Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Cheap, Healthy College Food: Tips for Frugal, Nutritious Dining in the Dorm and Beyond

Collegiates: it’s two or three weeks into the new school year, and no doubt, y’all are enjoying the wonders of midnight mozzarella sticks, dessert for dinner, and enough frat beer to shame Bluto (seen here) and the good men of Delta Tau Chi.

But, having been there – I must warn you: beware! The Freshman 15 is not a myth, and left unattended, can quickly blossom into the Freshman 40 (or in extreme cases, the Freshman 400). Paying even the tiniest bit of attention to your meals can start good patterns early on, saving years of failed diets, not to mention quite a few Hamiltons. (I said “Hamiltons”! Lord, I’m a hip, hip kitty! Hey … where’re you going?)

Anyway, without further ado, here are a few (hard-learned) tips that might be useful for keeping your university chow cheap, healthy, and morally and stomachally fulfilling. There's no need to act on all of them, but one or two could make a nice difference. (Oh, and please feel free to add more suggestions to the comments section.)


DO relax. If you’ve never done it before, feeding yourself the right way is really, really hard. Don’t freak out if you make some mistakes, gain a few pounds, or consume nothing but tuna casserole for three weeks. (Okay, maybe worry a little about that last one.) You’ll catch on.

DO try bringing a hot pot, microwave, and/or coffee maker. Cooking or brewing your joe in the dorm will save tons of cash and calories, and certain appliances come in hugely useful for late-night study sessions. A word of caution, though: George Foreman grills and other doohickies with exposed heating coils (toaster ovens, hibachis, etc.) are blackballed on most campuses. Check your college website for their policy.

DO see if your dorm has an oven and/or stovetop. Like hot pots and their kin, a kitchen range can conserve money and make res hall cuisine much simpler. Odds are no one will use be using it either, so go crazy. A pan, pot, and cookie sheet are really all you need to get started. (Keep reading for a more extensive list.) Extra Added Bonus: people like people who cook for them, so figure on making a lot of friends.

DO rent a mini-fridge if possible. Stashing healthy snacks in your room is one of the easiest ways to monitor expenditures and nutrition. For extra savings, split the cost of the fridge with roommates or neighbors.

DO buy a Brita. Gulping water does a body excellent, but the bottled stuff is the mother of all rip-offs. Procuring a thermos and filling it with fresh, filtered, from-the-tap H2O can preserve enough dough over the course of college to pay a semester’s tuition.

DO bring basic utensils. If you juuuuust missed dinner, a fork, knife, spoon, cup, plate, and bowl are all you need for handy-dandy in-room eating. They’re easier on the environment, too. (Don’t forget to wash them … not that I’ve ever done that.)

DO strategerize with your meal plan. Lots of pre-paid cards come equipped with enough cash for 14 meals per week, leaving seven to answer for. Buying smaller portions, subbing water for soda, skipping dessert, and pack-ratting oatmeal and fruit will help stretch the budget (but not the elastic on your pants).

DO know a few key terms for the dining hall. Broiled, baked, and steamed foods are snazzy, but avoid the terms “fried,” “au gratin,” and “cheesebake.” For more information, this guide (actually meant for restaurant-bound diabetics) is a fantastic read.

DO have breakfast. Studies show eating breakfast consistently is vital to managing your weight. Since it’s so cheap, you may as well. Collaring some produce, whole-grain cereal, or even a bagel (with jelly or lite cream cheese) will do wonders for your 8:30 am Art History class, not to mention the rest of the day. (Go easy on the bacon, eggs, and full-fat muffins though.)

DO read nutrition labels. Especially the parts about serving sizes and ingredients. Often, a “LOW FAT!” muffin qualifies as such because it’s been split into two or three servings. Same goes for convenience foods, juice, and yogurt-based drinks. As for the ingredient rundown, additives are listed in order of quantity. If sugar, sucrose, or high fructose corn syrup are among the first three (or ARE the first three), put the cupcake down and run away. On the flip side, look for foods high in protein, low in fat, and/or packed with vitamins.

