Cheap and Healthy Meal Alternatives Part 1: College Student Edition

We all know the feeling. “When I go to college, I’m only going to afford to eat ramen and junk food!”

It’s like an ongoing joke, once we move out and have to start cooking for ourselves, it becomes hard to manage time for healthy, nutritional meals. This especially when there are quicker alternatives out there that require less effort and sometimes, much less expensive. Adding in the fact that tuition rates are going up while financial aid is going down, it can be very difficult for college students particularly to be able to devote their expenses to healthy meals. Even so, having a balance is important. 

As students, weekdays can get pretty hectic with various assignments, exams, and external commitments so it can be hard to make time to cook your meals during that time. What I like to do is make or prep some of my meals for the week on Sunday night, so I don’t have to worry about cooking during the week. I usually will make a giant batch of a simple recipe and pack it up in containers, so I can grab them as I head out of the house. In this way, starting off small can prepare you for the upcoming week, avoiding the stress you might feel when it gets closer to lunchtime.

Here, we’re going to talk about what “healthy” means, how to make a food budget, resources, and to take a look at some cheap and healthy meals that you can make at home, right from your microwave:

  1. 1. What is Healthy?

    “assorted fruits on display in store” on unsplash

    Part of being healthy with food and meal choices comes from prioritizing whole foods. Whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, & fish, contain nutrients that your body needs to function at an optimal level. 

    Research shows that following a whole-foods- based diet may reduce heart disease, body weight, blood sugar levels, and decrease the risk of certain diseases like type 2 diabetes. Adding whole foods to your diet can be done slowly and consistently. 

    You can start out by having a breakfast that has whole foods, then lunch, dinner, etc. --- It doesn’t have to be black and white. Also, don’t get scared and think, “I have to cut out meat and snacks from my meal,” just focus more on adding whole foods to your diet rather than taking away existing foods.

    Besides this, practicing mindful eating can be so beneficial to healthy eating. This could mean:

    - Slowing down your pace

    - Eating away from distractions

    - Becoming aware of hunger/fullness cues & use them as a guide at mealtimes (As a way to check this: sipping water in-between bites can help you slow down and eat more mindfully, as can pausing for a gut check halfway through your meal)

    - Honoring the foods you like without judgment

    - Choosing foods that are nourishing AND taste good!

    - Being aware of all your senses when eating

    - Checking-in regularly to see how your stomach feels

    Another part of being healthy is to opt for more home-cooked meals rather than take-out. Research shows that people who cook more meals at home have better diet quality & less body fat than people who eat more meals on the go. A study in 11,396 adults found that those who ate 5 or more home-cooked meals per week were 28% less likely to be overweight, compared with those who ate fewer than 3 home-cooked meals per week. You can start small by making one meal a day, then increasing the frequency over time until you’re making the majority of your meals and snacks at home.

    Some balanced snacks and mini-meals that you might like to eat before or after class include:

    - Apple or banana with a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter 

    - Greek yogurt with berries and nuts

    - One egg with a piece of whole-grain/gluten-free toast and 1/3 to 1/2 avocado

    - Veggies, whole-grain pita chips, and 1/3 cup hummus 

    - A 300- to 400-calorie all-natural (non-diet) frozen meal

    - 1/2 cup whole-grain pasta with some red sauce and 1/4 cup shredded cheese

    You can also strategically stagger your meal and snack times earlier in the day, depending on your class schedule. Most people find it helpful to plan meals and snacks three to four hours apart throughout each day. 

    For example, you can plan to have lunch at a “regular” time (typically between noon and 2:00 p.m.), and then eat a big snack or mini-meal around 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. before class starts. When you finish class (around 8:30 to 9:00 p.m.), you can then have a second mini-meal.

  2. 2. Food Budgeting 101

    budget hero image

    When you’re new to it, handling your money feels really intimidating and scary. A lot of times, college students will finish their education and realize that they have nowhere to start when it comes to budgeting and meal prep: so I wanted to give a small nudge into the direction of planning and help give some tips on how to start the process:

    Step 1: Calculate a food budget from previous months

    - Look at your credit card/debit card statements and calculate how much you spent on food in a month

    - Compare how much you spent on groceries vs. eating out.

    Step 2: Modify your new food budget according to your financial goals

    - It may be more or less depending on how you want to spend your money

    Step 3: Divide that number by 4 to get your weekly budget. This will act as your budget guide when grocery shopping.

    Step 4: Make a grocery list

    - Buy groceries on a weekly basis sticking to the weekly budget that you have now calculated

    Step 5: (Optional) Save a portion of your budget for when you go out to eat with friends

    - Estimate how many times a week you want to go out, how much you can afford to spend, and allocate that amount

    - Look for ‘Groupons’ and/or specials

    I also found two amazing templates to help get the food budget planning started. One budgeting worksheet has the weeks separated, and one budgeting tracker has the days separated (depending on what you prefer):

    https://beautyandbedlam.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/monthly-food-exp-tracker.pdf 

    https://beautyandbedlam.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/monthly-food-exp-tracker-2.pdf 

    Fruits and Veggie Tips:

    - Look for fruits and veggies that are in season and plan your meals around those items to ensure they won’t go bad! (Food going bad = money wasted!)

    - Frozen fruits and veggies are usually more inexpensive, last longer, and have optimal nutritional value. They stay fresh until you use them and are easy to make.

    - Frozen fruits and veggies can be used in smoothies, “fruit ice cream”, soups, stir frys, or thawed and eaten as a side dish

    - Canned fruit, veggies, and beans are also very easy to use and more cost-effective than frozen

    For food couponing, stick to your grocery list! If you see an item on sale, but it’s not an item you eat frequently or don’t feel comfortable cooking, you may end up wasting money even though it’s on sale. 

    Focus more on buy 1 get 1 free deals and use coupons for when it’s an item on your list. Avoid buy 3 get 1 free deals because buying 3 of 1 item may end up breaking your weekly budget and it may be too much of that one item. It will still be cheaper to just buy the 1 item. 

    Also, avoid buying in bulk! Bulk can be cost-effective but again, it can eat up your weekly budget very quickly. If you have limited storage space (like a dorm) buying in bulk may also not be a good idea.

    Choose where you will shop wisely. Ask yourself: “What store will allow me to stay within budget and have enough food to last the week?” Visit different stores and compare prices and sale flyers.

    Besides this, identify meatless dishes you like to eat. Animal protein can be expensive, so by preparing 1 or 2 meatless dishes, you can save $10 or more per week. Dried beans, pasta, and rice are very cost-effective alternative food choices that will provide many meals for very little money. But, if you still want to include animal proteins, try to incorporate canned chicken, tuna, or salmon 1 to 2 times per week to help save money and get lots of protein!

  3. 3. Resources

    Woman grocery shopping, opening her fridge

    When looking at some resources to help with nutritional meal planning, there are so many opportunities out there. For one, you can go to your college or university’s food pantry and see what your options are. You could also go to local food banks or take advantage of government assistance, like the SNAP program. 

    The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides for more than 9.5 million families and has recently been extended to college students who are struggling to afford healthy meals. Essentially, if you are eligible and have been approved to receive the benefit, you would be issued an EBT card. This card will be automatically refilled at its appropriate time and when it is ready to be used, you can purchase groceries to its set limit. For more info on eligibility visit https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility