For many students, living in an apartment or off-campus for the first time is a wake-up call. It’s the first time they have to be self-sufficient in terms of feeding themselves. The Caf may be convenient (no grocery shopping, no cooking, no washing dishes), but it’s also expensive. It may be overwhelming at first, but living without a meal plan opens up many new possibilities for students.
When you buy your own food, you can eat healthier at a generally lower cost. You might have to spend a little more time on your meals, but you can choose what you want to eat and build up your culinary skills. Read on for some tips on how to get started eating healthy and following a budget.
Plan, plan, plan
The first step to eating healthy on a budget is to plan. Check your pantry to see what you already have. This will keep you from overbuying and spending extra money on items that may end up expiring. Then make a grocery list and stick to it. Eating a small snack before going to the grocery store will help you avoid impulse buys.
Eat fruits and vegetables that are in season, otherwise you’ll be paying a much higher price. If you’ve overbought fresh vegetables, try making a stir fry, casserole, or homemade soup with them. Fruits can be frozen and added to yogurt, smoothies, muffins, or pancakes. Frozen vegetables and canned fruit are always good options; they’re convenient and they don’t spoil quickly like fresh fruits and vegetables.
It’s important to have a variety of healthy foods in your diet so your body can function on a daily basis. However, sometimes you need to satisfy your cravings. Whole grain cereal may be healthier, but sometimes you’re hungry for Captain Crunch. You can add a small amount of the sugary cereal to the whole grain cereal to satisfy your craving.
“I believe that 85-90% of the time you need to eat all the good fuel: whole grains, lean protein, fruits and vegetables, less processed foods, and dairy. The other 10-15% of the time, eat the fun stuff: ice cream, cookies, and fried foods. You can make it all fit with variety, moderation, portions, and common sense. That is all nutrition is: common sense. There is no magic food or formula to make you feel good. It is thinking about what you need on a daily basis,” Registered Dietitian in Dining Service and Health Service George Elliott said.
Take advantage of store savings
Coupons are one way to save money on your grocery shopping. It might take you extra time, but it’s worth it in the end. Use your savings for something fun (or more groceries). Make sure you’re not buying more than you can eat, though, because of a coupon. Coupons aren’t always the best deals.
When you’re at the store, check unit pricing. Sometimes buying in bulk is not always the best deal. Be sure to compare between name brand and generic items. Often the generic brands are just as good as name brands and even cheaper. Remember to compare nutrition labels. Also, think about going half and half with a roommate on bulk items, such as milk. This will save each of you money, and you won’t end up with spoiled milk.
Take time to shop weekly versus shopping for everything at one time. This will cut down on your shopping time and allow you to buy foods that will stay fresh. You also want to think about utilizing all the sources in your community and rotating where you shop.
“The local grocery store may be a great place to purchase your meats and grains; maybe the Co-op is where you want to purchase produce, and some of your local gas stations offer a good deal on potatoes, onions, bananas, eggs, butter, and milk. You don’t have to go to all three weekly. Good planning and knowing what you want to prepare will help you decide what store you need to go to that week,” Elliot said.
Think outside the box
Mix up your meal options. You don’t want to eat the same things every week. Try some different approaches – beans are a great, cheap source of protein.
“Bean burritos, chili, and bean soup can be easy to prepare, cheap and good for you. On that note, think about going meatless a couple of times a week. It helps your budget and gives you some variety,” Elliott said.
Also think about getting together with friends and preparing a meal or having a potluck where everyone brings their favorite dish. It’ll add some variety and give you a chance to catch up with your friends.
Know what’s important to you
Think about what is important to you, whether that’s buying local, responsibly sourced meat, fair trade products, or organics. If it’s worth it to you, maybe you are willing to spend extra so you can have some of the products you value.
“The great thing about all of this is that you make the choice. You get to decide what works for you,” Elliott said.
Don’t know what to buy or eat?
According to Elliott, most people eat the same ten to twelve items for an evening meal. She suggests learning how to make these meals and how to make them well. These can be easy meals such as tacos, spaghetti, stir fry, quesadillas, soup, and sandwiches. It’s important to have a good base of staple foods on hand so you can make a variety of meals.
“Staples in my pantry and fridge include: brown rice, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, spaghetti sauce, peanut butter, baby carrots, bell peppers, lean meats like chicken and pork loin, milk, yogurt, frozen vegetables, apples, bananas, peaches, grapes, and Hershey’s Dark Chocolate Kisses because I need chocolate to function properly,” Senior Health Fitness Major Maggie King said.