DO eat fruits and vegetables. Easily dismissed in favor of chips, dip, and double lattechino no-whip, produce is cheap, healthy, and occasionally very tasty. What’s more, salad isn’t the only option. Try slowly adding a few favorite veggies into your diet, and work up from there. Sweet potatoes, carrots, and soups are stellar options.

DO snack smart. From time to time, a milkshake (brings all the boys to the yard) is darn satisfying. But multiple Dairy Queen Blizzards add up. For every candy bar, bag of chips, or brownie, try having two apples, a handful of nuts, or some celery with peanut butter. The healthier options will usually cost less, too.

DO measure portion size. Dining halls are generally pretty conscious of this, but did you know the average, person-appropriate portion of chicken is the size of a deck of cards? Yikes. To avoid overeating, stack your plate mostly with fruits and vegetables, then a smaller helping of starches. Add meat last. Using a smaller dish can help keep portion sizes down, too.

DO consider cutting down on meat. Beef, pork, chicken, and fish are crazy delicious, but can also be pricey and fattening in mass quantities. While severing meat from your diet entirely might be totally unreasonable, limiting your intake to three or four times a week will help you to not break the bank (or chairs … when you sit on them … because you’re ... never mind.)

DO request healthy care packages. Mom’s blondies may look … mmm … but THEY’RE NOT HELPING, MOM. If your parents are lovely and generous enough to send food, ask (politely) if they’ll pack something a little more health-minded. Granola bars, baked chips, pretzels, dried fruit, popcorn, and beef jerky are good ideas. If your ma digs baking, suggest she mosey on over to Cooking Light for recipes.

DO check your off-campus options.
Stocking up on bargain-priced basics is a good thing in the long run. If you have access to a car, check the local supermarkets for costs, deals, and discount opportunities. If you don’t have access to a car, make a friend who does. Then – be really, really nice to them for the rest of college. (Cough up some gas money, too.)

DO exercise. Never again will a gym membership be as gloriously free/cheap as it is in college. Go if you get the chance, hatred of the Stairmaster be damned.

DO try something new. Through the dual powers of osmosis and cramped living quarters, college naturally exposes you to a lot of cultures and cuisines you might not have access to at home. Before you knock that vegan roommate or curry-loving lab partner, give their food a shot. What repulsed you yesterday may be your favorite dish tomorrow (see: eggplant, me).

DO get a grip. For probably the first time ever, you’re exposed to unlimited food, whenever and however you want it. Try keeping it in perspective, though. The occasional splurge is sweet, but daily bacon cheeseburgers will take their toll. Shoot for a square meal, and remember: those fries will still be there tomorrow.

DO buy fundamental cookware. To reiterate (iterate again?), cooking at home saves money and many inches off your bosom (or man boobs). A medium pan, medium pot, large knife, cutting board, can opener, blender, colander, cookie sheet, measuring spoons, measuring cup, wooden spoon, spatula, vegetable peeler, and a few pieces of Tupperware will get you started on almost any culinary journey. Wal-Mart, Craigslist, Amazon, and mom’s basement are good places to begin your quest.

DO invest in a basic cookbook. Alexandra Nimetz’s Healthy College Cookbook, Betty Crocker’s Cooking Basics, Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen by Kevin Mills, or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything are highly suggested by Amazon, food bloggers, and beyond.

DO watch TV. On those Saturday and Sunday mornings when you’re just clearing the haze from the night before, try flipping on the Food Network. Ellie Krieger’s Healthy Appetite and Dave Lieberman’s Good Deal are both geared toward lower-income, nutrition-minded eaters, but Alton Brown's Good Eats and Everyday Italian with Giada DeLaurentiis are good shows for beginners, too.

DO use the interweb. I’m pretty sure there are more cooking blogs than people at this point, but online recipe browsing is quick, specific to your needs, and best of all – freer than Nelson Mandela. Allrecipes and Food Network are neato for beginners, but check the link list at the end of this article for bloggy-type suggestions. Free Cooking Lessons, No Seriously is also a nice compilation of online how-to videos (if I do say so myself.)

