College Dining
May 31, 2006 7:52 PM   Subscribe

What's your favorite healthy food that can be bought on a college student budget?

I've decided that I'm really going to crack down on my poor eating habits. As a college student, I've always bought the food that was the most affordable. Unfortunately, this is usually generic-brand pizza, toaster streudels, and whichever soda is on sale. In order to combat this, I'm looking for suggestions for healthy, easy-to-prepare foods that won't break the bank.
posted by charmston to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
You might be surprised what *else* you can find in your freezer section. For instance, a prepared vegetarian stir-fry sans rice was $4.99 with my coupon card last time I went shopping, and a bag of jasmine rice ran $1.99. I get three servings out of a cup of rice and a stir-fry.

If you don't want to buy prepared stir-fry, I think I survived on fried rice in my later college years. I'd get whatever frozen veggies were cheap (carrots, peas, mushrooms, eggs, etc... my fave was broccoli), boil up some rice, put a scrambled egg and the veggies and then stir fry it in a frying pan or wok with some soy or teriyaki sauce.
posted by SpecialK at 7:57 PM on May 31, 2006

For snacks, I'd say get the best cheese your budget allows (go in deli if you can) then slice it up and serve on grain crackers (going organic if your budget allows). There's a lot of different cheeses to give you variety, and you can top off with condiments like cracked mustard.

Just avoid any cheese that says "cheese food" on the ingredients as it's not real cheese and probably not good for you. Kraft is notorious about this with their cheaper cheeses.
posted by rolypolyman at 7:57 PM on May 31, 2006

Beans and Rice
Tuna on Toast
Cereal (Think Cheerios, not Trix)
PB&J Sammiches
posted by Loto at 7:57 PM on May 31, 2006

nuts, like almonds, walnuts, dried fruit, kellog makes some good cereal bars, high fiber and low fat; yogurt, cottage cheese, soy milk
posted by cellar at 8:06 PM on May 31, 2006

See here, here, here, here and here.
posted by chiababe at 8:06 PM on May 31, 2006

One of my favorite easy cheap meals is pasta primavera. Boil up a pound of pasta - I use Dreamfields, but any pasta will work (whole wheat is better). In the meantime, chop up some veggies and roast them in the oven - I use zucchini, yellow squash, bell peppers, and carrots. When the pasta is done, drain it, toss in the roasted veggies, stir in a little extra virgin olive oil, and if you have it on hand, some parmesan cheese. Done. Cheap, easy, and it goes a long way.
posted by geeky at 8:13 PM on May 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

Cheese food is made of real cheese and there is no evidence that its worse for you than regular cheese. It just means that it is made from a blend of cheeses and an emulsifier [link].

I like Kefir as a nice drink (you can find the raspberry flavor the cheapest). You should also learn to make your own beans from scratch that can really save a bit of change. I also recommend getting fruit by the season, what ever is cheapest at the time. Oh an carrot sticks are dirt cheap, you can buy a lowfat blue chesse dressing to dip it in if you must.
Store brand oatmeal is also a good deal and if you watch which varieties you buy then are also reasonably healthy for you, Just remember you don't have to goto the organic aisle to get healthy, cheap food.
posted by ozomatli at 8:20 PM on May 31, 2006

Having a good selection of condiments on hand is essential. With a loaf of bread, your condiments become a sandwich! With celery, they are a snack! With that stale bread you got at the half-off rack, they make your meal vaguely palatable! You can squirt them on hot dogs, add them to soups, and use them to make happy faces on your frozen waffles. (I would not suggest using the same condiment for all of the above.)

Sales are your friends; cruise the produce section whenever you're in the grocery store and pick up sale items. You can stir fry produce, add them to fried rice, put them in a salad, or just cook them up on their own. Buy meat on sale and freeze it until you need it. Try to keep a loaf of bread on hand for emergency sandwiches. Salads are your friend. I have yet to be in a grocery store which did not have some brand or other of canned soup on sale. Pasta is great because once you have cooked the pasta, you can throw pretty much anything on top of it and then pretend that you're being avant-garde and Italian or something.

