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Nutrition & Fitness

Eating Healthy on a Student Budget

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Although the legendary ‘Freshman 15’ has recently been declared a myth by an Ohio State study, many college students still struggle with how to eat both healthy and on a limited budget. 

For students balancing classes, work, internships and extracurricular activities, daily eating habits often fall to fast food and pre-packaged entrees.

Robyn Kievit, a nurse practitioner and dietician at Emerson College and member of the American College Health Association, helps students manage their eating every day and is familiar with the issue of eating healthy for less.

“For many young adults in college, this is the first time they are living on their own. Practicing healthy habits now is great for a lifetime of great health,” Kievit said. “Acclimating to a new environment and city presents challenges in where to find healthy low-cost items to fuel your body, but grocery shopping has a strategy to it and saving can still be found in cutting coupons.”

Her advice for busy students is to plan meals and snacks around classes and to bring non-perishable foods along during the day if they are unable to go back to their apartment or dorm between classes.

“One method may work one day with a hectic work and class schedule while another will work for a different day or weekend day,” Kievit said. “In general, I recommend students try to eat something every three to four hours as that is when our bodies generally become hungry after eating mindfully the last time. Eating regularly keeps us from overeating and undereating.”

Asha Kennedy, a 19-year-old dietetics major at Florida State University, believes that an important rule of eating healthy on a limited budget is planning meals in advance.

“Making a schedule, even if tentative, for the week will give you an idea of how much time you will need to dedicate to your meals as well as to plan out when and between which classes to prep for your meals,” Kennedy said. “Potluck dinners are a favorite among my friends and I. Someone makes the pasta, someone makes the meat, another person makes the vegetables and someone is in charge of dessert. Or even having one roommate cook one night, and you cook another night are simple ways to ensure having a meal on busy days.”

For students who have meal plans, the dining halls can be a source of danger, but Kievit said she believes it is possible to make good choices while at the school cafeteria. Kievit recommends students use the plate rule (1/4 carbs, ¼ protein, ¼ fruit, ¼ vegetable). If you have any allergies or special dietary concerns, contact your school’s dining staff to assist you.

“If there is a salad bar, start off with a small salad- top it off with some beans (for protein) and vegetables (for vitamins), the more color the better,” Kennedy said. “If having beans on your salad isn’t for you, if there is sandwich section in your dining hall, ask for a slice of turkey to place in your salad- unless you want to opt for protein for the main course. Knowing what components make a complete meal and knowing what fast and slow carbohydrates are, you will know how to make a healthy meal for yourself.”

Meal plans, however, can can be expensive, so students with kitchens might want to consider cooking their own small meals, which can be cheaper and healthier. 

Kievit suggested these students stock their kitchen with items that will help them create basic meals, such as:

• Salad spinner 
• Aluminum vegetable steamer
• Medium size saucepan/pot
• Wooden spoon
• Medium serrated knife
• Medium cutting knife
• Cutting board
• Spatula
• Water container with filters

When buying groceries, Kievit said students should make a list and a budget ahead of time, and stick to it.

The list should include foods that are multipurpose (especially if they have limited shelf life) such as vegetables that can be used on sandwiches and also in entrees. Buying plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables is also important to keeping a balanced diet. Although non-vegetarians and vegans tend to get enough protein, meats such as chicken are practical for healthy cooking because they can be used in a variety of ways.

It’s important to look at the nutrition content and stay away from foods high in saturated and trans fats.

Purchasing store brand items and taking advantage of sales and coupons can also save money, as well as shopping at discount grocers and green markets.

Pre-packaged foods are a quick, seemingly inexpensive and often tasty option, but even those that claim to be healthy can be packed with hidden sodium. Kievit offered the following tips when it comes to pre-packaged meals:

• Keep calories down to 500 in total
• Keep fat grams to zero of saturated or trans fats.
• Keep sodium down to 300-600 mg per serving in frozen or pre-packaged foods.
• In general, choosing foods with the least amounts of ingredients is best and most pre-packaged foods have a longer list of ingredients.

Eating healthy on a budget may seem like a challenge, but by following these simple rules, Keivet estimated that college students can keep their weekly grocery budget down to about $20-$50. 

To learn more about healthy eating, students can visit their school’s student health centers and ask for advice specific to their school and the food shopping options around it.

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