Tips to stay healthy while on a college budget

After teaching college students nutrition for a few years now, I often get two complaints:

  1. Hard to eat healthy on a college budget
  2. Hard to eat healthy in the school cafeteria. 

For complaint #2, please check out this post

After thinking about the budget problem, I complied this list of tips I hope as a broke college student, you may find helpful. Or, you just may find these tips helpful even if you are not in college. 

Budgeting and Food Shopping advice: 

  • Figure out your budget and how much you can spend on food per week. This way you know how much you can spend. Make a list of things, that you will realistically eat. Look at your schedule. When do you normally eat in the school cafe? Plan out when you would eat out with friends. Do you want some wiggle room when planning out food? The more realistic you are with what you will prepare on your own, the less likely you will overspend and/or over-purchase food that could potentially go to waste.                                                                                                                                                                                              
    • What types of foods can you cook in your room/dorm? 
    • How much fridge/freeze space do you have?
    • What meals will you cook? Breakfast/dinner? 
    • Do snacks need to be portable? 

  • Before making a food list, it also might be helpful to make a list of the types of meals you will need. How many breakfasts? How many types of snacks? Etc. How much variety do you want in your meals? Then go and fill in the types of food you want to fill those categories. You will find that you probably will need less than you need. Especially, if you are ok with eating similar types of foods every day.                                                                                                                             

For example:

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal 3x/week, smoothie 3x, dining hall 1x
  • Lunch: Dining hall 4x, homemade sandwiches 3x
  • Dinner: Dining hall 5x, Spaghetti with spinach and broccoli- 1x, out with friends 1x
  • Snacks for in between classes: Fruit and nuts with yogurt, cheese and crackers, hummus and veggies, rolled up turkey and cheese. 
Grocery list would like this:
  • Oatmeal
  • Frozen berries 
  • Frozen spinach
  • Whole milk yogurt
  • Loaf of bread
  • Sliced turkey and cheese
  • Almonds
  • Box of spaghetti 
  • Broccoli 
  • Carrots 
  • Celery
  • Mozzarella cheese 
  • Box of whole grain crackers 
  • Hummus (or a can of chickpeas, to make own version).                                                                                                                                  

Shopping Tips:

  • If you notice above, I tried to pick things that I could get multiple uses from (especially from the more expensive items). You can use the berries in the oatmeal, yogurt and smoothies. The nuts could be a snack on their own, but also can be added to oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothies. The broccoli could be eaten with hummus as a snack and cooked with the spaghetti for dinner. The spinach can be added to smoothies and cooked for dinner. The mozzarella cheese can be eaten with the spaghetti, and part of a snack with some crackers. 
  • When buying groceries, I have found that you might need to shop around for the best deals. I have found items at different stores can be different prices and quality. This takes a little time, but once you have a general sense of where to go, it becomes much easier. My go to places are Trader Joes, Costco, Amazon and ShopRite (which is the grocery store closest to me). I know people have good luck at places like Aldi too.                                                                                                                                                          
  • Buy in bulk for items you know you will use a lot of and won’t go bad fast. Things like nuts, baking items (like flour), cereals (like oatmeal or buckwheat), rice and grains (like quinoa) are good ones to buy in bulk. The price upfront will be more, but it will last you longer and the overall cost will be lower. I always check the unit price (not actual price), when buying to make sure I have the best deal.                                                                                                                                                                 
  • Buy frozen produce. Frozen is an excellent budget item, because you get more of it, and you can keep in the freezer (if you have one). Organic produce is also cheaper in the frozen section.                                                                                                                                                                                  
  • When buying fresh produce, things in season will always be cheaper (and taste better too).  Also, stay away from any pre-cut or packaged produce. Those will always be more expensive.                                                                                                                                                 
  • Organic produce does tend to be more expensive, however I have found certain items are no different in price than conventional (so it’s always good to just check and compare!). Carrots and celery are usually the exact same price for organic. Organic apples tend to be fairly affordable. I also check the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 for things that I should be buying organic and things that are perfectly fine getting conventional. In general, anything that you would eat the skin of, organic is usually better, like apples and berries. Things like avocados and bananas aren’t worth the extra cost to buy organic, so just buy conventional. (With that said, eating more veggies/fruits is always better regardless if you buy organic or not, so don’t stress if you can’t buy organic).                                                                                                                                              
  • Pay attention to how fast things go bad, especially produce. Apples, pears, oranges (and other citrus) tend to keep a bit longer. Berries only last a few days. Bananas and avocados last about a week (depending on how ripe they are when you buy them). Only buy what you would realistically eat for the week (or 2!), knowing how fast you will need to eat it will help with purchasing. Meat only lasts about 4-5 days before it needs to be eaten or frozen.                                                                                                                                                                      
  • Protein: This is where a lot of money gets spent because usually protein = meat. Chicken, pork and turkey tend be cheaper than beef. I buy chicken thighs a lot because they are cheaper and also a lot taster than chicken breasts. If you have good knife skills, you can also buy a whole chicken and cut it up (which is cheaper). YouTube has a lot of great tutorials on how to do this. Instead of ground beef, you can also try ground turkey for many recipes that call for ground beef (like chili or tacos). Ground pork is also very cheap.                                                                                                                                                      
  • Instead of meat, beans and lentils are also a great protein source that are a lot cheaper. Cans of beans are usually around $1 a piece. Lentils are also really filling and are relatively easy to cook (very similar to rice) and are really filling. Quinoa is also a good protein option on a budget.                                                                                                                                              
  • Buying real, whole foods are cheaper in the long run, but you have to be prepared to prep and cook your own food. This is a skill and something that the more practice you have, the better you get at it. Those packaged, convenience foods may seem cheaper, but you have to think, “Is this food filling?” Is this food satisfying? Is this food going to make me feel my best?”   