DO know how to shop for food. To make the most of your money, try A) using the supermarket circular as your guide, B) sticking to the outskirts of the store (where the meat, veggies, and dairy are), C) not fearing generic brands, and D) signing up for club cards. They’ll help. I swear.

DO stock the basics. No matter how much I want it to, Ramen does not a diet make. Beans, rice, pasta, lentils, peanut butter, canned tuna and their ilk are cheap as hell, good for you, and quickly prepared in a pinch. Beware of going too heavy on starches, though. While they’re filling and low in fat, many are nutritional wastelands and have to be balanced out with fruits and vegetables.

DO embrace the leftover. Before chucking that half-eaten spaghetti into le garbage, think of how delicious it will be for lunch the next day. Then plop it into some Tupperware, stow it in the fridge, and bank the saved dollars for a beer run. (Light beer, of course.)

DO dine out wisely. The occasional takeout, Mickey D’s, or restaurant trip isn’t a bad thing, especially if you know the tricks. The diabetes guide linked to above is a great, general place to start, while the University of Pittsburgh gets into specific ethnic cuisines and Wake Forest gives nutritional info for fast food joints. For extra savings, skip the appetizers, don’t order booze, and/or immediately put half your meal away and for another time.


DON’T live on takeout. It’s SO, SO tempting to phone for dinner seven nights a week, but pretty unwise in the long run, since takeout comes in elephantine portions and can run five or ten times the price of a homemade meal (especially if you dig sushi). Ouch.

DON’T rely on frozen dinners, processed foods, or crappy snacks. Again, it’s okay to buy a Swanson’s Hungry Man from time to time. But no matter what their promises are, the costs, calories, and astronomical sodium content of pre-packaged foods add up. Go for simpler dishes made from whole foods (the shorter the ingredient list, the better), and you’ll be doing your purse and gut a favor.

DON’T buy pre-cut foods if you can help it. Bagged salads, baby carrots, and celery sticks can go for 300% more than just buying a head of lettuce, a sack of carrots, or a bunch of celery. If possible, invest in a decent knife, do the chopping on your own, and save a bundle.

DON’T wear out your credit card. While it’s incredibly alluring to put every little piece of pizza on a VISA, it’s also a speedy way to mire yourself in massive debt. Buy food with cash whenever possible. You’ll keep track of your expenditures better, and many headaches will be saved later on.

DON’T substitute cigarettes (or coffee or beer or weed) for food. Smoking is the world’s worst and most expensive appetite suppressant. Not only will it bleed you of your hard-earned cash and make you smell like hell, but it will kill you ten times faster than the Freshman 15. The other options aren’t much better, either: pot MAKES you hungry, and beer adds to your waistline quicker than you think. As for sweet, sweet coffee, it’s fine in moderation, but not as a meal in itself.

DON’T go vegetarian for the wrong reasons. Saving a chicken’s life? Good reason. Improving your health by consuming less beef? Good reason. Really, really like cauliflower? Weird, but good reason. Want to be skinnier? BAD, BAD, BAD reason. Vegetarianism is not a diet; it’s a way of life, and those who choose its path have to do the research and be ready for the commitment.

DON’T fall victim to an eating disorder. “An estimated 11 million people in the United States suffer from eating disorders … Approximately 90 percent of them are young adult women during the college years. … 1 in 10 cases [lead] to death from starvation, cardiac arrest or suicide,” says a study by the University of Kentucky. While barfing or starving may seem like a convenient fix to temporary weight gain, they do immeasurable more damage than good. If you have a rapidly slimming friend who disappears after every meal (and you will), confront her with your suspicions, then get help.

DON’T stress. Learning to eat right is a lot like college itself: puzzling, overwhelming, and easy to mess up at first, but you get it eventually. In the meantime, sit back, relax, and learn from your experiences.

ADDITIONAL LINKS Easy Foods for a Healthy Diet


  • Avenoso, Karen. “Junk, caffeine still top on college campuses,” The Dallas Morning News. 15 September 1993.

