Eating Healthy in College on a Budget

Posted on Nov 14 2012 - 12:01am by Demelza Young

I remember one day in university I walked into a friend’s dorm room to help him unpack and sort some different groceries he’d brought from home.  In particular, I recall several very large bags of rice.  It actually might be more prudent to call them sacks of rice.  While it did seem a bit odd at first, he explained to me that he was trying to save money.  He’d downsized his meal plan at the university, and was supplementing it with cheaper (but still healthy) foods like rice and oatmeal.

My best friend is still in college and she and her husband, similarly, try eating pretty healthily on a budget.  My friend loves fresh fruit, but she doesn’t buy it very often because she’s usually the only one who eats it.  She doesn’t want her produce to go bad before she can eat it all, so she mainly purchases frozen fruit.  She also tends to visit the store only once every two weeks, so she saves a lot by buying cost efficient, nutritious foods in bulk such as whole grain pasta and potatoes.

As you probably noticed, my two friends live very different lives but they both strive for the same thing – eating healthy on a college budget.  Eating healthily on a college budget doesn’t have to be much different from healthy eating on any other budget.  It still helps to plan out your meals so you’ll know what’s available and so you can keep yourself on track.  Many college students find themselves eating out or at fast food restaurants simply because they don’t plan their meals ahead of time.  While I wouldn’t say that there are “good” and “bad” foods, exactly, some are definitely more nutritious and nutrient-dense than others.  The foresight to toss a sandwich, bag of crudités, and some hummus in your bag gives you a healthier alternative for when you get hungry as opposed to the less nutritious options provided by a vending machine.

When it comes to which foods you might want to keep on hand in your dorm room, you can consult this healthy shopping list.  Try to include foods that can serve multiple purposes (especially if they have a limited shelf life), such as frozen vegetables that can be added to pasta or used in soup, or grilled chicken strips (or vegetarian grillers strips) that can be used on a salad or in a tortilla wrap.  If you have a mini fridge, you can easily store lettuce and vegetables for making a quick salad as well as healthy protein-rich foods like yogurt and string cheese that you can pack to eat on the go.  I would also recommend that you skip buying drinks like soda, juice, and sports drinks and instead invest in a pitcher that will filter water for you (this was such a life saver for me).  This way, you won’t need to buy bottled water and you will not only save money but also reduce waste when you use a reusable water bottle.  Another great tip is to use coupons, compare prices, and look at store sale ads.  It’s understandable that, as a student, you likely feel pretty strapped for time, but if you carry nonperishable snacks with you and give yourself some time every weekend to go shopping, you will not only have food that you enjoy but that’s also good for you.

I mentioned this in several of my other articles, but one of the best ways to save money is to buy certain items in bulk.  While ramen noodles seem to be the college cliché go-to food, they aren’t very healthy for you (and they certainly aren’t very filling).  It’s also true that colleges host lots of events where free food is offered, but while this may mean good things for your wallet the options aren’t always as healthy as they could be.  Sometimes it’s best to forego the pizza and ice cream and to prep your own meal at home (or in your dorm).

Meal plans can be a little tricky because you have to do a little investigating to figure out where the most nutritious options are, but if you do have a meal plan, you should use it!  The food’s already paid for.  Most colleges have websites where you can peruse the menus and nutritional information of various campus eateries so that you can make healthful decisions.  Of course, sometimes it can be monotonous to eat at the same places every day, so when you’re looking for variety you might consider having a potluck dinner with your friends.  Each person can be designated to bring a component, such as the pasta, the meat, the vegetables, or dessert.  You could also see whether your roommate would be open to cooking one night and then switching with you to cook another night.

Something important to think about is what “healthy” really means to you.  Some people decide that it’s important to them to buy organic foods, or at least the “dirty dozen,” and others find they don’t care so much about whether a product is organic but they do care whether their coffee is Fair Trade.   Maybe your definition of healthy is trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet, so you plan more vegetarian meals for yourself and spend less on meat and seafood.  Once you figure out your definition of healthy, it’s easy to stick to a budget while still eating right.


Demelza Young is an alumni of Northern Kentucky University. She currently enjoys volunteering her time in her local community, reviewing online content with her cat, and sharing quality recipes.

26 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Elizabeth - Water Rolls Uphill November 14, 2012 at 9:06 am - Reply

    My eating choices have evolved over the years.  While I do my best to follow a whole and natural foods diet, I do sometimes stumble.  It's a process, but buying in bulk and using an organic produce/dairy/meat delivery service has really worked for us and actually cut our grocery bill.  I hope that my kids learn to eat and budget well following our example.

  2. Danielle Meek November 14, 2012 at 9:11 am - Reply

    Thanks for the info! I have a friend still in college, I'll definitely share your post with her!

  3. Jenn November 14, 2012 at 9:17 am - Reply

    I totally agree that you can eat healthy on a budget. There are some great ideas here!