Meal and Snack Ideas

If you google healthy meal ideas for college students, you get a ton of posts about it, so I don’t want to reinvent the wheel too much. But here are some ideas that might be helpful. When I was in college, I remember breakfasts being easier, as well as the need for lots of snacks, so I will start with that. 

Breakfasts: 

  • Oatmeal. Try to get rolled or steel cut oats, because they contain more fiber and will keep you full longer. Batch cook them at the beginning of the week, then you will have breakfast for the rest of the week! Also, buying a big can of rolled oats is much cheaper (and will last you a while), then the little flavored packets. You can also make it much healthier by adding your own fruit, nuts, and nut butters to it. 
  • Eggs. If you have access to a stove, eggs are a great option. You can boil a bunch of eggs in the beginning of the week. Scrambled is always a quick way to make eggs. You can add cheese, frozen spinach or tomatoes to add flavor. 
  • Avocado toast. There is a reason why this is so popular. Its filling and delicious. Use whole grain bread for more fiber. 
  • Batch cook waffles or pancakes in the beginning of the week. Then you have toaster waffles that are quick to make on busy mornings. I have a great recipe that is gluten-free, and super filling, but any favorite recipe would do. Instead of syrup, you can add berries or nut butters. 
  • Whole-milk yogurt. Stop buying those individual low-fat yogurts. They are more expensive and not healthier for you. Buy the bigger tub of plain whole milk yogurt. It is much more filling and cheaper to buy. Then you can add fruit, nuts, granola, honey, whatever you want to it. 
  • Smoothies. This is my go to, especially on busy days when I have to get out the door. Here is my go-to recipe. Blend together: 
    • Half avocado or 1 tab coconut oil or 1 tab nut butter (or handful of nuts if blender is good).
    • Handful of greens (like spinach, kale, etc, can also use frozen greens) 
    • Scoop protein powder (optional)
    • 1-3 tab ground flax, hemp or chia seed (optional)
    •  Ice
    • Unsweetened milk of choice, or water
    •  ¼ c fruit                         

Snacks:

When thinking of good snacks that will energize you and satisfy hunger, think of things with good mix protein, fat and fiber content. (High carb or high sugar will just make you crash and get hungry quicker). Don’t worry about calories, if you are full and satisfied, you will naturally eat less. 

  • A handful of nuts (almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, walnuts, etc)
    • Add in some dried fruit or some dark chocolate chips
  • 1-2 tablespoon nut butter with apple/banana/celery, whole grain crackers, etc.
  • Whole milk cheese cubes with fruit, nuts, whole grain crackers, etc.
  • Hummus with celery, carrots, peppers, etc.
  • Coffee/tea with half n half or coconut cream (like from a can).
  • Whole milk yogurt (unsweetened) with berries (or other fruit)
    • can also throw in unsweetened coconut flakes, granola, hemp, chia, pumpkin or sunflower seeds for crunch
  • Half an avocado with sea salt (Can also mash it with a fork, add 1 tab salsa for quick guacamole and eat with tortilla chips or crackers)
  • Smoothie.  
  • Dark chocolate with nut butter (my favorite!)
  • Olives and whole grain crackers
  • Canned tuna or sardines with crackers (can add some mayo, if want. TJ’s has a good unsweetened mayo).     

Do you have any other suggestions that I missed?

Let me know if this was helpful!

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