Dear Lifehacker, I'm a uni student and was just wondering if you could compile a list of decent food to buy or make on a student's budget? It's tricky to eat well on a pittance! Thanks, Studying And Starving
Picture by Toby Otter
The students/2-minute noodles stereotype is prevalent because it's often true. University students typically have a minimal income, and they're often grappling with learning to cook for the first time as well. Here are a few of the more useful ideas we've run over the years. I've shied away from recommending too many specific foods, because everyone's tastes are different. Forcing yourself to eat food you don't like never works out in the long run.
It's worth emphasising a key point up front: to eat well, you have to plan your meals and plan your budget. If you don't plan, foodstuffs will get wasted, or you'll end up buying expensive takeaway because it's easier. So take the time to set a monthly food budget and stick to it, and learn to shop more effectively at the supermarket.
A second key rule? Eat out as little as possible. Yes, university is a social time and you want to hang out with your friends. But if you're constantly going out for coffee and beer and burgers, you'll waste a lot of money.
Back in 2010, I staged the Mastercheap experiment, where I had to feed myself for a week for $25. In practical terms, that meant I could get all my nutritional needs for the price of a daily cup of coffee, and have some variety in the process.
The Mastercheap shopping list is a reasonable basis for plotting out a cheap meal strategy if you're stuck with a solo food budget. If you're sharing a house, splitting the budget will get you more bang for your buck, since you can take advantage of bulk deals. But I appreciate that's not always possible, especially if your housemates are psychotic or have very specific dietary requirements.
In terms of specific recommendations, these are the most important things to remember:
Buy as many fresh vegetables and fruit as possible. Vegetables are essential to your health, filling and — provided you buy in season — relatively cheap. In the current supermarket price wars, there's always something available cheaply. That said, if you're in reach of a market, you'll get more choices, cheaper prices and fewer cold-storage items. Lentils and other pulses are particularly filling.
(Yes, for the purposes of Mastercheap I mostly used frozen or canned vegetables. There's nothing wrong with doing that if you're really in a pinch, but fresh gives you more variety.)
Use a variety of carbohydrates. The simplest and cheapest way to bulk up your meals is with some sort of largely-carb foodstuff: rice, pasta, couscous, noodles, polenta, bread. The secret to making this healthy? Go multi-grain whenever possible, and don't use the same option all the time.
(A side note: Every time we write about nutrition on Lifehacker, there's a vocal anti-carb minority in the comments. Yes, if you eat too many carbs, you'll fatten up. But in moderation, they're fine, and as a cheap source of energy, they're hard to beat.)
Stock up on herbs and spices. Yes, some vegetables are bland. But add a few spices and life gets much more interesting. Spices are relatively expensive by weight, but one jar or packet will last you ages.
Vary your meals by the season. In summer, salads make sense. When it turns to winter, soups and stews are good (and you can make up large quantities, freeze some and eat them over an extended period of time). Stir fries are fast and can take practically any ingredient all year round.
Hunt down new recipes. If you're sick of your current or non-existent repertoire, hit the internet. Type in a few ingredients you have (or that you enjoy) and see what pops up. We've run guides to the best recipe search tools and recipe organisation tools in the past, along with guides to apps for Android and iOS, but in most circumstances, a basic search will still get you plenty of options.
Asking around the Allure office (we're all former students, and some of us haven't been out of university that long) throws up some additional suggestions for getting more food:
- Take advantage of free food that's part of university life. Many university societies throw events which include food and drink; some university unions have regular free breakfasts or lunches on campus.
- Catch-up meals with family keep your parents happy and your stomach full.
- If your job involves food (waiting or cooking), you may get a staff meal as part of the deal, though this varies hugely by employer.
- Want to calorie up with minimum effort? Buy a jar of almond butter. It's incredibly filling and calorific, though it's no long-term substitute for a varied diet.
I'm sure readers will have more ideas and favourite foodstuffs to share in the comments. Good luck with your studies and in the kitchen!