Eating Well: Student Nutrition on a Budget

We all know that what we eat has a major effect on our overall well-being.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shares that people who eat healthily tend to live longer and have a lower risk of serious illness, such as heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

Most of us don’t have a spare $15 to spend on goji berries to maximize our health. And for the student population, worrying about the new superfood trend may be the least of their problems.

Studies found that over 30% of students are food insecure, which means they aren’t getting enough to eat.

So how can we help our young people stretch their limited budgets and maximize the nutritional content of their food?

This article will consider what a healthy diet actually looks like, offer cheap and nutritious options for all major food groups, and provide top supermarket shopping strategies and tips to make your food go further.

What does a healthy diet look like?

The USDA has created a reference called “My Plate” to demonstrate what a healthy, balanced diet looks like.

The idea behind My Plate is that it creates a quick visual showing what foods should be on your plate to maximize your nutrition and health. About half the plate should be fruits and vegetables, with the two remaining quarters split between grains and protein.

Image showing a plate divided into different food group sections

A healthy diet with limited processed food is essential for keeping the body and brain in tip-top condition. This is vital for students who are often combining a rigorous study schedule with sport and other activities.

Food is made up of three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

Protein, which includes meat, fish, dairy products, tofu, and beans, is crucial for growing and maintaining muscle.

Carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, provide an easily-accessible energy source.

And healthy fats, including avocados, nuts, and seeds, are essential for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, brain development, and managing inflammation.

Micronutrients, which include vitamins and minerals such as calcium and vitamin C, are also crucial for health.

Incorporating whole grains, healthy sources of proteins and fats, and lots of fruit and vegetables into your diet will cover all your micronutrient requirements. Trying to eat a broad range of these foods will ensure you get all the vitamins and minerals you need.

If you can, try to “eat the rainbow,” which means trying lots of fruits and veggies of different colors. But, remember, all fruits and veggies are amazing for your health, so don’t get too worried if you can’t afford everything.

Infographic showing different colored fruits and vegetables

Eating a healthful diet like this means you shouldn't need any expensive supplements. The exception is people following a vegan diet, who should supplement with vitamin B12.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health makes the following suggestions for good value, nutritious food:

Protein

Cheap and nutritious sources of protein include:

  • All types of legumes, such as beans, peas, and lentils
  • Lean meat, such as ground turkey
  • Skin-on chicken thighs (these are much cheaper than skinless chicken breasts, and you can remove the skin before cooking)
  • Canned fish, such as tuna, salmon, and sardines
  • Cottage cheese
  • Tofu or tempeh
  • Eggs
  • Peanut butter

Carbohydrates

Cheap, nutritious carbohydrate options include:

  • Whole-grain pasta
  • Brown rice
  • Traditional or slow-cook oats
  • Dried whole grains, such as bulgur wheat, couscous, and millet
  • Generic, high-fiber, low-sugar cereals, such as plain shredded wheat and bran cereals
  • Starches, like squash, sweet potatoes, and beets

Produce

The best option for produce is local and seasonal, which is often also the cheapest. This could include:

  • Fresh carrots
  • Fresh apples
  • Fresh bananas
  • Leafy greens, such as kale, collards, and spinach
  • Fresh broccoli or cauliflower
  • Any fresh produce that’s on sale
  • Frozen, unsweetened fruit
  • Tinned fruit (in fruit juice, not sugar syrup)
  • Frozen or canned vegetables without added salt

Healthy snacks

Fruits and vegetables make a great snack choice. Other healthy options include:

  • Dried popcorn kernels, which you can pop at home on the stove
  • Unsweetened apple sauce
  • Small handfuls of nuts, seeds, dried fruit, or trail mix
  • String cheese or low-sugar yogurts

Smart strategies for savvy supermarket spending

Let’s look at ten strategies you can use to save money and shop efficiently at the grocery store.

List of top tips for supermarket shopping

1. Make a list

Our first strategy for smart shopping is to make a list. Without a list, you’ll likely find yourself browsing the aisles and grabbing whatever takes your fancy at the time (see point number 9).

Planning out what you’re going to purchase before you hit the shops means you can make sure you’re using up what you already have at home, so there’s less wasted food.

It also means you make sure that what you buy actually comes together into a nutritious, well-balanced meal instead of a random assortment of food.

Once you’ve created your list, make sure you stick to it. Some supermarkets allow you to shop online and then pick up your purchases at the grocery store for minimal cost.

If you’re someone prone to impulse buying, this small cost may well be worth it for the money you’d save on things you don’t need.

Finally, know your budget and consider using a calculator as you shop. This ensures there are no nasty surprises at the checkout.

2. Buy in bulk

If you use certain grocery staples regularly, it can often be wise to buy them in bulk. While the initial cost is more, the amount per meal often works out cheaper than buying smaller amounts.

