Trying to eat well in college can be challenging. Between studying, classes, sleep, and your social life, there isn’t much time for nourishment. While most students rely on the campus meal plan, other colleges also have nearby fast food joints and off-campus diners where you can grab a late-night burger or pizza.
However, all of this eating on the go can be costly, both on your budget and on your health. The Hechinger Report shows the average meal plan at most colleges ranges at around $4500 per year. Add in those extra outings to local restaurants, and the cost is even higher. And let’s face it, cafeteria-style food is not usually the healthiest choice. Even the menu items intended to be nourishing and good-for-you are generally a little blah.
The good news is you can put some extra cash back in your wallet by preparing your own food. Not only that, but there are plenty of simple and healthy recipes you can whip up on your own that will taste ten times better than anything you could get in the dining hall. Even downgrading your meal plan to a partial one and doing some part-time cooking can make a big difference.
If you want to know if making your own meals is right for you, read on to find out everything you need to prepare for college cooking.
Assess Your Kitchen Situation
If you don’t have a full or partial kitchen in your room, you need to make sure with your RA or dorm supervisor that you are allowed to cook. Some schools have strict rules about the appliances students are permitted to bring. Provided you get the green light; there are a few essential small appliances you should have on hand:
These basic tools will provide all you need to make healthy and delicious meals on the go.
Planning Your Menu
What you choose to cook is entirely up to you. If you are just learning the art of cooking, start with the basics. You can make a simple stir fry with a bag of frozen veggies and your choice of protein. Accompany this with a pot of white rice from your rice cooker and you will have leftovers for days.
An avocado and grilled cheese sandwich is simple enough to create using your hot plate and a small skillet. Throw some frozen sweet potato fries in the toaster oven, and you will have a healthy diner-style meal in minutes—at a fraction of the cost.
If you want to serve up some comfort food, try making this crockpot chili and serve it with garlic toast. It will feed a crowd if you feel like doing some in room-entertaining. Your friends will thank you for the hearty homemade meal.
For quick and healthy breakfasts, whip up some smoothies in your smoothie maker to get your day off to a great start.
Don’t forget you can use your toaster oven to make delicious main dishes like roasted chicken breasts or pesto salmon. Paired with quinoa from your rice cooker, you can have a meal in under an hour that will rival the best restaurant dishes. Add some frozen steamed veggies to round it all out.
Keeping some granola and Greek yogurt on hand can help with any late-night snack cravings. If salty snacks are your thing, it’s simple to make these toaster oven veggie nachos when the mood strikes.
Once you have compiled a list of recipes you want to try, print them out or save them to a file, so you have them on hand.
After you have chosen a few tasty dishes to try, it’s time to make a shopping list. Carefully look over the ingredients you will need and write each one down. Make sure you don’t go overboard. You likely have limited space to store dry goods, and dorm-sized refrigerators don’t hold a lot. You won’t want to see your hard-earned dollars go to waste because of a lack of space.
Here are a few money-saving tips to help you keep more cash in your pocket at the supermarket:
Don’t Shop When You’re Hungry
You’ve probably read this so many times but there’s a good reason experts warn against shopping on an empty stomach. It’s too easy to splurge on high-calorie junk foods when you are hungry. Not only that, but people who shop when they are hungry generally spend more than those who eat a healthy meal before their trip to the grocery store. If you want to keep your budget under control, fill up before you leave home.
Buy Frozen Produce
Today’s frozen produce is picked when it as at the peak level of ripeness and flash frozen to retain as many nutrients as possible. In fact, frozen vegetables are just as healthy as their fresh counterparts. Not only that, but they are generally cheaper. Just be sure you have enough freezer space to accommodate them. The same goes for frozen fruit, which is ideal for making smoothies or as a mix-in to oatmeal or yogurt.
There are a couple of exceptions to this, of course. Avocado is best purchased fresh, and fresh bananas are the ultimate grab-and-go convenience food.
Super-Budgeting Tip: Don’t Forget the Humble Potato
Baked potatoes can be easily cooked in the microwave, the slow cooker, and the toaster oven for a fast lunch or snack. They can be topped with any number of other foods for a filling and nutritious meal. A ten-pound bag of spuds will run you under four dollars in most cases. If you truly need to watch your pennies, potatoes are a powerhouse food that will stretch your food budget while ensuring you get adequate nutrition.
Purchase Store Brands
Most store brands taste just as good as name brand foods and typically cost 25 percent less. Unless you can’t live without a particular brand, staples like bread crumbs, pasta, canned goods, and spices are just as tasty and will help you save.
You don’t need to spend hours clipping coupons (although you can) to cash in on the savings they offer. Apps like Ibotta and Coupons.com can help you save in the checkout line. Don’t forget that most stores also have their own apps where you will find deals and savings. If you find a product you absolutely love, check the manufacturer’s website for coupons. If there are none available, a quick email to customer service may result in some high-value coupons just for the asking.
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