Cheap + Healthy + Quick = Impossible?
July 27, 2009 10:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm starting grad school and will be living in a residence hall with shared kitchen facilities. I need your ideas for quick, cheap, and healthy meals.

I am going to be living alone, but I won't have my own kitchen. There is, however, a shared kitchen for the entire floor to use, so I have access to a stove/oven, but I won't be using it all the time.

I would really like to eat healthy, and I will have a refrigerator/freezer, a microwave, and a toaster oven in my room. I also picked up a hot water kettle, and I'm thinking of buying a food steamer as well.

I need food ideas that are cheap, healthy, and quick to prepare. I'm definitely okay with ideas that involve making a large batch of [fill in the blank] and freezing individual portions. Any creative tips on how best to do that would also be appreciated. I'm not vegetarian/vegan, but I'm not altogether opposed to the idea of going that route if it would be cheaper, so get creative with your ideas. Ideally, I'd like to have a list of staple foods that I can run to the grocery store and pick up.
posted by sciencemandan to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Couscous (bought in large quantities, NOT in those tiny boxes) can be made in a bowl with hot water from a tea kettle poured over it. Slice up your choice of veggies in the dry couscous and pour the water over the whole combo. Your veggies will be cooked/steamed to a crunchy state, and you can make large quantities for leftovers. Not sure about freezing.

I just made this couscous for a party and served it cold:
plain cooked couscous, with this stuff mixed in after cooking
- orange slices
- orange zest & juice from the orange
- diced red onions
- dried cranberries
- pumpkin seeds, almonds, whatever nuts you have on hand
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 10:36 AM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

I don't have any ideas myself (I ate really unhealthily in college), but recently saw this posted in one of my feeds and looks like it could shape up to be a good discussion.
posted by sa3z at 10:39 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would definitely suggest chili as a good staple. I throw chili parties frequently. It's infinitely customizable, and can make for good social cooking as well (someone chops onions while someone else browns meat, etc.). You can make it with beans, lentils, any combination of vegetables, and some cheap bulk spices and you have a super-cheap, easy-freeze, healthy filling food. You can obviously add your choice of meat.

As a generic cooking tip, ground turkey is a great substitute for lots of ground beef recipes. It's cheaper, less fatty, and quite versatile. I use it in my chili, when I make shepherd's pie, in stuffed peppers (another easy/cheap/filling recipe).

Italian food is your friend: whole wheat pasta plus pesto, or a cheap tomato sauce, or a simple carbonara are all simple and inexpensive. Add a salad and you have a decently balanced meal.
posted by Lifeson at 10:49 AM on July 27, 2009

I am in a similar situation - shared kitchen, not lots of time.

My lunches at work consist of a few things I like that can be adapted throughout the year to whatever's fresh or cheap. I love hard-boiled eggs and tuna/other fish (herring is AMAZING) in salads, chicken-from-the-supermarket-rotisserie torn up into sandwiches with avocado and cheese, and almond slivers and golden raisins in couscous. Wild rice is fabulous and really good for you, as is quinoa (though quinoa can be bland, beware).

You can easily pan-fry, then roast a bunch of chicken pieces at the weekend when everyone's out, pop them in the fridge or freezer, and use through the week. Pasta, I have found, doesn't keep well with wet sauces, and I'm not often home long enough to make soup, but non-tomato based sauces can be made fresh in the time it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta. The simplest sauce might be salt, pepper, chopped garlic, olive oil, and a big bunch of basil pulsed a few times in a processor, then tossed with cooked pasta. (And don't forget to salt that water - it's flavor!)

You can also bake quick breads, uh, quickly; I use a cheese grater to get zucchini to the right size to make awesome zucchini breads which get me through the winter. Throw in handfuls of nuts for extra protein.

If you can afford one, invest in one of those chopper/food processor/immersion blender set-ups. It's small enough to keep clean easily, portable, and saves time when you want to have some finely diced onions or garlic. I have a less complicated version of this and it is totally worth it.

