Ask LH: How Can I Eat Well On A Student Budget?

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

Dear S&S,

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!

Cheers Lifehacker

Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right. Lifehacker's weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.


Comments

    "Catch-up meals with family keep your"

    Fragment, consider revising.

      Thanks Clippy, fixed. Feel free to uninstall yourself now.

    from my own uni experience i would add

    "dont pay extra for the convenience"
    - alot of things come premade or pre packaged these days, for what they say is a "slight cost rise" you can buy a premade salad as opposed to going "to all the effort" of getting the stuff and making it yourself, what they fail to mention is you generally get alot less for you $ then if you made it yourself, it works out alot cheaper with a much greater quantity to buy a lettuce, tomato, and couple fo others and spend 20mins making a salad to store and pick at all week then to buy a premade one, cheese is another great example dont buy grated cheese buy a, cheaper, block of similar weight as advertised on the bag and grate it yourself youll get far more use from that cheese then the pre grated bag

    mi goreng. You can get it for $10-$12 a box (30 packets) and you an eat nothing else for a week before serious side effects start kicking in.

      I think you missed the word "well" in the article's title.

      Mi Goreng can be a great addition to a stir fry done on the cheap.

    For breakfast (an important meal) buy homebrand rolled oats (not quick oats). Soak overnight in an equal amount of water and pop in the microwave for 2 mins the next morning with some milk and anything else you feel like putting in there. Slice a banana in there and you'll have a nutritious, fast bfast on the cheap.

    Home Brand muesli and Home Brand UHT milk ftw. The muesli is about $3 for 900g, the milk is $1.10 per litre. That's about $1 per day for a nourishing, cheap breakfast.

    Home brand bread is $1.50 per loaf. Home Brand tasty cheese 1kg block is about $7. Even if you eat half a loaf per day, there's your lunch for another $1.50 per day. So for the sake of the $25 per week challenge, we've used $15.50.

    The remaining $9.50 will get you dinner. Seasonal veggies are definitely your go-to plus rice for carbohydrate bulk and eggs ($3 for 12) as your cheap protein/iron replacement.

    Best piece of advice is to bulk out meals with plenty of veggies. Great way to make a recipe that lasts 3 meals suddenly last for 6, for not much extra expense. For the leftovers, buy a few cheap Chinese containers and dedicate a section of your freezer (which can be a little harder if you are living on campus).

    Also, don't buy fruit and veg at the big supermarkets. Buy from a good fruit and veg place, and the stuff will last a lot longer and taste a lot better.

      +1 fresh food markets. When I moved from Canberra (where, in my defence, there is Coles, Woolies, IGA and no other choices) to mid-inner suburbs of Melbourne and started shopping at the Sydney Rd fruit and veg places, I couldn't believe how long fruit can last you when you buy it fresh from the market. And veggies last FOREVER.

        Don't know where in Canberra you were - But Fyshwick and Belconnen both have fresh food markets, there has also always been the weekend Farmers market out at Epic
        All of these do massive mark downs before closing up on their respective days, and have a massive range of in seasonal and in most cases even local vegetables, meats and eggs

    I am Surprised the article didn't really address proteins at all.

    Buying a whole chicken and roasting it with veggies is good value for money. Eat the thighs and drums and save the rest of the mest for sandwiches and use the bones for stock.

    Chuck steak is also competitively priced for casseroles and stews.

    Butchers from china town seem to be inexplicably better priced than everyone else. But often you need a good eye for cuts as everything is labeled in Chinese. So know what you want before going in there.

    Don't forget Eggs

    I guess paying a bit more money for something that will save you time and is healthy as well is a good strategy to use as a student. The following should be easy to pack or have at home.

    Things ate as a student because I wasn't organised enough:
    Donut King
    Coffee
    Muffins
    Chocolate

    How I should have eaten in hindsight and how I eat now:

    Breakfast:
    Rolled oats + blueberries/raspberries/strawberries (buy frozen, cheaper)+ honey
    Add egg whites for protein.
    I buy lots of Macro food products such as almond meal, lecithin granules to mix into my oats. They are ~$5 for 250-500g of the stuff and is quite affordable if you ask me.

    Snack: Fruit + tub of greek yoghurt

    Lunch: Pack this with ice packs, there are some awesome lunchboxes available (http://www.nudefoodmovers.com.au/)

    Heinz carrot/corn/broccoli - 3 individual steamer bags
    Canned chicken/tuna
    Brown Rice/Buckwheat/Polenta/CousCous

    Snack: Nuts- Sunbeam has dry roasted nuts but cheaper options are available if you want to buy bigger packets.
    Toast with peanut butter - if you can manage to dash home by that time.

    Dinner: cook something nice, live a little.
    Eggs/meat + veggies.

    You forgot to include caffeine in the analysis. It is THE staple nutrient in a student's diet.

    Monash Clayton students (Melbourne) there's always Free Food Mondays

      There is? This intrigues me.

      Also, I think the only change I'd make if I had money is eating at nice restaurants more often. I like eating whatever the hell I want (with the limitation that I don't start putting on massive amounts of weight/feeling horrible 24/7).

