta, create a pizza, smother it over your chicken or fish or simply spread it on a sandwich.You will instantly amp up any meal. Though it’s easy to create your own, buying a jar of premade pesto from your local grocery store will do just as well.

Check out this mushroom, red pepper and pesto pizza for an easy start. 


9. Honey

In the world of sweeteners, it can be hard to find your perfect match. Either they’re too sweet, too artificial or just don’t give you the taste you want. Well, it’s time to get back to the basics. Honey has been around for centuries and has all the taste you’re looking for without all the added chemicals. It can be used in salad dressings, marinades, desserts and even smoothies. Use it to hit the sweet spot in almost any dish.

The honey dressing and honeyed pecans do wonders for this spinach salad.


10. Spices

With such a variety of tastes and preferences, it’s almost impossible to narrow things down to one essential spice, but having a few basic spices in your cabinet is absolutely necessary if you’re going to be doing any cooking. Salt and pepper are givens, but having seasonings such as paprika, garlic powder, oregano, basil, rosemary and cinnamon will definitely come in handy when you start browsing Pinterest recipes. There are very few savory dishes that are able to shine without a healthy amount of spices added to the mix. Additionally, if you want added flavor without any added calories, spices will be your new best friends.

Try adding this simple Cajun seasoning to your next dish. 


So there you have it, 10 things to add to your next grocery list that will have you cooking like a champ in no time. Remember, no one is born a gourmet cook. It’s going to take time and you’re going to make more than a few mistakes; but, with a little practice, a lot of patience and the best ingredients, cooking will start to become less of a chore and more of a delightful reward.

Happy cooking, collegiettes!


Photo credits: Pixabay.com

Rachael David is currently a senior at Penn State University and serves as the Campus Correspondent for Her Campus Penn State. She is majoring in public relations and minoring in psychology. Her love of creative writing and all things Penn State is what inspired her to become a member of the HC team in the fall of 2013. Her background experience includes working for the Undergraduate Admissions Office at Penn State as a social media intern in the spring of 2014 and is currently working as a social media intern for an internet marketing company in Harrisburg called WebpageFX. This past summer she also served as a PR intern for Tierney Communications. Rachael enjoys anything media related especially catching up on her favorite shows, including Saturday Night Live and any show on Food Network. She has a passion for food but also loves being active and spending her free time running or hiking. She hopes to gain more experience in all aspects of the media industry during college and plans on pursuing a career writing for a life & style publication in the future.
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