Do you read food blogs? I get heaps of ideas that way and have no cookbooks to lug around.
posted by mdonley at 10:50 AM on July 27, 2009

I am in a similar situation, except my extreme laziness with regards to food preparation means I end up just using the facilities in my room. So I basically live on:
  • Pasta, prepared in the microwave: fill half of a bowl with dry pasta; pour hot water from my sink onto it, almost filling the bowl; microwave for between 10--15 minutes on "beverage" setting. The water evaporates, leaving you with pretty-good pasta, which you can then add tomato sauce to.
  • Easy fruits: I get bags of roma tomatoes and green apples, which I store in my fridge and eat all the time.
  • Fruit smoothies: I have a blender in my room. I put 4 bananas, 1 green apple, some frozen berries (usually strawberries at a minimum, blueberries and blackberries are nice when I can get them), and a good amount of orange juice in the blender, then mix it up. Delicious and filling.
  • Granola bars: almost as easy as fruit
  • Toast or bagels, with either peanut butter or "smart balance" (vegan butter substitute) spread
The key is that none of these take more than 5 minutes to prepare, including cleanup (except maybe the smoothie). And it's pretty healthy, and certainly cheap. (Sometimes I will splurge on something expensive like cherries, blueberries, or raspberries, but that's just for fun---and I'm pretty sure I'm still beating the meat-eaters.)
posted by Jacen Solo at 10:55 AM on July 27, 2009

Consider getting a rice cooker and/or crock pot. You dump in a bunch of ingredients, hit a button, and have a hot meal + leftovers.

You'll quicky develop a sense of what works well together, so you can improvise based on price and availability. Recently chicken breasts were cheap, so I bought some mushrooms and combined them with brown rice, honey soy marinate, and balsamic vinegar. Two hours in the rice cooker, drizzle with shredded cheese, and eat.

Beef tips are my go-to crock pot recipe. You can substitute Sprite for the red wine, and everything else has a long shelf life so you can wait for the family-size beef pack to go on sale.
posted by djb at 10:56 AM on July 27, 2009

Oh, I forgot: bags of raw cashews and bags of dried apricots are a nice snack too.

On the other hand, Lifeson's comment about throwing in a salad with the pasta reminded me that I really don't get enough green things in my diet. I'll be interested to see what people suggest in that direction. I suppose I could just grab one of those pre-mixed salad bags from the supermarket, hmm.
posted by Jacen Solo at 10:59 AM on July 27, 2009

Right now I don't want to turn on the oven for anything, so I'm eating insane amounts of pita pocket sandwiches. You can cram pita with anything, but I generally try to mix and match from these categories. You can make a lot of one thing and then mix and match even more to extend your leftovers and keep it interesting. I do not try to be authentically Middle Eastern in the slightest, by the way. It's mostly about what's cheap, seasonal, and local at the green grocery.


falafel-I make it from a mix

turkey meatballs made with ground turkey and lots of whatever fresh herb I have in the house

chicken breast

leftover steak


tzatsiki; I grate a small seeded and peeled cucumber into a container of greek yogurt and add whatever fresh herb I have in the house. Right now a bunch of parsley is $1, cukes are 50 cents, and a small greek yogurt is $1, and it'll last you a while. also awesome as a salad dressing

freeform salsa (right now I like equal amounts of peaches and tomatoes with lime juice, cilantro, salt, cumin, onion, garlic, and fireroasted chiles. easy, just a lot of chopping, lasts forever)

cream cheese

1 chopped blanched zucchini + 1 chopped blanched summer squash + 2 ears corn cut off the cob and blanched + 1 can drained and rinsed black beans + 1 diced bell pepper + 1 chopped cucumber + 2 chopped tomatoes + 2 tbs diced onion, dressed in a storebought vinaigrette (optional: add lime juice and 1 diced chipotle to the vinaigrette) (substitute whatever vegetables you can find cheap, locally, and in season)

cannellini beans pureed with roasted red pepper and olive oil (makes a nice dip for veggie sticks also)




bell peppers


matchstick carrots

When your pitas start to stale, make a personal pizza by topping one with jarred sauce and cheese.
posted by Juliet Banana at 11:01 AM on July 27, 2009 [5 favorites]