It may or may not impact cheapness, but I'd suggest switching from soda to juice-- juice can (and often should) be diluted, frozen juice can come pretty cheap, and in the summertime, with the help of some two-dollar molds from the drugstore, you can make yourself popsicles. Everyone likes popsicles! Otherwise, switch to water.
posted by posadnitsa at 8:21 PM on May 31, 2006

Let me also add: ice.

sounds simple, but trust me when you have ice on hand it makes grabbing a glass of water that much more refreshing! Plus it makes a great (and the only negative calorie) snack!
posted by ozomatli at 8:39 PM on May 31, 2006

I absolutely love fruitshakes.

1 banana + some milk OR juice + berries/melon/mango

I just mix up whatever I happen to have in the fridge at the moment.

Of course, this requires a blender and a willingness to wash said blender.
posted by moonshine at 8:40 PM on May 31, 2006

If you've got a Trader Joe's nearby, their "simmer sauces" are a pretty good deal. You can stretch a chicken breast out a pretty long time if you chop it up and cook it with some veggies with a sauce over rice. And it tastes good, too. If you like yogurt, you can make your own fruity yogurt by buying a large container of plain or vanilla and mixing in fresh fruit or preserves. The suggestion for cheese and crackers for snacks is a good one--especially if you can get small pieces of a lot of different kinds of cheese to try them out.

In terms of bargain hunting, does your grocery have sale bins for dented boxes and the like? You can often get stuff dirt cheap--for instance, I got a box of Grainfields corn flakes for 92 cents and it normally retails for nearly $3 a box--the box was damaged, but the contents were fine.
posted by eilatan at 8:41 PM on May 31, 2006

Various types of beans flavored with a little meat
ie Redbeans, sausage + rice
Lentils + labshanks and barley soup
Lentils + italian sausage + 1 pack of frozen spinach + can of tomatos as a thick soup
black eyed peas + smoked hamhock + rice

Make a big pot, freeze some, eat the rest as leftovers over a few days.
posted by Good Brain at 8:41 PM on May 31, 2006

One of my favorite cheap meals is this Thai Pineapple Chicken Curry - it's restaurant-quality and it makes about 6-8 meals. Rice is cheap - I picked up a 5-lb bag of jasmine rice at my local global foods store for $2.99 and it's lasted about 4 months.

If you want to continue the Asian theme, crab rangoons are easy to make yourself as well. Get a thing of wonton wrappers, some cream cheese, seasonings of your choice and some of that fake crab meat. Mix the filling together, put in wonton wrappers, seal with water. Heat up a small pot of vegetable oil and deep fry until golden brown. (Yes, I know that crab rangoons are not REAL Asian food, but they are tasty and my 1-year-old likes them).

Pasta salad is good too - my local grocery store will have boxes on sale for $1 occasionally. I stock up and then add veggies from my garden, tuna, leftover chicken, whatever. When I was in college I lived on a lot of pasta dishes.

Quesadillas are also good - get some tortillas, some cheese, and other fillings/leftovers of your choice. Microwave or fry and you're done.

My other college staples were soup and microwave popcorn. And nachos.
posted by Ostara at 8:44 PM on May 31, 2006

btw, +rice = serve with rice. I'm not suggesting you cook them all together.
posted by Good Brain at 8:44 PM on May 31, 2006

I described this chicken salad meal for another question, but it's relevant here (especially since it's what I eat to be healthy, easily, on a college student budget): warm chicken salad. To marinate the chicken, I suggest tandoori, or honey and soy marinade. You can buy both premade, but for a lot less money mix equal parts honey and soy sauce to make that marinade yourself. Both honey and soy last for ages so you save some money.

Also, plan your meals so that you buy only the ingredients you need and minimise waste. I started doing that when money got tight recently, and I feel an idiot for not doing it all along.

