Pantry essentials for the confused first time chef

Easy recipes and tips to make the most of each meal in your kitchen


Having pasta in your pantry makes it easy to throw together lunch or dinner. 

Lindsay Smith | Cavalier Daily

My week back in Charlottesville was a busy one. It took several long days of unpacking and decorating, but eventually it occurred to me to go to the store and buy groceries. Of course, after an already long week, my brain was a little bit fried, so walking into the grocery store I had no idea what I needed to buy. After three effortful and very fruitless trips to Trader Joe’s, I was left with a box of cereal and a bag of grapes, and some bread and Nutella. This was not a sustainable diet — there was also nothing to make for dinner, and two days of peanut butter lunches and Nutella toast breakfasts really made me sick of bread and spread combos.

Stumped, I knew there was only one way for me to solve my grocery-confused conundrum. So, of course, I called my mom and begged her for tips on how to stock up my cabinets. She provided me with an all-inclusive, incredibly helpful list of pantry essentials for each meal that has been keeping me well fed and happy thus far — without leaving me dreading another meal made up solely of Nutella.

Before I move on to sharing that list with all my faithful readers, I want to drop a shout-out to the woman who made this article possible. Thanks for keepin’ it real, ma. Now, without further ado, here are some essentials every college student must have on hand. They are mother-curated, so you can be sure they are pretty dang helpful.

The first thing on the list is more of an investment for ease than an actual list of foods. Start your pantry-stocking adventure with the purchase of good kitchen utensils and appliances. Personally, I would be lost without my toaster oven, blender, tea kettle and French press. A Keurig is also good to have for those early morning classes when you need coffee but you also have to rush out the door. On a smaller scale, having Ziploc bags, aluminum foil and PAM at the ready can really make the cooking experience go by with much less hassle.

Next, before getting into the essentials by meal, there are some basics you must have on hand for cooking in general. Butter, olive oil, white wine vinegar and spices like salt, pepper, cinnamon, basil, thyme, rosemary, paprika, cumin and garlic powder can make using the kitchen much easier — and much more delicious.

The other two important purchases you must make on that first trip to the store are coffee and bread. Coffee, whether it be instant, whole bean or Keurig K-cup, is a necessity for college students everywhere. A loaf of bread sitting in your cupboard will help stave off that fear of starving to death in your apartment when you couldn’t think of anything to cook for dinner.

Breakfast comes with a longer list of recommended supplies. Having around six eggs in your fridge at all times will come in handy for those Saturday mornings when you are too broke — or too hungover — to go to the Pigeon Hole for brunch. Milk and cereal are good staples, and having yogurt and perhaps even granola and fresh fruit to put on top can help vary your breakfast menu. Keeping granola bars for breakfast on the go is also smart.

As for lunch and dinner, make sure you have room on your shelves for rice, black beans, pasta, pasta sauce, canned soup and chicken broth. These things can make a variety of meals and are all very fast to cook. In the long run, they can save you a lot of money, and on nights when you are too tired to plan a nice meal, they are easy to throw together and still provide relatively good nutrients.

Fruit and vegetables go bad fast, so they should be bought in small increments. Always have at least an onion and a bag of carrots on hand. Bell peppers or potatoes can also help spice up dinner in a pinch. Lastly, it is smart to stock up on a few frozen items. Look for a frozen pizza or a bag of frozen fried rice — when you run out of fresh food, they are handy backups.

Dessert calls for its own set of supplies. A small bag of all purpose flour, a small bag of granulated sugar, baking soda, baking powder and even vanilla extract are the perfect starter-kit for all those crazy kids out there who love to bake. It may also be smart to keep ice cream or other ready-made desserts around for days when you need something sweet but don’t want to put in much effort.

When you stick to a list like this, buying groceries and cooking for yourself becomes a lot less scary. Hopefully this helps you make a little game plan. The next step is to dive right in to Trader Joe’s, Harris Teeter, Kroger or wherever it is you like to shop. Really though, shop at Trader Joe’s.

Lindsay Smith is a Food Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

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