You can also keep 1-2 ready-made salads or pre-washed greens. I usually get some from Costco. You can have at least 2 servings (depending on the size).
posted by caelumluna at 11:01 AM on July 27, 2009

Quick Jambalaya

White Minute rice

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 full large boneless skinless chicken breast cut into bite-sized pieces
2 pieces boneless skinless chicken thighs diced
¾ pound andouille or chirizo smoked sausage thinly sliced on an angle
16 cooked peeled deveined jumbo shrimp

4-5 stalks of celery chopped
1 medium yellow onion chopped
1 green bell pepper seeded and diced
4 cloves garlic minced
1 14oz. can no-fat chicken broth
1 tablespoon each ground cumin and chili powder
a few shakes cayenne pepper sauce
1 28oz. can diced tomatoes
fresh thyme chopped
2 tablespoons gumbo filé
chopped scallions as a garnish

Start a pot of plain white Minute rice, following directions on the box for 4-6 servings.

In a deep pot, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium high heat. Brown the chicken and sausage for 3-5 minutes. Remove the meat from the pot. Add a little more olive oil and the celery, onion, bell pepper, and garlic. Let the vegetables simmer in the pot 3-5 minutes to soften and sweeten.

Return the chicken, shrimp and andouille to the pot. When the meats are combined with the vegetables add the broth, seasonings, tomatoes and herbs. Bring to a boil then lower the heat to simmer. Stir in the filé powder. Cook until thickened, about 3-5 minutes. Serve with a scoop of rice dropped into the center of the bowl of jambalaya. Garnish with scallions. Makes six servings.
posted by netbros at 11:17 AM on July 27, 2009

If you make a big batch of stir fry, casserole, couscous, fried rice, chili, salad, roasted veggies, steamed veggies... basically anything, and get bored with it: wrap it up in a tortilla with some cheese sprinkled on top, and it will seem like an entirely different meal. If the filling is too watery to do this with (like some chilis), stir in some cooked rice to help absorb the liquid. It will help right away, but even more if you let it sit for an hour or overnight.

You can also make boring leftovers seem new and exciting by stirring them into pasta, either hot or cold.

When I'm short on time and wanting healthy food, I cook up a big batch of plain brown rice and plain beans, then throughout the week stir in different things to make it delicious and varied. I use whatever veggies I have available that sound good, and then add some flavor: salsa plus cheese, teriyaki sauce plus a can of water chesnuts, lowfat salad dressings (I like creamy caesar or ranch), cream of mushroom soup, any bottled marinade (lemon pepper, jamaican jerk), bbq sauce, etc. If I can't think of any veggies that sound like they'd be good mixed in, I try to have a salad or a piece of fruit on the side.

(There are a TON of similar questions on AskMefi, too... I hope you've searched and found some good ideas there.)
posted by vytae at 11:45 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is a new cookbook put out by PETA aimed at students in dorms. I haven't checked it out myself, but there are a couple sample recipes here.

A blender may also be a good investment. Or a tiny rice cooker, which can be used for other grains including quinoa in addition to rice.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:49 AM on July 27, 2009

Lentils are relatively quick-cooking on the stovetop, and easy to add to pretty much any dish. You can make a ton of them relatively quickly, freeze in smaller portions and add them as needed into things like minute rice or as an addition to ramen-type soups.
posted by neewom at 12:04 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I hope this is going to be a grad-student only hall. I have a... traumatic... memory of an undergrad residence hall kitchen. Lets just say, that to be on the safe side, you make sure to sterilize EVERY surface your food comes in contact with. If you do pick up a rice cooker/veg steamer there are plenty of meals you can make in your own room.

