So I was posed with the question – what are some healthy cheap meals a college student can enjoy that doesn’t involve cheese sandwiches and 2-minute noodles? (not that they count as healthy OR environmentally friendly by any means).
I am the perfect person to answer this question. After all, I’ve been there and walked in your shoes. Both as a cash-strapped university student and a budget-inclined, poorly paid employee looking for healthy cheap meals that made me feel as good inside as they did when I looked at the balance of my bank account. I know what it’s like to try and spend as little as possible on food without starving yourself.
So if you’re a broke-ass college students living off some form of student allowance or working a less than stellar paying job to fill in the gaps to supplement the healthy cheap meals (not the drinking budget *cough cough*), then this is for you.
Maybe on weekends you may succumb to the pressure of certain social outings; blowing both your budget and healthy eating streak. Come Monday though, you’re all for healthy, clean and green eating. It’s all about balance, no? I certainly won’t grill you about how unhealthy those alcohol-fueled late night, junk food feasting, liver poisoning weekends are for you. That’s your mother’s job. I will support you, however, in your wellness efforts to at least take care of your body 5 days of the week by sharing my top healthy cheap meals, shopping and eating tips that follow a paleo-ish, real food eating template.
Keep It Simple
Don’t over complicate your healthy cheap meals with fancy and expensive ingredients. If the recipe calls for Organic Saffron sourced from the pristine countryside of some remote village in Greece, then maybe you shouldn’t use that recipe or just sub the ingredient. Forgo the hipster, in vogue foods of the season that come with the premium price tag attached. Goji berries, cacao nibs, premium protein shakes and green smoothie powders aren’t going to make or break your health. Seriously. You can survive and thrive off a wholesome diet without all the trendy trimmings.
Keep It Real
I’m all about eating whole foods in their natural form. Surprisingly, what’s often good for you is also good for the environment and it can be good for your wallet as well. When you cut out the middle man who is responsible for processing and packing many fast foods, you actually cut out a large percentage of the costs that go into manufacturing those foods. Buying food directly from the farmer means you save money in ways you may not appreciate at first thought. So my advice is to minimize your consumption of processed and packaged foods and buy it in its real, whole form.
Cook At Home
Eating out is expensive but if it’s fast and cheap, chances are the quality is pretty darn cheap too. Save your pennies and start cooking more home-prepared, healthy cheap meals. Factor this into your schedule and make cooking a priority. This way you have control of the ingredients, the process and the budget.
Cook In Bulk
Taking it one step further that when you do cook, cook in bulk. Dedicate a few hours (if that), to batch cooking once or twice a week. This involves cooking a large amount of food in one go. You can then divide it up into containers and freeze them for future meals. Investing in a slow cooker will also make this job so much easier (I scored a second-hand one off ebay for $10!). You can throw a bunch of vegetables and some meat, along with some herbs and spices in there, turn on the timer and viola – a few hours later you have several days supply of cheap healthy and delicious meals! You can also save money with a slow cooker by buying cheaper cuts of meat and slow cooking them so they become tender and totally edible.
Buy In Bulk
If you’re lucky enough to live close by to a large bulk retailer like Costco, you may find it worthwhile investing in a membership there (and hey, who’s to say you can’t split the cost of membership with your housemates or friends). Other opportunities for buying in bulk include local cooperative agreements. These are often privately organised where members pay a determined price for a box of food but because there’s a larger number of individuals, the co-op can order in bulk at wholesale prices.. Each week when the delivery comes in, the goods are then divided up among co-op members. You can simply do some google searching to see if a co-op arrangement exist in your local area. Other tips for buying in bulk is to stock up on dry goods (like dried herbs, cooking oils, flours – essentially those few packaged items you only need to restock occasionally) when they’re significantly discounted or there’s a special sale like ‘buy 2, get 1 free.’
There are certain non-fresh food items that can be brought online that will certainly save you money because there are no standard ‘brick and mortar’ costs associated with having the product sold in a physical store. Here are my favorite online retailers.
We all know what Amazon is. They ship internationally for some products.
Wholesale pricing and you get a free membership to start with. It’s like Amazon, Costco and Whole Foods combined. US postage only. Strict standards for organic, non-gmo, paleo and raw vegan items.
Cheap international shipping for dry food supplies, organic and non-gmo products, natural beauty, household goods, herbal supplements and the list goes on. Great prices!
Don’t Waste It. Freeze It
I’m a freezer fanatic. Before anything even has the chance to go off, rot or mold, I’ve already sealed it up tight and popped it in the freezer. Waste nothing! Vegetables that won’t get eaten in time can always be flashed cooked, steamed or made into a stew and then frozen for future use. Meat can always be cooked and frozen for future use. Fresh herbs can be chopped and sealed in a container for future use. If you have too many leftovers, then freeze them for a future meal. Get the drift?
Buy Discounted Food
Whether you shop at your local farmers market or a supermarket chain, there are always options for buying discounted food. Food that’s in season is often sold on sale because it’s available in abundance (it makes sense to eat with the seasons!). At the end of the business day, fresh food is frequently discounted to get rid of it. There are some farmers markets I go to that regularly mark everything down when they close up because it’s food that otherwise will go to waste. While you may not get the best selection, it can result in some sweet savings. The greatest advantage is buying meat that’s nearly past it’s ‘used by date.’ If you see a good deal, stock up and simply freeze it!
Cheap Healthy Meal Ideas
Loaded Sweet Potato Nachos (image above)
Chelo Kebab & Cucumber Yogurt Salad (image above)
5 Minute Slow Cooker Curry (image above)
Sweet Potato Bisque (image above)
Fancy Fish Pie (image above)
- Fresh Fruit
- Nuts and seeds (buy in bulk)
- Canned sardines or salmon
- Boiled eggs
- Raw vegetables sticks and tahini (or dip of choice)
Here are a few of my favorite basic healthy pantry items:
- Coconut oil, Tallow, Butter or Ghee (for cooking)
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil (for salad dressings)
- Balsamic Vinegar (combine with EVOO for a simple salad dressing)
- Dried Herbs and Spices (see below)
- Canned Coconut Cream
With just those basic pantry ingredients, you can still cook an array of delicious, simple and healthy meals! Just add vegetables and meat.
Dried Herbs and Spices
It’s expensive buying fresh herbs and they don’t last long. Often you only need them for one particular recipe and then you forget about the, to only find them 6 months later in the dark depths of your refrigerator old and rotten. Sure, the culinary snobs may turn up their noses when I say this, but just use dried herbs and spices. Chances are, you only have yourself to impress with your cooking. If you want fresh herbs, grow your own. Whether you have a backyard or not, you can still grow something in a container. Check out my post here for some tips for growing your own balcony herbs and here are a list of my favorites to grow on the balcony.
The following are my suggestions for budget-friendly dried herbs and spices that are commonly used in many recipes and provide enough variance in flavor combinations you won’t get bored of the same things.
These are gluten-free carbohydrate-dense sources of energy that store well, are certainly healthier options than processed pasta, and can be bought in bulk to save money (you can still buy organic where possible).
- Potatoes (I prefer sweet potatoes)
- Rice noodles
- Gluten-free rolled oats
- Dried beans and lentils (if you can handle them)
What are your favorite cheap healthy meals and budget-friendly tips?
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