Grocery stores will often show the cost per lb on product pricing tickets, so it’s easy to identify the best-value option. Follow our tips below for storing bulk-buy staples correctly, so they stay fresh while you use them up.

3. Don’t be fooled by big brand labels

We all have our brand favorites that we know and love. Brands matter to us because we associate them with a certain level of quality. They may also evoke positive emotions if they remind us of a favorite childhood meal, for example.

But don’t let big brands pull the marketing wool over your eyes. Read the ingredient and nutrition information of off-label brands, and you’ll often find they’re very similar.

We’re not suggesting you have to give up branded products entirely, but it’s worth considering alternatives.

Choose supermarket-branded products if you’ll save a lot compared to the more well-known options or for products you’re less fussy about.

4. Hunt for bargains

Most grocery stores have a discount cart filled with products nearing their sell-by dates. It’s always worth checking to see if there's anything on your list and grabbing a bargain.

Be flexible about your produce choices, and switch to alternatives if there’s something that’s particularly good value.

For example, if you’re supposed to have carrots for dinner but broccoli’s on sale, feel free to make the change. Always check that it works for your budget, though. There’s no point swapping in aging broccoli if fresh carrots are cheaper.

5. Go meatless

Most of us know that if we’re serious about maximizing our nutrition, we should be reducing our meat intake. Try going meatless for a couple of days a week and see how it impacts your health and wallet.

Canned or dried beans or lentils make a great sub in dishes like chili, tacos, or spaghetti bolognese. Tofu works well in stir-fries and curries.

If the thought of no meat is just too hard to stomach, treat the meat more as a condiment. Use smaller amounts for flavor and then bulk out the dish with plant-based proteins to save money and boost nutrition.

6. Choose foods that are filling

The other great thing about beans is that they are full of fiber. Fiber is important for keeping you feeling full and supporting digestion.

Infographic showing examples of fiber-rich foods

It can also help regulate your blood sugar levels, meaning you avoid the hangry rollercoaster and won’t go searching for more food to fill you up, blowing your healthy meal plan and your budget.

Fruits and veggies are full of fiber, as are legumes like lentils, black beans, and chickpeas. Most whole grains have plenty of fiber, as do things like oats, quinoa, and air-popped popcorn. Nuts, seeds, and sweet potatoes are also excellent choices.

7. Don’t forget condiments

Condiments like salt, pepper, spices, soy sauce, and mustard can make a huge difference to the flavor of even the blandest of foods.

Plus, they store well, last for a long time, and a little goes a long way. Invest in some key spices such as cumin, smoked paprika, chili powder, and curry powder to add to a variety of soups and stews.

Dried herbs such as oregano or a seasoning blend are also worth having. If you find discounted fresh herbs, chop them and add them to olive oil, then freeze them in an ice cube tray. You can then use a cube to add flavor to sauteed or roasted veggies.

8. Check use-by dates

While you’re grocery shopping, make sure to check products for use-by dates. If you’re on a tight budget, it’s important that everything you buy gets used and isn’t wasted.

Pick products that will stay fresh at least until the day you’re planning to use them. If that’s not possible, consider how you can flex your plan to either use the product sooner or replace it with something that has a longer shelf life.

You can switch most proteins and carbohydrates around fairly easily — try chicken instead of pork, for example, or rice instead of pasta.

Starchy vegetables, like potatoes, are also easy to sub — try sweet potatoes, beets, squash, or parsnips. Feel free to choose whichever fruits and vegetables look the freshest and offer the best value for money.

9. Don’t shop on an empty stomach

As we mentioned earlier, do not expect to shop in any kind of rational manner if you’re hungry.

Hunger is the way your body signals to your brain that it needs energy and, if you’re super hungry, your brain will demand energy in its most readily-available form — sugar.

We all know what happens next. Suddenly, candy, cookies, trail bars, and sugary cereals seem to be the only thing you can focus on, and you find yourself at the cash register buying foods with low nutritional value and a high price tag.

This goes for emotional hunger too. Don’t shop when you’re bored, angry, or sad unless you are content to blow your budget on Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food.

10. Consider supermarket alternatives

Supermarkets can be expensive, so it’s worth considering alternatives.

Bulk food stores, like Costco, can be worth the membership if you want to stock up on staples (especially if you can share the cost with a roommate).

Smaller Mom and Pop grocery stores can often be more reasonably priced, as can fresh fruit and vegetable markets, so it’s worth checking out options in your local area.

Finally, international grocery shops can be a good place to stock up on rice, ramen noodles, spices, and condiments such as soy or fish sauce.

Top tips to make your food go further

Let’s break down seven tips you can use to help make your food go further.

List of tips to make your food go further

1. Use up what you have

If you’re eating on a budget, wasting food is like throwing money down the drain. Make sure you use up what you have in your cupboards before you go shopping for new things.

And if you do find older fruits and vegetables lurking in your fridge, don’t immediately throw them away. Wilted veggies are great chopped up and added to some stock to make a soup or stew. Adding in some canned beans provides protein and additional fiber that will keep you feeling full.