Also, FWIW, food prices vary greatly depending on location. I'm in Texas, and food is much cheaper here than the east coast.


Oatmeal. Buy the big bulk canisters, not sugary instant packets. This can be made with boiling water/microwave in 2-3 min. 12 servings, about $3. Make it more interesting with brown sugar and dried fruits like raisins or cranberries.

Big bag o' cereal. Enriched cereals (look for the WIC tag) can give you a surprising amount of vitamins, which is nice to know if you can't fit fresh veg into the budget everyday. 30 "servings" (maybe more like 20 in reality) for $4.

Scones. Make a double batch. Cut them, and lay out on a cooking sheet in the freezer until hard, then collect into a freezer bag. Pop one into the toaster oven for 10-15 min each morning while you get dressed.


Rice bowls. Cook rice and steam fresh squash, carrots, peas, or a quarter bag of frozen veg medley. Top with soy or teriyaki sauce. Also an option, if you find chicken parts on sale, bake/broil up with some teriyaki sauce. Chop into strips, and freeze in individual portions. Microwave to reheat, and add to rice bowl. 2lbs of rice (white, medium/long grain) ~ $1.50, frozen veg ~$1. Brown rice costs more, but I think the nutritional content is worth it.

Beans and Rice. Cook a big batch of beans sometime when you can spend an hour or two studying in the kitchen. Cheaper than caned, and so much tastier. Spoon over rice. If you get bored of this, mash up the beans and cook until thickened. You've got refried beans for burritos. Toss some salsa, rice and cheese in a tortilla. You could also make up a dozen or so of these, and freeze for microwave lunches. Pinto beans are about $0.68/lbs (vs $1 for a 15oz can)

Lentils and pitas. Lentils are a great quicker cooking option. Brown an onion, carrot, and celery in a stock pot. Toss in lentils and spices (cumin, coriander, salt, pepper) Simmer in water (or broth, or add a bouillon cube) for 60-90 min. Very hearty and tasty.

Dinner salads. Two big handfuls of greens (pre washed are 4x more expensive than dirty bunches), two hard boiled eggs, sliced carrots, peppers, tomato.

Oven fries. Could be frozen and re heated in the toaster oven. Top with a fried egg and salsa for a cheap and tasty meal.


Carrots. Buy big ones. They last forever, and are a buck or two a bag.
Popcorn. Not the microwave kind. ~$1.50 a bag with 24 servings, plus the cost of veg oil.

More reading:

Great freezing tips Lunch in a Box
Cheap Healthy Good blog with lots of ideas.

My other general tip would be to try to find someone to cook with. You'll probably run into people in the same situation as you in your hall. Cooking for 2 costs, (in my own anecdotal experience) about 1.5 times what you spend cooking alone, but takes the same amount of time. You'll have less food go bad, and less leftover fatigue to deal with. Plus, it's so much more enjoyable to share the work with someone. Set a budget then take turns planing out, and shopping for a weekly menu. $30 a week for two is comfortable (assuming coffee, beer, snacks, and breakfast are done individually). Plus, most recipes and quantities of food are geared for 4 servings. That means, you each eat a serving for dinner, and then leftovers for lunch.
posted by fontophilic at 12:58 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Here are the (arbitrarily chosen) top four meals I made in grad school, when time and grocery money were at a premium:

1) Veggie stir fry: chop a block of tofu into blocks, shake on some soy sauce or other sauce, and roast 15 minutes at 350. At the same time, wok up some frozen veggies (you can use a regular skillet if you don't have a wok) with stir fry sauce optional. For bonus points, use your ten-dollar rice cooker to create brown rice.

2) Salmon salad: fry or bake a salmon fillet, then toss onto a bed of spinach leaves. Add red onions and vinaigrette to taste.

3) Steak 'n greens: Soak a small steak in teriyaki sauce, then cook it in a skillet. Afterward, set aside and toss salad greens, quartered cucumbers, and lettuce into the pan; the teriyaki will cook in and the greens will all cook down to a tiny wet delicious mess. Yummo!

