As a college student, I very rarely have time to go grocery shopping and when I do go grocery shopping, I don’t usually have a lot of money to do so. Also, I haven’t yet figured out how to strategically grocery shop. I don’t know how much milk to buy without it going bad, or if I really eat eggs enough to warrant buying them, or if they’ll just go bad in my fridge. Which is to say, there is usually at least one day a week I’m scraping the back of my fridge and pantry, desperately trying to assemble something edible. Shopping for pantry staples that work both as ways to elevate ‘real’ meals and as a stand-alone meal has been one of my only grocery shopping hacks over the course of college.
Here are the top ten pantry staples that can double as a meal when you haven’t gone grocery shopping in too long:
Any fruit can become a full meal if you’re in a rush. My preferred choice is clementines. They give you a burst of energy and a pop of something sweet, a great way to start off your day after oversleeping. But again, any fruit, fresh or dried, can work as a meal in a pinch. You can blend them to make smoothies if you have the ingredients and the machinery as well. But a fresh pear or apple on the way to class is sometimes all you need to make it through class.
Sometimes, there’s just nothing quite like dry Cheerios. You can even go for Honey Nut Cheerios if you’re really feeling crazy. I almost never eat cereal for breakfast, but instead, as an on-the-go snack or a midnight treat after a night out. They never go bad, just stale. Even stale, they’re still not that bad, just chewy.
“I will body a bag of Cheerios,” University of Iowa junior Calvin Brickner said.
If you have milk, then congrats, you can make a meal out of this. But even if you don’t have milk, a handful of Cheerios can go a long way. Other cereals that taste good dry include, but are by no means limited to, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Frosted Mini-Wheats, Life cereal and Chex. If you mix together multiple kinds of cereal, it’s almost like an incredibly nutrient-deficient trail mix. While most cereal has basically no nutritional value, they have calories, and sometimes that’s all you need to make it to lunch.
3. Peanut Butter
A spoonful of peanut butter has been a reliable source of protein for me since childhood. I didn’t even really comprehend the idea of using peanut butter in a sandwich or as an ingredient until middle school. Peanut butter also takes an eternity to go bad. Another option in this vein is Nutella, but that’s if you’re fancy. A spoonful of peanut butter is a life saver when you need quick protein and don’t have nuts or granola. While it’s a pain to clean the spoon after, you can avoid this by either buying plastic spoons or a dog. My dog is the most effective way of cleaning the rest of the peanut butter off the spoon I’ve encountered.
A slice of bread is a classic move. While I’d love to have the time and ingredients to make a sandwich, I very rarely do. This is why I’d suggest buying somewhat fancy bread from a bakery, if you can. So that slice of bread is that much more satisfying. Fresh sourdough bread is a treat in itself. When you have time to make a sandwich, then you enjoy that much more flavorful bread. But the sourdough, asiago or multigrain bread tastes much better than plain white bread as a solo act.
Cheese is better melted onto something, but it’s still tasty as a stand-alone. Shredded or sliced, pepper jack or provolone, there are a lot of ways to enjoy raw cheese. If you have bread, cheese and a pan, then congratulations, you have grilled cheese. But if you don’t have those things, then you can still get a boost of protein from cheese. String cheese is another good option, as it’s usually designed to be eaten alone. If you have crackers, then you basically have a fancy French feast for one.
While I’m not that big of a fan of pickles, I’ve seen them go a long way. They work to elevate grilled cheese, for example. But when your fridge is empty, and all you have is ketchup and pickles, the pickles definitely make the better meal. Full leftover deli pickles or sliced in jars, when you’re low on food, both of them can keep you alive and happy until your next meal. Sometimes, when you’re in a pickle, only a pickle can save you.
“Pickles are a big commitment, because sometimes I only want a little bit of pickle… but if your fridge is bare, they’ll do in a pinch,” Brickner said.
Chamoy pickles are another option in terms of converting this condiment into a meal. Chamoy pickle kits are popular on TikTok, but these pickles were designed to be inexpensive to create. The first thing you need is the Mexican condiment chamoy, which you soak the pickle in. Then, you use a variety of candy and chips to elevate the pickle. Suggested candies and chips include Lucas salsaghetti, Takis chips, Fruit by the Foot, watermelon powder, Gushers, Hot Cheetos, or Spicy Doritos.
At 1:00 a.m., croutons are a delicacy. If you have flavored croutons, that makes them that much better. A bag of croutons isn’t much different than a bag of chips, except the croutons might actually be healthier for you. Almost all dry salad toppings make a good snack. Dried fruit and jalapeños are another personal favorite. I would not recommend plain salad dressing, unless you really like ranch. But croutons take the cake for salad toppings that can be enjoyed alone. If you’re a freshman in the dorms with a meal plan, I’d suggest stealing a bag of croutons from the dining hall each night and slowly accumulating a surplus, because croutons can be expensive.
8. Whipped Cream
Whipped cream is a delicious dessert. It can be made into frostings and used in a plethora of different sweet treats. That said, I have pretty much exclusively eaten whipped cream from the can. There is something so fun and satisfying about spraying the whipped cream into your mouth. While it’s hard not to eat it all almost as soon as you buy it, if you have some in your fridge, it tastes superb alone.
“Whipped cream was one of my favorite snacks growing up when my mom wouldn’t buy groceries,” University of Iowa Junior Madeline Fait said.
It’s cheap, too. A can of whipped cream is only three to four dollars. You can make it at home as well, though it’s not as fun without the nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Considering it’s essentially just heavy cream beyond that, it’s pretty filling, too. While there is no substantial nutrition in this, the fact that it’s literally just cream means it can be pretty filling.
9. Chocolate Syrup
At ten years old, I discovered that a spoonful of chocolate syrup is a pretty awesome dessert. If you get a spoon of peanut butter and a spoon of chocolate syrup and eat them at the same time, you basically have a deconstructed Reese’s. In this vein, I’ve also resorted to eating hot cocoa powder, and depending on the brand, it can be really good. If it’s more cocoa than sugar, it’s an unpleasant bitter surprise, but if it’s more sugar than cocoa, dried hot cocoa mix can also taste euphoric. However, I recommend chocolate syrup because it generally tastes better alone. While there are no nutrients this can provide, and if you ate this regularly it would probably be atrocious for your dental health, it’s a sweet treat under dire enough circumstances.
10. Bread Crumbs
This is a bit of a hot take, but I discovered the beauty of dry, plain bread crumbs earlier this year. Be warned, you’ll need water because they will dehydrate you very quickly. Plain bread crumbs taste a little like granola without any of the nutrients, and the texture is pretty satisfying. They’re really flavorful as well, albeit messy. This is a pretty drastic last resort. If you find yourself picking between chocolate syrup and bread crumbs for a snack, it’s probably time to go grocery shopping. That said, I have not made a single recipe with my bread crumbs since purchasing them, yet two-thirds of the box is gone.