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Sunday, May 19, 2024
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A college student’s guide to eating well on a budget

Ditch the instant ramen and start cooking

You don’t have to know how to make filet mignon on your college dorm bed to start cooking for yourself.

As someone who never learned how to cook before living alone, I know how daunting the grocery store can be. There are so many products and labels screaming at you to buy more and save. It can feel like you’re drowning in a sea of consumerism.

Grocery shopping should be a fun way to explore and try new foods, not an overwhelming series of choices that leave you stressed over the total on the bottom of your receipt. 

Through some trial and error, I’ve actually started to enjoy my grocery shopping. Here’s how:

Be intentional with your shopping

When I first started shopping for myself, I made the mistake of going to the store without a grocery list. I couldn’t remember what food I still had at my apartment, which led to a lot of overstocking and accidental food waste. With no list to guide me, my eyes and stomach did most of the shopping. This made me more susceptible to advertising, and my wallet paid the price.

Keeping an updated grocery list reduces the time it takes to shop and narrows your purchases down to what you actually need, not just what you are craving at the moment or what label catches your eye. 

Buy more canned and frozen food 

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced shopping and cooking for myself has been food spoilage. I wanted to fuel my body with fruits and vegetables but could never use all of my fresh produce and meat before it expired. 

For a fraction of the cost, you can buy a bag of frozen mixed vegetables to steam whenever you need or a can of sliced peaches for your next snack. If you see discounted meat while shopping but don’t have the time to cook it that week, just store it in your freezer until you find the time to cook it.

If you use your freezer, you’ll never have to throw your leftovers away again. Always write the date on your food when you first store it in the fridge. If it’s been a few days, move your leftovers into the freezer instead of the garbage can. 

Get to know your core ingredients

Cooking healthy meals for yourself can be expensive if you don’t know what ingredients to buy. Listed below are a few powerhouse foods I always try to keep in my kitchen:

  • Eggs: If I could only keep one thing in my fridge, it would be eggs. Not only are they a good source of protein, but they are extremely versatile. Whether you’re making an omelet for breakfast, hard-boiling them for a salad or using them to bake, they make a great and affordable addition to anyone’s kitchen.
  • Legumes: If you want a cheap, easy and efficient meal, beans are your key to success. For around $1 per can, you can have a low-fat, nutrient-dense meal. You can use beans in a chili, paired with rice, topped over a salad or in homemade hummus. Other legumes, such as lentils and peas, also make for perfect, fiber-rich ingredients to add to any soup or stew. 
  • Rice: The world runs on rice, and so should you. Rice is a staple ingredient for countless different cuisines and makes for a great source of carbohydrates to bulk up any meal. Pair rice with a protein like beans, chicken, salmon or tuna, or mix it with some stir-fried vegetables to affordably enhance whatever you are cooking. Just don’t forget to rinse it first — Uncle Roger is always watching.
  • Bananas: Keeping fresh fruit around as a college student may sound expensive and unrealistic. You may not have the time or ability to consume everything that you buy. But with bananas, price and shelf-life is less of a concern. Whether your bunch is on the greener side or has started to ripen, bananas make for a quick, portable and potassium-rich snack.
    • If you notice some of your bananas browning, just slice them up and put them in the freezer to preserve their ripened state. These frozen banana slices are perfect for smoothies and baked oatmeal. If you want to satiate your sweet tooth, you can always turn your overripe bananas into some classic banana bread. If you’re feeling fancy, add some chocolate chips or dried cranberries. It’s a long semester — you deserve it. 

Master the art of fried rice

If there is one meal every college student should know, it’s fried rice. All you really need is leftover cooked rice, an egg or two, soy sauce and whatever vegetables or other leftovers you have laying around. 

First, add the eggs to a bowl and mix them around a little. Heat and oil your pan — or wok, if you have one — and then add your eggs. Once cooked, remove and chop your eggs — they will be back in the mix again soon. Next, add your cooked rice to the pan and let it fry for a bit before adding in your vegetables, beans, leftover meat or anything else you’d like to use up. Add the eggs back in and mix everything all together. Then, just add some soy sauce, salt and pepper to taste, and you have a well-balanced, easy and affordable meal that is fit to feed all your friends or last you many nights in the fridge.

Alex Olen is an opinion editor and can be reached at 



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