    Others have said it and I'm agreeing - bulk by pantry staples like rice and oats, then shop for fresh ingredients, in season, from markets, and cook from scratch. Whole lot of fast easy recipes from scratch at http://witcheskitchen.com.au. "Convenience" foods are for suckers, not convenient and not food.

    The farmers on the outskirts of my university town in NZ use to feed their deer rejected vegetable crops- We use to give a farmer $5 for a bucket of squash/sweetcorn/pumpkin. We said it was food for our pet goat (well that part was true, until we ate the goat). We only really made soup with it- and it was delicious.

    freezer is your friend, lean a few good recipes that you can freeze. like spaghetti sauce 12-14 servings less then $10, and almost all curries go great in the freezer. the key to freezing food is eat it with in a month and have a selection. also rice is better pasta for nutrition.
    check you newsagent for women weekly recipes book that can out recently on meals you can freeze

    the three meal chicken, as mentioned above roast the chicken for dinner, leftovers for lunch and use the left over bones for a stock which you make a soup(if you save a little chicken you can make chicken and sweet corn soup about 6 serves)

    i find buying fruit & veg not that cheep at woolworth, coles and audi. the meat is almost always way over priced. keep eye out for quick sale mark downs as they are the best value

    the true key to saving is portioning, and no seconds, if your really hungry before a meal have starter of soup. may be some of that chicken and sweet corn is freezes staple at my place

    this also works well for losing weight too i have lost over 55kg the last few years just by using a "normal" sized plate and bowl. but the key is you have to remember this is not weight loss diet as it isn't it just a way to stop up over eating which is why most people put on weight. so it is a slow process and has very little impacted on your life except your wallet as you will have more money to spend

    You'd be surprised how many meals you can stick between two slices of bread. Definitely spreads a meal out.

    A slow cooker is a worthwhile investment. New ones aren't expensive, but it shouldn't be hard to find one second-hand. Your parents might even have one collecting dust in a cupboard at home.

    Favourite thing to make in mine is Ratatouille -- cheap, easy and very filling with pasta or brown rice. Throw in a can of lentils or chickpeas at the end of cooking for protein. I usually get four or five meals out of one batch.

      They are cheap-as at the moment. $23 from Big-W for a 5.5L one with a ceramic insert.

    Forgot to mention one of my fav dishes to make on the cheap;

    Spaghetti Pie it's called (not really spaghetti though)
    Pastry, braised steak and onion, 2 minute noodles.
    Heat up the braised steak and onion in a pot on the stove
    Cook the noodles
    Mix together in pot.
    Pour into pie dish (obviously with pastry already laid down)
    Cover with top layer of pastry
    Oven till nice golden crusty top
    Serve with any veggies you like, I prefer mash and peas with some gravy myself

    It's not garden-salad healthy but it's better than most meals for under $5 and can give you quite a few serves.

    Canned beans are your friend. Just give them a good rinse and they're perfectly fine to use in your meals. Buy homebrand, buy specials.

    Worried about leftover veggies? Make a vegetable soup. It's not that hard, just chuck the vege that's wilting in your fridge in a pot with stock powder. Add leftover pasta or rice, some spices and Bob's your uncle.

    Cannibalism. There, I said it.

      Everything the body needs

    i think too many carb heavy foods are being suggested.
    canned tuna, or chicken is high in protien. low in fat and can come very cheap. for instance coles brand tuna can be 80c each if bought in bulk. stay with the low fat, low carb ones for a quick meal that fills you up. i like adding salsa to mine or seeded mustard. having 3 can give you 1/2 your protien intake a day, and they are filling.
    other options are finding cheap protien powder, some like protien direct which can not taste the best but at $60 for 2.5kgs they offer about $1 a serving of 30grams of protien and are good way to start the morning with oats or toast.

    i think for about $3-4a day you should be able to find enough protien from fish, chicken, powders or other meats to fulfil your protien needs per day of around 80-100gram of protien. and thats using semi-expensive ready to go things, you could probably reduce that by a $1 if you can plan ahead.

    the reason protien is important is that it keeps you full longer, it has also been found that high protien diets with relatively less carbs(50/40/10 ratio for P/C/F) has shown to reduce BF% and improve well being.

    honestly as a student you should be able to eat very healthy and very filling for about $7-10 a day with having 3-5 meals a day. you could potentially eat cheaper then that but it probably wouldnt be as good for you.

    Friends' of mine have spent years of thinking about food and budgets and hating grocery shopping with a passion (and so arranging to do it as infrequently as possible), which has resulted in an ebook that they're giving away for free if you join the newsletter here: http://saucysarahs.com/. It's a well thought out plan for developing meal plans and related useful things. On the blog they're also responsive to questions about this stuff too. The next ebook they're developing is about how to get the most of a roasted chicken by using leftover chicken for additional meals which may also be of some interest to people. The idea is to hack your kitchen systems so that they work.

    Additionally, I use taste.com.au for recipes all the time and there are a bunch of their sources that are recipes on the cheap etc if you're looking for inspiration.

    This is a quick and easy recipe that not only tastes good, but is cheap. It cost less than $1.50 a serving. If you need less, just 1/2 the recipe. http://family.go.com/food/recipe-788714-easy-chicken-lo-mein-t/

    It never hurts to also throw in a little Me-Goreng in the shopping basket. As someone who works pay check to pay check at university, it's saved my ass a few times!

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