  • McPherson, Heather. “Cooking Up Plans for the College Dorm,” Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. 21 August 2003.

  • Roth, J.D. “Healthy Food on an Unhealthy Budget.” Get Rich Slowly (blog). 1 June 2006.

  • “University of Kentucky to Participate in National Eating Disorders Awareness Week,” US States News. 26 February 2007.


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Deborah Dowd said...

Great tips for young people headed to campus. You forgot food blogs as a great resource for beginning cooks- sites like 101 cookbooks, Simply Recipes, and Kalyn's Kitchen have great recipes for beginners. Also I just tried those new microwave SimplyCooking bags from Glad (reviewed on my blog) and they are great for preparing som healthy dishes and fresh vegetables in a microwave!

Kris said...

Good call, Deborah. I should have mentioned a few other blogs like Wednesday Chef and Words to Eat By. I'll check out the Simply Cooking stuff, too. Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

This is interesting. Although, sometimes the last thing anyone wants to see when they're clearing the haze from the night before is a show about food.

Kris said...

Good point. In that case, sunglasses and aspirin make a great breakfast.

Anonymous said...

hey, i'm heading for college this fall for the first time and i found this very helpful (and very entertaining at tbe same time)!

thanks a bunch!

Amy said...

I can't believe i found this! I am headed off to college in a month and i have been trying to find good tips for college eating! Thanks so much!

AlyTaylor said...

GREAT advice. I am a college student and usually hate reading these kind of things! They're always the same: eat veggies, exercise, don't snack, blah blah blah. However, this article actually explains why certain things are important, which is very helpful in being able to see the big picture. I also love the little witicisms throughout the article, they made me smile :)

Rais said...

Awesome entry! I'm a second-semester sophomore and it took almost my whole freshmen year to finally care about what I ate!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for confirming that it is indeed difficult to feed yourself.
I was beginning to think I was crazy.

Sharise said...

This article is great! I'm heading off to college this fall, and am pretty nervous about making sure I have the money and time to eat the right food - thanks for the tips!

Anonymous said...

Hey thanks so much for these, I'm staying on campus this summer which means no home-cooked food anymore. Your recipes and references have kept me alive and unhungry. ^_^

Maggs said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I am a junior and have only recently began cooking for myself ... trying to fix that Freshman/Sophomore 15 (or 20).

Great tips!!

Joseph said...

Great read, thanks! Loved the humor too!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this info, this issue has been bugging me like crazy for the last couple of days :)
It’s great to see good information being shared.

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Stephanie said...

While these ARE great tips for eating nutritious, cheap meals...I hate to say it but no matter how much you "prepare" for college, you are going to eat Ramen 5 days of the week and pizza and Taquitos from 7-11 the other 2 days. It's just a fact. Check out my ezine/blog to see what I and three other graduate students think about now...after we spent 4 years eating Ramen and pizza.

Domestically Challenged said...

this is awesome and so true! I am a domestically chaleneged college student at CU Boulder and your tips have really helped and some are pretty hilarious.

Arshad Rehman said...

I love your blog about the DO's and DON'Ts for college. I personally lost about 30 pounds following those principles you have listed here. I recently even completed a half marathon. This would have not been possible 2 years ago for even a 2 mile run. I, too, created a blog post of what I actually eat throughout the day as a college student. Let me know if your interested in checking it out. Love to keep talking about it.

Anonymous said...

Another good tip -- eat whole wheat pasta and bread. They are full of protein, and so much more substantial for you than the regular pasta and white bread you may be tempted to grab. I now prefer the taste of whole wheat!

Also -- fish may have fat, but it is the BEST type of fat for your body. Omega 3 fatty acids (the fat in fish) is great for your heart and it's even given as a supplement! What's important is to choose your fats. A scoop of Nutella is SO much worse than a serving of fish, which also provides tons of nutrients. And people wonder why "asian women are skinny..." :)

Anonymous said...

Those were some great tips, I also found it quite useful to switch from soda to less sugary drinks like water and seltzer. Not only did I save a dollar from not buying the soda but I am also keeping off the unnecessary calories. I also found some interesting facts about keeping healthy on, this site really helps me keep off the freshman 15.

