A healthy pantry shopping list for students, with and without a meal plan

Staples and ingredients to stock up and turn to any day of the school year.

Staples and ingredients to stock up and turn to any day of the school year

Collage of white bowls of pantry ingredients such as peanut butter, jam, dried pasta and spices all cut out and put on a vibrant blue and pink abstract background.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images, art: CBC Life)

A well-stocked pantry is a place you can turn to for fast meals and snacks throughout the day, offering healthy options for every craving and dietary preference. This school year, skip the packaged ramen and blue-boxed mac and cheese, instead turning to more wholesome, real food options that provide more nutrition, more servings (hello, leftovers!) and more flavour without breaking the budget. 

This guide is for the first big shop while your parents are still in town, and offers a version for those on a school meal plan and those on their own. The ultimate, healthy student pantry is here to do the heavy lifting on your meals this year so you can spend less time at the grocery store and more time on what's important to you — all without sacrificing the flavours you love.

How to build your pantry shopping list for students on — and not on — a meal plan

Below are a list of 'basics' — ingredients that are tried, true and deemed essential, as well as ingredients under a category called 'extra credit', which are a little more out there and aren't crucial to the healthy pantry, but really fun to have. Mix and match the ingredients that you personally enjoy. 

Students on a meal plan will likely only need to stick to the 'basics' category, while those who are cooking all meals on their own can glean inspiration from the 'extra credit' category (add the 'basics' plus 'extra credit' to create your list). 

And don't forget about your refrigerator and freezer. These two 'cold pantries' hold a number of long-lasting items that can make complete meals from scratch or add sparkle to bland ones, so you'll find foodstuffs you can store in those areas, too. 

The ultimate healthy pantry shopping list for students 

Salt, pepper, herbs and spices 

Seasonings are the backbone of cooking, bringing out the best in everything from a bowl of oatmeal to spaghetti bolognese. These ingredients turn everyday student meals into brilliant feasts. To keep costs down and get a wider selection, shop for this section at a bulk store.


  • Kosher salt 
  • Whole peppercorns (don't forget a pepper grinder)
  • Crushed red pepper flakes
  • Dried thyme or Italian herb blend
  • Ground cinnamon

Extra credit

  • Curry powder 
  • Chili powder  
  • Garam masala

Oils, vinegars and condiments 

Start off sautés and stir-fries; pan-fry meat, poultry, fish and tofu; make a salad dressing or dip for veggies; spice up a bowl of soup; amp up your avocado toast; marinate a tough or bland cut of protein; and so much more — it's all possible with these transformers.   


  • Extra-virgin olive oil (for low/medium-temperature cooking and raw use)
  • Avocado oil (for high-temperature cooking)
  • Butter (refrigerator or freezer)
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Soy sauce or gluten-free tamari 
  • Dijon mustard (refrigerator)
  • Mayonnaise (refrigerator)
  • Sriracha (refrigerator)
  • Natural peanut butter (refrigerator)
  • Jam (refrigerator)  
  • Natural ketchup (free from corn syrup or liquid sugar)

Extra credit

  • Sesame oil
  • Rice vinegar
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Natural almond butter (refrigerator)
  • Pure maple syrup or honey (perfect for taking plain yogurt to the next level)

Grains, pasta and breads

For students on a meal plan, do a halfway-to-homemade grain bowl with cafeteria items, like chopped fresh or cooked vegetables, falafel and hummus, and add them on top of homemade cooked brown rice or quinoa. Students cooking without a meal plan can take store-bought helpers, like prepared hummus, and cook their own vegetables (roast a big batch for the week!) to pair with a quick-cooking grain. 


  • Large-flake or quick-cooking steel-cut oatmeal  
  • Quick-cooking brown rice or basmati rice
  • Quinoa
  • Whole grain or gluten-free pasta (stock up on a few different shapes and sizes)
  • Sliced whole grain or sourdough bread (freezer) 

Extra credit

  • Whole wheat couscous 
  • Frozen pizza dough (freezer)
  • Whole wheat wraps (freezer) 
  • Whole wheat flour (hello, weekend pancakes)

Nuts, seeds and dried fruits 

Snack happy with these protein and healthy fat-filled ingredients. Top your morning oatmeal (at the cafeteria or at home) with a handful of nuts for additional staying power, or keep satiated in between meals with a handful of almonds (and maybe some dark chocolate chips thrown in). These boosters offer crunch to meal hall or homemade salads, soups and yogurt cups, all while delivering brain health benefits. It's recommended that you store nuts and seeds in the freezer or refrigerator as they can go rancid quickly. 


  • Roasted or raw almonds or walnuts (freezer)
  • Sunflower seeds (freezer) 

Extra credit 

  • Chia seeds 
  • Medjool dates (for a tasty snack or healthy dessert, stuff a pitted date with a spoonful of peanut butter or almond butter)

Canned and dried beans, legumes and proteins

These storecupboard proteins are good additions to soups and stews, can be mashed with mayonnaise and lemon juice to make a wrap or sandwich filling, stewed and served on toast or tossed with pasta for a cheap and simple warm dinner or salad. 


  • Canned chickpeas 
  • Canned tuna 

Extra credit

  • Canned black beans
  • Dried red lentils (for delicious, budget-friendly Red Lentil Ragu Skillets)
  • Tofu (available shelf-stable or refrigerated) 
  • Canned salmon
  • Falafel (freezer)

Vegetables, fruits and milks 

From pasta sauce to soup bases, stews to granola toppers, canned vegetables, fruits and milks are must-have student kitchen ingredients filled with flavour. Turn a can of tomatoes into a rich spaghetti sauce or chana masala (just add chickpeas and garam masala), make a creamy soup dairy-free with the helping hand of coconut milk or warm up with a mug of cinnamon-and-honey-spiced almond milk while studying.


  • Canned whole or diced tomatoes 
  • Unsweetened almond milk (tetra packs; refrigerate after opening)  

Extra credit

  • Jarred pesto (refrigerator) 
  • Sun dried tomatoes (sun dried tomatoes plus pesto is a quick and satisfying pasta sauce)  
  • Canned coconut milk (add dairy-free decadence to sweet potato soup)
  • Frozen berries (freezer) 

Throughout the coming weeks, stay creative with your meals, shop your pantry before your hit the store again and keep it simple. A year of healthy meals is easier than ever with this solid pantry plan. 

Allison Day is the cookbook author of Modern Lunch. Find her online at and on Instagram @allisondaycooks

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