A Guide to Eating Healthy College Meals on a Budget

Becca Cornell
Dec 11, 2020
When you think about your college years, you often don't think of eating healthy college meals. The norm tends to be late nights drinking and getting pizza with your friends, waking up the next morning and craving some greasy hangover food. Don't deny it, you know it's true. This is also a huge reason why the 'freshman 15' is a thing.  College students struggling to find time to balance class, studying, and activities may be tempted to throw healthy habits to the wayside. For many, meal planning is just one time-consuming task too many. Add to this the challenge of pulling together a healthy meal on a limited income, and it’s no wonder that lunch too-often looks like a bag of chips and a soda. Don’t give in to the temptation of quick and easy meal options! It is possible to eat healthy college meals on a budget, and it doesn't require a huge amount of time or energy. Any college student can eat healthy by following the four simple steps below.

1. Create a weekly budget

Developing a budget is not difficult, but it does require discipline, especially when you are accustomed to having someone else pay for food. A budget may also reveal that the easy choices aren’t always the cheapest options. Set up a weekly budget to gain a clear view of your finances and awareness into how much you can really splurge on food. Getting to know your financial limits may also provide the incentive you need to make wise choices when shopping. Use the boundaries of your budget to help you stay committed to eating healthy.

2. Drop the cafeteria

The campus cafeteria may be convenient, but it isn't cheap. It can easily bust your budget (and your waistline). We understand that sometimes having a meal plan is more cost-effective in the long run because it factors into your tuition, so if you are in this situation, use this guide to maneuvering the dining hall with your health in mind. One simple and affordable alternative is the humble slow cooker. Slow cookers offer the ease and simplicity a busy college student needs. Slow cooker meals usually require little to no prep for an inexpensive and nutrition-rich meal. They will have dinner ready for you when you walk in the door hungry, removing the temptation to grab something quick. If you add in a compact microwave, you can heat leftovers over the next few days. Slow cooker recipes are a great way to start cooking — and gain a new appreciation for wholesome food.

3. Learn the art of shopping smart

Finding food at a bargain price is easy once you master a few tricks.  

First, learn how to maximize perks offered by grocers and avoid the strategies stores use to encourage you to spend more.

Next, do your homework:

  1. Scan store ads and websites in advance for special offers to plan your menu.
  2. Take advantage of coupons. When used correctly, they can compound discounts. 
  3. You'll also want to keep an eye out for the bigger discounts stores often offer for items purchased in bulk. Combine this with store and manufacturer coupons for big savings.
  4. Take advantage of the loyalty programs offered by many stores for extra bonuses, such as discounts at the gas pump. 

Once you master the sales, look at what's going into your cart:

  1. When shopping for produce, items that are in season are generally a better value
  2. During winter, when some produce becomes more expensive, frozen and canned items are healthy and affordable alternatives.

In terms of protein, consider these options:

  1. Eggs are truly the most versatile and easy to cook in a million different ways.
  2. Chicken, especially whole chicken, is usually much cheaper per pound than other meats.
  3. Canned tuna is something you can always have on hand for a quick meal.
  4. Consider keeping dried beans in your pantry as well. They are a cheap, versatile, source of protein and fiber.

More tips for shopping for healthy college meals on a budget:

  1. When comparing prices among items, sometimes you have to look beyond the advertised bargain. Check the “displayed unit price” to best determine the most cost-effective option.
  2. Usually, you’ll find a better deal from buying a larger size.
  3. Don't discount the value and quality of generic or store brands.
  4. Pay attention to items’ locations. Higher priced items are often placed at eye level.
  5. Speaking of eye level, keep your eyes ahead at the cashier's line to avoid the impulse trap of items placed near checkout.

4. Plan your meals

Planning ahead can help you simplify your shopping trips and stick to a list. Don't think you need a subscription to HelloFresh to eat healthy, you can make your own budget-friendly recipes with foods you enjoy that are easy to prepare. It takes only a little searching to find good recipes. There are also millions of food blogs to scour subscribe to the ones you like for plenty more options to try. You might also try cooking a large amount at once to eat throughout the week.

Dig in

Even a busy college student can take simple steps to eat healthy on a budget. Quick homemade meals are healthier, cheaper, and easier than you might think. Not only will you benefit from getting the nutrients you need to stay healthy, but a good diet can give you the focus and energy needed to balance the demands of college life. Here's an article for more ways to boost your productivity and focus!

A grocery list that fits your budget & goals

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