Anonymous said...

This girl cooked something and posted about it everyday for two months and I tried making some of the food and its good!

Katie 89 said...

I love your blog. I was once a freshman in college without a clue as what do to. It is very hard to stay healthy with all the fast food options on campus. As you point out, knowing the "key words" in the dining hall is extremely important. Breakfast is also something most college students forget. I think every freshman should read this guide you created. As you also stated, don't go vegetarian for the wrong reasons. I believe this is especially important. I have seen many freshman think cutting out meat will solve the freshman 15 problem. It can at times make for an unhealthy solution.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog. I was once a freshman in college without a clue as what do to. It is very hard to stay healthy with all the fast food options on campus. As you point out, knowing the "key words" in the dining hall is extremely important. Breakfast is also something most college students forget. I think every freshman should read this guide you created. As you also stated, don't go vegetarian for the wrong reasons. I believe this is especially important. I have seen many freshman think cutting out meat will solve the freshman 15 problem. It can at times make for an unhealthy solution.

Heather :) said...

As a first-year college student, I think the hardest part about trying to eat right are the meal plans! My school requires that first-year students choose a meal plan with a certain amount of "meal swipes" a week, plus a certain amount of food dollars for the semester. So I often find that I am eating way more then I would otherwise because I feel obligated to use up my meal swipes. It's not like I get the money back from the food I didn't eat!
Our campus provides a ton of healthy food options, so finding something healthy to eat is not difficult. But I know for a fact that my appetite has grown since coming to college. And I got one of the smaller meal plans!

Ronerz said...

The "I'd-Rather-Not Cook Book" provides a beginner's list of items to shop for when stocking a kitchen and pantry, and describes how to use a microwave oven creatively. It tries to make eating well as easy, fast, and cheap as possible. The chapter on nutrition is the longest one in the book, and exercise is promoted too. Highly recommended.

Aaron said...

Great post! I love it! I am going to "reblog" this on my blog geared towards college students (

Thanks again!

P.S. I'm looking for more bloggers for that blog as well. If you're a student and interested in writing a guest post, I'd love to hear from you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much! Extremely helpful!

Li said...

Thanks so much for the tips! I'm sure my friend would appreciate reading and also practicing them. :)

Anonymous said...

I really love your ideas :) they are going to HELP so much when I start university in September, it was FUN to read this :) GREAT JOB !! and thanks !!!!!!!!!!!! :)

Amanda Campbell said...

Excellent Blog! I'm a freshman at Endicott College and those tips will definitely help out! Thankfully at my school they do portion meals with the amount of calories right above it, so I'm doing okay here, and I try to go to the gym 4 times a week! But late night eating is killing me here, dinner is served at 5, so by 10 I am starving, but when I go home I'm gonna take your advice and stock up on the celery! Thanks for the advice!

Shauna said...

This is a great post! I'm trying really hard to stay fit and healthy in my first semester of college and this blog reminded me of a bunch of the healthy eating tips I was starting to forget!

spiritDuplex said...

Freaking brilliant. I've been worrying about living on my own for ages now, and this guide is really helping me get my shit together.

Seriously, thank you!!!

Anonymous said...

This article was very detailed and offered many good suggestions for healthy eating on college campuses. Studies show that students usually gain 6-8 pounds every college year. Many believe they are stuck only with the options that the school gives them and that's when the weight gets put on. Students should take control of their own health and go with healthy choices their school offers. One way to eat healthy and uniquely that students never think of is taking food from the cafeteria and combining it with other foods to make a healthier option. I recently started doing this and I find that I am eating healthier than I previously was. I will start using these tips and see if I can live even healthier!

Anonymous said...

I just want to thank you for being one of the very, very few bloggers who warns people not to go too far (into eating disorder territory)as they're encouraging people to be healthy. It makes a difference...thank you!

Avery Schlacter said...

Thanks for this I loved the tips! It really should help out my friend who's been looking into college in Calgary!