  4. Pam November 14, 2012 at 9:34 am - Reply

    Great information. I have never heard of the dirty dozen before. I need to print that out and re-think buying organic when it comes to those fruits and veggies.
    My son did a lot of fast food throughtout college but he did try and choose healthier choices when doing so. Now that he is out in the real world he is constantly looking for healthy food choices.
    Thanks for this post…great food for thought.

  5. Jamilee November 14, 2012 at 10:23 am - Reply

    These are good suggestions for everyone on a tight budget, which is pretty much everyone. THanks for the helpful tips. I know when I plan things out they go and taste a lot better:)

  6. Nickida November 14, 2012 at 10:54 am - Reply

    Great information.  It's hard to eat healthy in college because you are on such a tight budget.

  7. Sam November 14, 2012 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    Stay away from Ramen! They use a wax on the noodles that you can't digetst for days. Thanks for the great article!

  8. Suzi Satterfield November 14, 2012 at 11:55 pm - Reply

    I do remember college life and living in the dorm.  Fortunately, I'd already decided that I hated ramen noodles… and I ended up living off of ham sandwiches on honey wheat bread with a hunk of mild cheddar cheese and baby carrots on the side.  (Working at a grocery store helped.  I was there constantly, so I had no excuse for buying convenience crap.)  It can be done!

  9. Dusty @To the Moon and Back November 15, 2012 at 8:30 am - Reply

    Great tips and advice!  When I was in college, I had a meal plan, but I also worked in a restaurant waiting tables, so I ate at work there more often than not.  Talk about unhealthy! 

  10. Annabelle November 15, 2012 at 9:42 am - Reply

    I have been tweaking my shopping/eating habits this year, and I have finally found that my family is eating MUCH better for the same price as loading up on fast, easy processed foods. It does take more time (my poor husband waits so patiently while I gaze at labels and unit prices in the grocery store) but when it comes to your health, it's well worth that extra time. Thanks for sharing!!

  11. Mary November 15, 2012 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    Great advice!  I wish I would have had access to this article 15 years ago when I went to college!  Taco Bell, Ramen Noodles and the occasional KFC filled my belly and I think it's still there to this day (oops).  Still, this is great information for anyone wanting to eat on a budget. 

  12. Monique November 15, 2012 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    Great information, thanks for sharing!

  13. Summer Davis November 15, 2012 at 3:18 pm - Reply

    One of my biggest pet peeves is someone saying that they can't afford to eat healthy.  If you trade your cookies and crackers in for fresh fruit, veggies, and homemade dips, it doesn't GET any healthier, and WILL lower your grocery budget.  I used to spend over $250/week on groceries for our family of 4.  We became a family of 5 and by the time the baby was ready for solids, we had eliminated grains, dairy, and refined sugar from our diets.  We now spend about $200/week on groceries and are saving about $200/month.  We're healthier now than we have ever been and we spend less.  Eating healthy is NOT expensive.  Unfortunately, variety is.  You just have to learn to be creative with what you can afford.

  14. Bobbie November 15, 2012 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    I always love reading your posts! They are so well prepared and informational! I am a veggie eater, so more often than not I am buying frozen veggies. Then I just fix a serving for lunch and go about my day. I always try to talk to my girls about healthier food choices. With Roxy going to college in a couple of years this is definitely a post I will be directing her to read!

  15. Heather November 15, 2012 at 3:36 pm - Reply

    Great post! I know it's not easy to eat on a budget and being in college is even harder!

  16. Desiree November 15, 2012 at 8:26 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for this post. I have a cousin who's a freshman at KU this year. I'm passing this article over to her. 

  17. Motherhood on the Rocks November 15, 2012 at 9:03 pm - Reply

    I wish I would've read this when I was in college. I was one of those eating crap all day. 🙂

  18. Alaina Bullock November 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    I remember all of the junk food I lived off of when I was in college!  It was hard to cook for just one person, plus hard to budget so I could have!  You made some wonderful points here that can truly help students!

  19. Melinda Dunne December 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm - Reply

    Thanks for posting! I think these are great tips overall but they are perfect for college students.

  20. jheylo December 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    i am one guilty person. i want to lose weight really bad 🙁 i need healthy food

  21. Maria Iemma April 11, 2013 at 5:50 pm - Reply

    Our eldest daughter is graduating high school this year and going to college in the fall.  Thank you for the tips — college is so expensive and we need to save money where ever we can. Thanks.

  22. Elle Briarson April 17, 2013 at 11:49 pm - Reply

    Great post! Wish someone had schooled me on eating habits/diet back when I was in college!  🙂  Could have avoided the 20 lbs I gained.

  23. md kennedy May 10, 2013 at 4:30 am - Reply

    My niece is in college and lives on her own in an off-campus apartment.  She lives frugally, but thank goodness she eats meat-free and LOVES oatmeal.  As you mentioned, she buys all of her grains, including oatmeal, in bulk at an organic grocery store.  She is always at or below her targeted food spending every month!

  24. K. Finn August 9, 2013 at 4:50 am - Reply

    I'm in grad school, and I appreciate the guidance.  I am one year in, and I am bored of the cheap and easy/fast to make options.

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