According to King, Google can be your best friend if you don’t know how to cook or where to start finding recipes.
“If I have a few random ingredients and need recipe inspiration, I can Google ‘frozen spinach, chicken breast’ and up pops a recipe for ‘chicken Florentine soup.’ Google is wonderful — it taught me how to jump-start a car and sew on a button, and I regularly consult Google for ideas for easy cooking on a budget,” King said.
Cook more at one time and save it for later
Between classes, work, meetings, workouts, and any number of other commitments during the week, it can be hard for students to spend a long time in the kitchen preparing a meal. Cooking meals in large batches and freezing the leftovers for later in the week or month can save you a lot of time.
“It is way easier to pull something out of the freezer and warm it up for three minutes every night than it is to wash/chop/slice/boil/bake all the ingredients I need to make a meal seven days a week,” King said.
Spend a few hours over the weekend preparing food for the week. Then, when you come home during the week, all you have to do is pull something out of the freezer and heat it up. King recommends freezing food in Ziploc bags.
“They lay flat and stack really well in the freezer, leaving lots of extra room for ice cream,” King said. “Yes, I know I am a Health Fitness major, and I’m supposed to eat healthy, but we are all allowed to splurge on our healthy diets every once in a while! Just don’t allow yourself to splurge every time you go to the store.”
It’s important to eat healthy snacks in addition to healthy meals. If you’re feeling hungry in between classes, grab a piece of fruit, granola bar, yogurt, or cheese stick. Try making homemade trail mix with your favorite snack foods, either from the Caf or grocery store. These snacks will give you energy without affecting your health like sugary snacks will.
Why Eat Healthy?
What you eat has an effect on how you feel and how your body functions on a daily basis. Eat well and your mood is better, you have more energy, you have much better concentration, and you fight off infections better. Eat poorly and you could be irritable, lack concentration, sleep poorly, and compromise your immune system. Bottom line: food is fuel! Take a look at your parents and older family members; what are you at risk for? Taking care of yourself now sets you up for a lifetime of health in the future. Hard to think about now, but ask your parents what they wish they would have done differently at your age. Taking care of your body now just means you get to do what you want to do in the future. — George Elliott, Registered Dietician at Gustavus
As a Health Fitness major, I have learned the science behind food and how our bodies process the things we eat into the usable forms of energy that we need to carry out our daily activities with gusto. The carbohydrates from that apple I just ate are going to replace the glycogen stores that were depleted during my workout today. The protein from the peanut butter on my apple is going to help repair and maintain tissues like muscle and skin, make things like enzymes and blood clotting factors, as well as regulate metabolism and fluid balance within the body. The fat from the peanut butter will actually serve as my main source of energy when I am studying later on, but it also functions to help absorb vitamins, conduct nerve impulses down an axon, and keep me warm on top of the windy hill! Food has such a huge effect on our everyday lives, so it only makes sense to fuel our bodies the right way so that we can feel healthy and well and have the energy we need! — Maggie King, Senior Health Fitness Major
Advice from Chef Jake
“I am no authority on healthy eating, but I did lose 50 pounds in the past couple years and have watched as my vitals have all improved a lot: lower cholesterol, more energy, lower blood pressure, and I just feel a lot better. I just quit eating fried foods and bread and ate a lot more fresh fruit and veggies. An apple instead of a bagel, a big fresh salad instead of pizza, skim milk instead of a coke, for an extended period of time starts to make a big difference. Less processed and more fresh is my advice,” Chef Jake said.
Healthy Eating Basics:
- Bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereal, and tortillas
- Make half your grains whole
- Whole grains contain fiber which may help reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease
- Fiber helps you feel full with fewer calories
- Half of your plate should be vegetables and fruits
- Rich in vitamins and minerals and low in calories
- Great sources of potassium, fiber, vitamin C, and folate
- Easy to pack as a snack
- Great low-calorie alternative to many desserts
- Choose whole fruits over juice (get 100% juice if you do to avoid added sugar)
- Meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and processed soy products (tofu)
- Choose lean cuts of meat
- Nuts, peas, and beans are good sources of fiber
- Choose low-fat or fat free dairy products
- Rich in calcium and fortified with vitamin D – important for bone health