4) Miner in the Cave-in: cut a hole in the middle of a slice of buttered bread, then toss it in a hot skillet. Dump a cracked egg into the middle and let it cook together. You can toss this on a pile of spinach if you prefer some greens.
posted by dervish at 2:17 PM on July 27, 2009

Enchiladas. Making enchiladas is so easy that Mexico has a phrase "this is no enchilada" meaning "this won't be easy."

An enchilada is some meat/bean/spice filling wrapped in a corn shell tortilla, topped with enchilada sauce and cheese. The ingredients can vary to your taste, especially filling and toppings. Normally the hardest part of making enchiladas is lightly frying the corn shells, but I've discovered that you can microwave them for a few seconds and skip the frying.

* 1 lb beef
* 1lb of refried beans
* 10oz of Taco Sauce
* 16 Velveeta cheese slices
* 30 enchilada corn shells
* a small can of enchilada sauce
* spices and seasoning

Filling. This is the part you can make in bulk and store. I get a pound of beef and brown it. Once the meat is cooked, stir in the beans (refried beans are not actually fried, let alone re-fried. I hear it means something like squished in Spanish), seasoning and some taco sauce. Once you've cooked up the filling, you're done with the kitchen. You can store the filling in the fridge and reheat to make more later.

Rolling enchiladas. Normally you lightly fry the corn shells so that they will roll up without breaking. I find you can nuke em to the same effect without the extra oil and work. Take out 3 corn shells, nuke em and put some filling in them, then roll them up.

Toppings. Spoon some red enchilada sauce on top, and cover with Velveeta slices. Add any additional toppings you might want, like green onions. Put them in the microwave again for long enough to melt the cheese.

Alternatively, cook up a double batch of filling and break out a large pan and fill it full of enchiladas, cover with toppings and put in the oven for long enough to melt the cheese. You now have something like 70 enchiladas, which you can put in freezer bags to freeze and unthaw for later eating.

Mexican food is fairly simple to make, and you can easily mix and match ingredients. Beans + cheese + chips + jalopenos == nachos. Most importantly, cayenne pepper can forgive the sins of bachelor cooking. You can also pick up some hamburger helpers to round out the mexican routine.
posted by pwnguin at 3:42 PM on July 27, 2009

Lettuce-y salads don't keep well, but marinated-veggie-type salads will keep fine for a few days, maybe a week, in the fridge. Cucumber, radish, tomato, onion, bell pepper, olives, that sort of thing, tossed with some oil and some vinegar or maybe lemon or lime juice. You can drain some canned beans and add them for extra protein — chickpeas and black-eyed peas are nice, and the soak up the flavor of the dressing and the veggies — or you can add feta cheese, or nuts, or.... well, I mean, there's a lot of options, but you can figure it out.

Grated carrots/cabbage/broccoli/etc also make a nice slaw-type salad, and again they hold up way better than lettuce in the fridge, especially with a nice vinegary dressing.

Come to think of it, tzatziki/raita fall into sort of the same category: shredded cuke, maybe some tomato or onion or herbs, and yogurt instead of vinegar. Keep in in the fridge, and dollop it onto rice and beans or curry or whatever like sour cream on chili. It's especially nice as a foil for spicy food.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:51 PM on July 27, 2009


I saute some veges and then pour the egg in. Takes about ten minutes, and eggs are cheap.
posted by kjs4 at 5:05 PM on July 27, 2009

Seconding oatmeal. Buy the whole rolled oats. It takes next to no time, it's extremely cheap, and you can mix almost anything in to it. Savory oats are delicious -- I often have them with soy sauce and sri racha and scallions. (Much thanks to serious eats for this idea. Mark Bittman, incidentally, tends to have amazing simple recipes that take very little time to prepare and are very healthy.)
posted by kdar at 8:03 PM on July 27, 2009

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