Budget-Friendly Food Tips for College Students

College is great, but college is also hard. And in between juggling classes, homework, projects, internships, jobs, and activities, you’re also learning to take care of yourself for the first time. Most college students are learning to do this on a serious budget, too. The stereotypes of the broke college student surviving off of packets of ramen noodles and endless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are rooted in truth. However, even the most cash-strapped students can do better than eating ramen three meals a day for four years. It is possible to eat healthy food and stay on a tight budget. Not only will this be good for your health, but it will be knowledge you can draw on throughout your adult life. The following tips and life hacks will help you maximize your food dollars and eat well while navigating your college years.

  • Buy a microwave steamer. Along with using it to steam vegetables (which are necessary to eating healthily!), you can use it to steam fish and other proteins. Microwave steamers are inexpensive and can be found at any big-box store.
  • Invest in a rice cooker. You can buy an electric rice cooker for less than $20 at any discount store. This small investment will significantly increase the number and kinds of meals you can produce. Rice cookers make rice, of course, but you can also add veggies and proteins and turn out simple one-pot dinners. Rice cookers also make great polenta and grits and let you “boil” eggs.
  • You’ll need glass storage containers. Glass storage containers are the workhorses of any kitchen, especially if your kitchen consists of a shelf in your dorm room. You can use them for storing leftovers, transporting lunch, and heating food up in the microwave. They are also great for corralling packets of food (like oatmeal or ramen). Storing your food in glass containers will also ensure that bugs and other critters can’t get to it.
  • Build a collection of spices. When you are working with a limited budget, limited appliances, and limited storage space, the truth is that you’re going to eat a lot of the same food, but a great selection of spices allows you to vary your menu while keeping your food purchases basic and cheap. For instance, a simple egg dish can take on flavors of the French countryside, a Japanese noodle shop, or the spiciness of the Mediterranean depending on how you season the eggs. It’s easy to build up a good collection of spices at the dollar store.
  • Learn to meal-plan. Meal plans for college students have double meanings. If you live on campus, you usually have to pay for a preset number of meals at the dining hall that are supposed to last throughout the semester. Meal planning, however, is deciding what food you will buy, prepare yourself, and eat throughout the week.
  • Be realistic about dining out. You probably aren’t going to eat every meal at home. Maybe you do eat some meals in the dining hall, work at a restaurant and eat dinner there, or have a standing Saturday morning brunch date with your friends. Be honest and account for this eating out in your budget and your food shopping.
  • Look at your schedule and think about when you will honestly have time to cook and what days you leave for your first class at 8 a.m. and don’t return until 10 that night. Figure out what foods work best for the days when your schedule is packed: Don’t plan labor-intensive meals for a day when you’ll barely be home. Those are the days you should lean into leftovers, things that are quick to make, and highly portable foods.
  • Snacks are important. If you don’t plan for them, you will 100% end up spending money on vending machines. Vending machine snacks are expensive and not even that good. When you plan your meals, plan for snacks; make sure you have good grab-and-go options that you like.
  • Plan two simple breakfasts, two simple lunches, and two simple dinners to see you through the week. This way, you aren’t stuck eating the same thing every day, but buying groceries will be simple. It will also help you cut down on food waste.
  • Embrace coupons. Using coupons might seem like a mom thing to do, but it’s a great frugal life hack that will maximize your grocery dollars. Does using coupons make you think of sifting through newspapers? You can do that, too, but you can also find plenty of coupons and cash-back deals online or through apps.
  • Join loyalty programs at any grocery store you shop at. Loyalty programs usually offer access to exclusive discounts, including electronic coupons and loyalty points.
  • Download the app! Many grocery stores now have apps you can use to access their sale pages, easily download coupons, and even build your shopping list.
  • Explore printable coupon websites. Try sites like Coupons.com for printable coupons. Remember to focus on items you know you like and will use.
  • Did you know you can earn money by shopping? Apps like Rakuten let you upload your receipts and earn cash back on what you purchased.
  • Build a pantry. The more you meal-plan, grocery-shop, and cook, the more you will learn what foods to keep on hand, which will allow you to whip up nutritious, fast, easy meals on the fly. The ability to quickly make a meal from things you have on hand will keep you from blowing the budget on a midnight pizza delivery.
  • Start building your pantry with canned goods. Keeping canned beans, canned tomatoes (all kinds!), and canned tuna on your shelves gives you easy building blocks for simple, fast meals.
  • Shelf-stable foods are great to help build out your menus. Popcorn, jerky, nut butters, cheese crisps, ramen noodles, pasta, and oatmeal last forever.
  • You’ll want to keep some perishable food on hand. Bread, onions, eggs, bananas, sweet potatoes, and cheese are all flexible ingredients you can use to make a variety of meals.
  • Need some meal ideas? Bean quesadillas, ramen with onions and egg flavored with soy sauce, oatmeal with a banana, or a microwaved sweet potato are quick meals you can make from your list of basics.
  • Buy single-serving foods. Most money-saving tips focus on buying in bulk, but when you’re only feeding yourself and dealing with limited pantry and fridge space, that can lead to a lot of waste. Great single-serve items to keep on hand include nut butters, hummus, guacamole, jerky, cheese sticks, and chips. These are all things that you can quickly grab and go, making them easy to eat on busy days, and you won’t end up with moldy things going bad in your fridge.
  • Shopping at a salad bar is a great trick for when you need a little bell pepper or a small amount of mushrooms for a recipe. Just make sure to choose what you add carefully to take full advantage of weight-based pricing without paying more than you should.
  • Never, ever shop for groceries while you’re hungry.
  • Make a grocery list and stick to it. Start by looking at your meal plan and writing down everything you need that you don’t have. Then, make sure you have enough snacks, too.
  • Know your budget. Start by tracking every dollar you spend on food (including takeout, delivery, fast food, groceries, and vending machines). Now decide how much you want to spend on food and plan accordingly.
  • Never buy food just because you have a coupon or something’s on sale. Know what you love, and use deals and coupons to stock up on items you’d be buying anyway.
  • Use cash! It will help you stick to your budget.
  • Times can be hard when your student aid runs low and your class schedule precludes working a lot of hours. The sad fact is that millions of American college students go hungry each year. If you’re really struggling, reach out to your school and ask for assistance. Many schools now offer food pantries for students in need. You might also be able to pick up a side hustle, like babysitting or driving for a ride-sharing service, to get some extra money.

Being a cash-strapped college is tough under normal circumstances, but when a financial emergency happens it can be even harder. If you’re facing an unexpected financial emergency, such as an unexpected car repair or an accident that has kept you from working, it is important to understand the different alternative lending options out there. When traditional bank loans aren’t an option due to no or poor credit, unsecured personal loans or title secured loans may be a good option for your unique financial emergency.

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