How to eat healthy as a student on a budget

There is a recurring misconception that college students are doomed to a diet consisting of ready-made microwavable meals, ramen noodles, boxed cereal or daily runs to Starbucks, McDonalds and Tim Horton. Although diet was a big part of my lifestyle back home in Jamaica and I tried to have healthy, balanced meals daily, when I decided to go back to school I pretty much made up my mind that my healthy diet would have to take a back seat while I study as I would need to save money to pay for school and I also wouldn’t have time to entertain the kitchen. As a result, for the first few months I ate boxed cereal and pb&j sandwiches like it was nobody’s business. I was going through food like water as I was not satisfied and had to be constantly eating. I was also emotionally eating, perhaps as a result of being homesick, but I could scarily go through a bottle of peanut butter in two days and don’t get me started on chocolate. What happened in no time was my energy started zapping and I was piling on the pounds at an alarming rate. I mean, I am no longer a teenage who could eat cake for lunch and still be “modelesque” with endless energy.

I started to be mindful of what I was eating and how much, ensuring that I was having balanced meals and I wasn’t depriving myself of essential nutrients. Planning meals was a chore initially until I developed a system that worked for me, kept me out of the kitchen as much as possible without compromising my diet and was budget friendly (I started saving a lot more on food actually). It is not impossible, heck it is not even hard and will be worth it.

Establish needs and preferences

Plan your meals

My tip: Spend a few minutes before grocery shopping and think of meals you will like to prepare for the week and use that as a guide to prepare your grocery list which will save you time in the grocery store as well.

Shop smartly

On a student’s budget, one cannot afford to splurge (shoes may be an exemption). What doesn’t work is buying tons of vegetables and fruits that end up going bad and have to be thrown out. On a whole, we waste too much food but as college students, conservation is key. That is where lists and budgets come in. You can do one of two things; prepare the budget, know how much you want to spend per week on food and then prepare your grocery list based on the budget. You can also make your grocery list and then budget accordingly. For me, I go with option one. I know how much I want to spend on food monthly so I prepare my grocery list to meet both my budgetary and dietary goals.

Shop deals

In order to stay with my budget, I have to be creative in my shopping. Comparative shopping is a big deal for me. When making grocery lists for the week, I browse different grocery stores and see what they have on deals for the week, especially with fruits and vegetables and then I plan my meals around those items for the week. If there is a great deal on spinach then I already know I will be making quite a few spinach omelettes or quiches for that week. Deal shopping helps me plan meals as well as save money. Another way to shop smartly is to utilize fruits and vegetables in season. For hot summer months when fresh fruits are plentiful and affordable, I buy them in abundance and make jams and preserves like this super easy strawberry chia jam:

Strawberry chia jam on banana oat pancakes

I also make smoothies and sorbets as well as homemade popsicles that pair amazingly with hot summer days. For the winter months, when fresh fruits are not as readily available and tend to get expensive due to the decrease in quantity, I use fruits that had been frozen in from summer. Otherwise, purchasing flash frozen fruits in grocery stores is a great idea as these fruits are frozen with their nutrients intact and there is even some debate that flash frozen fruits are more nutritious than fresh fruits.

Farmer’s Markets

During the months of May- October, farmer’s markets are in full swing and you can get fresh, organic produce at great prices with the added bonus of meeting interesting people as well. University of Toronto holds a weekly farmer’s market on their campus grounds as well as using services such as Good food box.

Meal Prep

There are so many ways this can be done and I have seen some dedicated people who spend all day Sunday making meals for the week in lovely Tupperware and packing them neatly in their refridgerators organized by meal times, snacks included. For those with the time and dedication for that I applaud you. I personally do not see myself spending my Sundays cooking all day as my ideal Sunday is spent outside when I don’t have assignments to do.

I do some meal prep however but just enough for me to limit my time spent in the kitchen during the week. I tend to have the least amount of time in the mornings because of my early morning gym sessions so my go to breakfast used to be boxed cereal and milk with fruit. In an effort to limit the truck loads of sugars in boxed cereals, and after trying many so called low sugar options and being disappointed, I decided to make my own. I love granola and so I researched homemade granola recipes and found this super easy one by certified health coach, Elizabeth Rider https://www.elizabethrider.com/easy-healthy-homemade-granola-recipe/. This will last me for the week or at least for the very busy mornings which I pair with almond milk or Greek yogurt and fruit to make a parfait.

My breakfast parfait

Stews

I love a good stew, winter time is notorious for stews but I can do stews all year round. My mom is vegan and so I have experience experimenting with peas and beans and coming up with delicious recipes such as coconut curried chickpeas, lentil stews or three bean stews. While I don’t cook a lot of meat, I love chicken (which is probably the reason I am not vegan) and some traditional Jamaican stew peas with chicken and coconut milk has all the great feels.

Tip: If you think stews are bland, don’t be stingy on seasonings whether dried or powdered, ginger adds a great flavour with anything curried and leave the stew on low for a couple hours to really release the flavours.

Coconut curried chickpeas dish

The great thing about stews is that it can last all week! So if I make a good stew on the weekend, I potentially have dinner for the entire week and now we have breakfast and dinner for the week. For lunch, depending on the day I will make omelettes with bagels or wraps and on days I am not home to make lunch, I will bring my stew with me for lunch and make my omelette or wrap for dinner. On average, I am in the kitchen preparing meals once a day which is good enough for me.

Treat yourself

Tasty energy balls

Make meals fun. Savor the moment

Stay accountable

It is not impossible for college students to maintain a healthy diet, all it takes is the mindset and anything can be achieved. Freshman 50 be gone!

Island girl from Jamaica on an adventure. Follow me as I navigate this crazy life.

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