Everyone knows the four main food groups of college: pizza, Oreos, Goldfish and more pizza. My first three college dinners consisted of one bag of microwave popcorn and three cookies. I slept eleven hours a night and gasped for breath after walking up one flight of stairs, yet this wasn’t a weight gain issue. It was a nutrition issue, and this issue is more common than people think. But is there a way to eat right without spending ten dollars on premium salads?
Quit Ordering Takeout
According to experts, eating takeout is the fastest way to lose your budget. “There are so many ways to eat healthy on a budget if you’re willing to do even a little bit of cooking,” Registered Dietitian Janis Jibrin said. The ten dollars you spend on a Chipotle burrito (with guac, of course) could buy a pound of lean ground beef, a pound of pasta and a jar of spaghetti sauce. That’s three meals versus one burrito. Do you miss the time you spend with friends when you go out to eat? Cook with friends! Everyone can buy an ingredient and make a potluck dinner.
Freeze Your Budget
Though it isn’t glamorous, buy frozen food. Nancy Chapman, chair of the Nutrition Advisory Committee at the University of the District of Columbia, isn’t into fresh food. “Fresh things go bad pretty quickly and they’re expensive. Frozen and canned foods store for a long time and they’re cheap.” This is especially great for off-season fruits and veggies, like when you’re craving peaches in the dead of winter. Buy some plain yogurt too and suddenly you have a frosty peach smoothie. Or toss frozen spinach in a skillet with some olive oil, cook out the water, add butter, garlic, salt and pepper and suddenly you have a side dish that goes with anything. Plus, as a college kid cooking for one, you probably won’t use all your food at once.
Spice up Your Kitchen
Healthy food doesn’t have to taste like steamed misery. Once you’ve saved a bundle on frozen produce and pasta, use that extra dough (pun intended) to buy basic seasonings like salt, pepper and garlic powder. Then move on to the fancier spices like cumin, oregano and cayenne pepper. If your parents used certain spices that filled your kitchen with magical smells when you were younger, stock up on those especially. Every bite of your home-cooked deliciousness will bring you back to the good old days.
Do a Little Homework
You already have four hours of homework tonight and six more tomorrow—why not add an extra half hour of food homework? I promise you it’s worth it. Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown is a guide for families living on SNAP benefits or who just moved to the U.S. and were having trouble navigating grocery stores, but it’s also a great guide for college students. She provides cooking tips, pictures and even instructions on how to use the staples all pantries should have. “Students should have a bit more cooking guidance too,” Brown said. “I made a million mistakes starting out and if I had a little more guidance, maybe that wouldn’t have happened. Ultimately this is people who are cooking for the first time or on their own for the first time.” Brown provides a free PDF version of her cookbook, which you can find on her website.
Dieting is Not the Answer
Making the switch to a strict diet may feel like the answer at first—you’re eating less so you’re spending less, right? But that switch may be counter-intuitive. “It depends on your situation but if you have very little money and you’re going through a hard time, that’s not the best time to go on a crazy diet and deny yourself all kinds of pleasures food-wise,” Brown advised. Pick one or two snacks that are worth the extra few dollars to you. Add a package of Oreos or a pint of ice cream to your weekly grocery list. Be honest with yourself and budget your guilty pleasure in. You’ll have an easier time eating the good stuff later on.
Just Eyeball It
If you’re a visual learner, Jibrin suggests a “half, quarter, quarter” rule for your dinner plate. “If it’s a dinner plate it’s easy, draw a line and see if half of it is salad or vegetables. Then is the other half a starch, or preferably a whole grain? That should be about the size of your fist. Then the final quarter should be high protein.”
Think in terms of colors, too. Is everything on your plate a shade of brown? Get a little green in there, maybe some blues and reds. And I don’t mean Jell-O flavors or Fruit Roll-Ups—that’s cheating. You can taste the rainbow without eating Skittles. What kind of sucker do you take me for?
Does the food you eat make you happy?
There’s no way discount ramen from CVS gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling in your heart when you have a belly full of a home-cooked meal. Food is a highly individual experience, so cook and eat what makes you feel good. If you need a structure to plan out healthy meals, make a grocery list based on how much time and money you have to cook during the week. If structure stresses you out and you’re skipping meals because you don’t have time, buy ingredients for sandwiches and daily snacks. Apples, assorted nuts, string cheese and roasted chickpeas in your backpack can keep you going for most of the day.
In the wise words of Brown: “It’s emotionally important to eat in a way that satisfies you, and it’s a personal journey finding foods that satisfy you best. Both health and the way you feel, the way you sleep, how much energy you have, all of that is connected to food.”