This is a post from an older blog I had for responding to nutrition-related questions from friends. Let me know what you think, or if you have any similar questions, leave a comment and let me know!
William asks: “How can college students (like us) eat healthier on a college student budget and without a lot of time to prepare food?”
This challenge of finding healthy, easy (and fast), affordable ways to eat as a college student always used to look like this in my brain:
Thankfully, that big question mark in the middle isn’t as mysterious as I once thought. Here are some tips for having the best of all three worlds—and as you might notice, none of them are particularly complicated. As with anything related to everyday lifestyle, the biggest differences usually happen by trying little changes and sticking to the ones that work for you.
1. Canned is not banned from a healthy diet
While it’s true that canning vegetables results in a loss of nutrients, it’s often overlooked that normal cooking of the fresh varieties can result in the same amount of nutrient loss (or greater, depending on the cooking method). Commercially canned produce is usually processed within hours of picking, just like frozen produce, optimizing their nutrient content before they experience any losses from canning or cooking. While fresh produce is always ideal, the fact is that after the amount of time it spends between harvesting and reaching your grocery store, the nutrient content has already been a bit compromised anyway. The other usual concern about canned veggies is an increase in sodium, but this can be alleviated if needed by choosing a low-sodium version or by thoroughly rinsing your canned veggies before consuming.
2. Rice goes with everything
Rice is cheap, nutritious, and I can’t think of any dish I’ve combined it with that I didn’t personally like. It’s easy to prepare, too, but if waiting for water to boil drives you crazy (it happens), try making a big batch on a weekend and storing it in your refrigerator for easy re-heating. Both white and brown rice are great sources of vitamins and minerals (primarily B vitamins, magnesium, selenium, and iron), as well as carbohydrates for energy. Brown rice is also a particularly good source of fiber.
3. Meat is tough (hopefully not literally)
Depending on your personal preference for meat dishes and how often to have them, fitting them into a college student budget could be difficult or not a big deal. I’m not a red meat lover, so I usually buy frozen bags of tilapia or chicken, which tend to be less expensive per serving than fresh beef or pork. If you prefer the latter, here’s a tip: if you have time to cook the meat within a day or two (whether to eat right away or put cooked portions in the freezer), look for packages with an early “sell by” date—many stores mark down meats that are closest to this date just to get them off the shelves. Also, ground meats are incredibly easy to freeze in portions, either cooked or raw.
4. Take some responsibility off your peanut butter
As I just mentioned, meat doesn’t have to be eliminated from your diet because of price, so the stereotype of the college student who has peanut butter at least twice a day for protein doesn’t have to be true. But aside from meat, beans are a fantastic source of protein—especially when combined with rice. The amino acids in beans and the amino acids in rice (the building blocks of protein) are incomplete; however, they complement each other, meaning a meal with both items will give you a perfect protein boost. And fortunately for us, canned or dried beans are about the cheapest items to put in the pantry. (Canned chicken and fish are also handy protein sources.)
5. Crockpots are your friends
If you can’t find a used crockpot or afford a new one right now, try asking for one for Christmas. Seriously. Delicious, satisfying, comforting, home-cooked food is literally as easy as throwing ingredients into a pot and letting it simmer all day while you’re in class.
6. Apps are also your friends
It turns out buying fresh produce can be pretty complicated. First there’s choosing the “best” item (and what looks best on the outside may not be tastiest on the inside), storing it properly for max freshness, then eating it in time before it spoils. One iOS app I use often is Produce Guide. Can’t remember if kiwis are supposed to be firm or a little squishy? The kiwi entry in the guide will tell you, along with helpful information on when it’s in season (i.e. when it will be cheapest), how to store it, how long it will last, and some basic nutrition information.
7. Try something new / looks can be deceiving
This tip primarily comes from an experience I had with lettuce. (So exciting!!! Right?) I used to buy heads of iceberg lettuce because it was cheap, and I could tear it and wash it for easy salad from the fridge. I mostly ignored the pre-washed, pre-cut, pre-boxed/bagged selections of lettuce on the other end of the aisle because they were more expensive, and the “easy” factor just wasn’t enough to make up for price in my mind. But then I noticed this variety, a box of a few smaller, different heads of lettuce that not only looked more flavorful and healthy, but really wasn’t that much more expensive. So I gave it a try—as it turned out, this type of lettuce actually lasted almost twice as long in my refrigerator, provided more edible portions than the iceberg heads, and again, was more nutritious.
8. Roommates can help
Buying staple items in bulk can help cut costs, especially if those items are used by your whole household. I have some friends who all split the cost of a Sam’s Club membership so they could all save money on items like frozen chicken, pasta, rice, cereal, milk, coffee, and household supplies like toilet paper, paper towels, and laundry detergent. A basic membership is $40 a year, so if you live in a house of 4, that’s only $10 a year each—a cost easily made up for in one or two shopping trips.
9. Buy local
Contrary to popular belief, buying locally doesn’t mean you have to be a hipster with lots of money. Google some farmer’s markets in your area and investigate for yourself; cheap, healthy, fresh produce is always around if you just know where to look. And it’s always great to help support local growers.
10. Potato power
Potatoes sometimes get such a bad rap for being the primary ingredient in junk food items like chips and fries that people forget how healthy they are on their own. One large baked potato (without toppings) has just under 300 calories, about 26% of your daily recommended value for fiber, high vitamin C, high potassium, and high vitamin B6—in addition to containing other vitamins and minerals, protein, and plenty of carbs. Add some low-fat cheese for a boost of calcium and flavor, any veggie of your choice, and you’ve got a filling meal in no more than 10 minutes.
I hope some of these tips provided new ideas to try in your quest for achieving the College Student Nutrition Trifecta. Comment below if you have any other tips to share!