Soup can also last for up to five days in the fridge and freezes easily, so it’s a great, inexpensive choice to keep you feeling satisfied for pennies.

If aging fruit is the issue, try using it to make crumbles, pies, cobblers, or smoothies. Or simmer it with a little water until it softens down to a thick sauce. Add honey or cinnamon for sweetness, then enjoy it on top of porridge or with some yogurt.

And don’t throw away blackened bananas — they’re perfect for making banana bread or muffins.

2. Learn basic cooking skills

Taking the time to learn a few basic cooking skills can really help stretch your budget. Cooking at home can save you a significant amount of money on takeout, plus it’s much healthier.

Developing your skills will also build your confidence in the kitchen, and you’ll find it easier to know what foods can be subbed for others when out shopping. That means you can go on the hunt for bargains.

If you’re interested in developing new skills, you could also consider taking up gardening. Growing your own food can save you a lot of money, and you don’t need a lot of space. Get started with easy projects like herbs, cut-and-come-again lettuce, bush beans, or tomatoes.

3. Store your food correctly

It’s essential that you store your food correctly to make sure it stays as fresh as possible while you’re waiting to eat it. In the U.S., the average person wastes 21% of the food they buy, and 2/3 of that is due to food spoiling before it’s eaten.

Not storing food correctly, misjudging food needs, and lack of visibility are the main reasons we waste so much. Making a plan when you shop reduces the risk of food waste, as does learning how and where to store your produce.

All meat and dairy should be refrigerated, and most fruit and vegetables will last longer in the fridge. Store raw meat and fish on the bottom shelf to make sure their juices don’t drip on other food.

Potatoes should be kept out of the fridge in a cool, dark place. Bananas cause other fruits to ripen more quickly, so keep them separate. Keep your bulk-buy grains in airtight containers in a cool, dry cupboard or pantry as moisture can make them spoil quicker.

Storing carrots, celery, and herbs like parsley standing upright in a glass of water will keep them fresher. Change the water every day. Wash and dry your salad greens, then store them in an open container covered with damp paper towels — they need air and moisture to stay crisp.

Make sure you check your fridge and cupboards daily and bring things that need eating to the front, so it’s easy to see what needs to be used up soon.

Infographic showing length of time foods can be stored in the fridge

4. Use your freezer

Your freezer is excellent for ensuring you’re not wasting money by throwing out food. Use your freezer to store any discounted products you found at the supermarket with a short shelf life, but you’re not quite ready to use them yet.

You can also use your freezer to store leftovers — just make sure to label your containers with the dish name, portion size, and date to help with future meal planning.

If you find you’re often throwing away fruits and veggies that you don’t get around to eating, consider buying frozen versions. Frozen produce is often just as nutritious as fresh since it’s frozen right after picking. That means the vitamins and minerals are retained.

5. Share with friends

If you’re living with a roommate or a group of friends, it can be worth working out what you can share.

Pooling condiments like sauces and spices means you can invest in a few more choices without much additional expense. Plus, you can split the cost of cheaper, bulk-buy items together.

You can also share food or ingredients that you have leftover, reducing your waste. Just make sure you clarify what’s up for grabs and what isn’t, so there are no arguments when you find that someone’s chowed down on that banana you were saving for baking.

6. Eat mindfully

It can take up to 20 minutes for the brain to register that the body is full. Allowing your brain to recognize when you’re full means you can reduce your portion size, which helps your money go further. So, make sure to eat your meals mindfully.

Eating mindfully means taking your time to sit down and eat without distractions such as the TV or your phone. Make sure to chew your food properly, as it’s important for digestion. To ensure that you do this, put your knife and fork down between mouthfuls.

7. Don’t forget to hydrate

Often we might mistake hunger for thirst. So, it’s essential to make sure you’re hydrating regularly throughout the day.

The most healthy and cheapest choice is plain water, but tea, coffee, smoothies, and milk all count toward your daily fluid intake.

The recommended amount of water you should aim for is about four to six cups every day. This can differ depending on your size, the weather, and if you’re doing a lot of exercises.

Intelligent food choices maximize your budget

Creating healthy, filling meals on a small budget can seem challenging, but it is possible.

By avoiding big brands, limiting junk food, stocking up on cheap, nutritious staples, and learning a few basic cooking skills, it’s far easier to make your money go further.

In this article, we’ve looked at what to include in a healthy student diet and offered some key strategies to help you stretch your budget while out shopping. Plus, we’ve shown you how to get the most out of your food at home by storing it correctly and minimizing waste.

If you want to learn more about saving as a student, check out our guide about saving for and in college.

about the author

Marc Mezzacca
Marc Mezzacca is CEO of CouponFollow, a consumer savings engine that surfaces popular coupons. He has been in the coupon and deals industry for over a decade with a deep interest in evolving e-commerce technologies.