Nutrition Guide for New College Grads

Eating healthy is one of many challenges new college graduates face. Nutrition Diva's handy nutrition guide will help you set up your kitchen, choose pantry staples, and start cooking simple meals like a pro in no time.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #525
Young adult food shopping

It’s May, and that means a whole bunch of you just graduated from college—congratulations! Whether you are starting a new job, applying for grad school, heading overseas, or even moving back in with Mom and Dad, this is a great time to establish some healthy new routines and habits. This week, I have a quick nutrition guide with tips to help you start this new chapter of your life on the right foot, even if time, money and space are tight. 

Step 1: Setting up a Healthy Kitchen

You certainly don’t need a kitchen full of expensive appliances and high-end cookware to make healthy meals. In terms of cookware, start with:

  • a couple of saucepans (one medium-sized and one large)

  • An 8 to 10-inch skillet (preferably one that can go in the oven or under the broiler)

  • a mixing bowl (doubles as a salad bowl)

  • a baking dish (like the one your mom uses for lasagna)

  • a larger rimmed baking sheet

My desert-island list of essential cooking implements would also include:

  • two sharp knives (one large, one small)

  • a whisk

  • a box grater

  • A vegetable peeler

  • a strainer or colander

  • a pair of tongs

  • a rubber spatula

Step 2: Stock your pantry

Now that you’ve got your kitchen equipped it’s time to stock the pantry.  Here are some tips for grocery shopping like a pro.

I suggest starting in the produce section and choosing whatever’s particularly fresh, appealing, and/or well-priced. But as you make your selections, think about what you might serve with each and whether you need any additional items for those meals or recipes. For example, is kale on sale this week? You could throw together a hearty Kale and White Bean soup. Grab an onion or two before you leave the produce section and make a mental note to pick up some white beans when you get to that aisle. Or, if you’re as easily distracted, as I am at the grocery store, make an actual note on your shopping list.

There’s nothing more demoralizing than buying a bunch of fresh food and then having it spoil before you get to it. If you only get to the grocery store once or twice a week, be sure to buy some ingredients with a longer shelf life and plan to consume the short-lived stuff first. For example, fresh fish should ideally be consumed the day you buy it, but frozen shrimp can stay in the freezer until you need them. Berries, fresh herbs, and delicate lettuces may keep only a day or two. Apples, citrus fruit, winter squash, and any kind of frozen vegetables will last much longer.

As you get more comfortable in the kitchen, you’ll quickly discover the wisdom of keeping certain basic items in stock. For example, having a couple of versatile cheeses on hand makes it easier to whip up last minute meals. Particularly handy options include feta cheese to crumble on salads, mozzarella to sprinkle on homemade pizza, and a brick of Cheddar or Monterey Jack for a quick quesadilla or frittata.

Other foods I always keep on hand include:

  • Eggs

  • Dried and canned beans

  • Canned tomatoes

  • Canned tuna or salmon

  • Chicken stock

  • Rice, quinoa, bulgur, or other whole grains

  • Pasta

  • Olive Oil

  • Balsamic vinegar

Whenever I use up the last of one of these vital ingredients, I immediately put it on my list to buy the next time I’m at the store. You’d be amazed at how many different meals can be concocted out of this short list of staples and some fresh vegetables.

See also: 6 Free Apps that Make Meal Planning Easier

Step 3: Learn to Cook

Perhaps the best thing you can do for your health, your wallet, and your social life is to learn how to cook. And the best way to learn is by doing. Cooking can be a fun way to spend time with friends. Invite a pal or family member who enjoys cooking to show you how to prepare a few essential recipes. Make a fun evening out of it. Most cooks love to share their craft so you won’t find a shortage of volunteers.

I’m not talking about mastering advanced techniques or cooking a gourmet meal every night. Some of the best cooking is also some of the simplest. Knowing how to clarify consommé, make a proper demi-glace, or debone a pheasant may come in handy one day, but I suggest you start by learning how to sauté greens, roast a chicken, and dress a salad.

There are some great (and free!) resources for beginning cooks such as ReluctantGourmet.com, which covers a lot of basic techniques, and Mark Bittman’s self-explanatory How To Cook Everything iPhone app.

If you want to take it to the next level, my friend Darya Pino has put together a 30-day online course that can turn someone who doesn’t know how to make toast into one of those people who can whip up delicious meals without even using a recipe. Learn more at the Foodist Kitchen

Step 4: Leverage your efforts

You can save a lot of money—and improve the nutritional quality of your diet—by cooking more of your own food. But there’s no denying that planning, shopping, and cooking takes more time than ordering some take-out. Fortunately, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

I’ve already talked about some strategies to make meal-planning and grocery shopping easier and more efficient. When it comes to cooking, be sure to leverage the time you spend cooking by making a large quantity. Grill an extra chicken breast or roast some extra vegetables to top a pizza later in the week. Make a double batch of soup or chili and freeze some for another meal. No freezer? Invite three friends to dinner, with the understanding that each of them will host a meal over the next month. 

See also: How to Start a Healthy Lunch Club

If you’re graduating, or you know someone who is, there is a great graduation present that you can enter to win right now. Quick and Dirty Tips is running an exclusive sweepstakes to win an amazing book bundle. It includes books like Jamie Oliver’s cookbook 5 Ingredients, and 50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School by Charles J. Sykes. Just think of it as a starter pack for life after college. Enter for your chance to win here. Good luck!

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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