Have some meals up your sleeve that use up fresh ingredients or ingredients that are about to go off. Pasta for example is especially forgiving and can easily accomodate the quarter of an eggplant or half a small tin of tuna that's left in your fridge. Baked potatoes are a favourite way of using up leftover pancetta (my luxury item, that I always buy too much of), which is great considering potatoes are so ridiculously cheap and keep for ages if stored properly.

Another bad habit I broke was eating last night's leftovers for breakfast the next day. I would have a dinner-sized bowl of pasta left, but eat it for breakfast while my cereal sat in its box going stale and my milk was in the fridge going bad. Then I'd make a whole new dinner that night (=more $). If you don't want the same meal two nights in a row, there are ways to make them different. Pasta is especially good for this. Heat some butter, garlic, and cream in a pan, then once they're lightly simmering put in last night's bowl of pasta in a tomato sauce to heat it up. Now you've got a creamy marinara-ish sauce that isn't just last night's dinner. For example.

What I'm saying is that there are lots of meals that are healthy, easy, and affordable, but for me the biggest savings (without a drop in quality) came when I learned to make what I have go the furthest.
posted by teem at 8:44 PM on May 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

"amy's" brand organic/vegetarian frozen and canned foods.

the chiles are excellent and the burritos are under $2, satisfying, and healthy.
posted by oigocosas at 8:57 PM on May 31, 2006

Water or tea, not soda.
Frozen edamame for a snack. (Microwave for 3-4 minutes).
PB & J.
Rice and beans.
See all the links as listed by chiababe.
posted by hooray at 9:17 PM on May 31, 2006

instead of soda, but a bottle of lemon juice and add a teaspoon or whatever to a glass of water instead. Tastes great, refreshing, and much better for you than soda.
Find a small produce market- broccoli, tomatoes, onions- they're all really cheap. A bottle of pasta sauce at 4.99 (or buy a bottle of tomato concentrate and add those cheap onions and broccoli for an even cheaper, fresher sauce) plus a pound of pasta for a buck means for six bucks you get three or four servings depending on how big of an eater you are.
Dried raw nuts are expensive-ish but a little go a long way and keep you from snacking on things that are less healthy.
Sandwiches are cheap, too, if you're not in a cooking mood.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:35 PM on May 31, 2006

Second the Trader Joe's Sauces. Also- consider baking your own bread. It's cheap as dirt to do and once you get good at it, you'll be capable of making some really kickass multigrain stuff that can serve as an entire meal in a pinch.
posted by The White Hat at 10:56 PM on May 31, 2006

Oh, and tomato sauce = one can goya tomato sauce + one can goya diced tomatos + (optional: sausage, onions, mushrooms, chicken, etc).
posted by The White Hat at 10:58 PM on May 31, 2006

A bottle of pasta sauce at 4.99

Don't do that, it's overpriced and bottled sauce is usually full of corn syrup. Buy the cans of stuff that's just pureed tomato or pureed tomato with a little garlic powder, and add your own spices. The little 8 ounce cans are great for cooking up sauce for one big pasta meal, and it will cost you like a buck fifty total, and at the simplest you can just pour it in a pan with some spices and olive oil while you boil the pasta. (When the pasta's done boiling, put it in the pan with the sauce, still on the burner, for about thirty seconds.)
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:29 PM on May 31, 2006

Corn Thins. Guilt free snacking.

Low in fat, sugar, and salt! The only processed snack I like that is low in the big three. Tastes exactly like popcorn.

(I eat 'em plain. If you wanna add stuff, just make sure you don't bung too much crap on them like high fat cheese and salami etc.)

Er, which sorta brings me to my next point. Un salted, un buttered popcorn is probably even better value, just a lot more preparation.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:42 PM on May 31, 2006

Oh yeah. And also high in fibre. Floating around the 10% mark depending on what variety you buy.

The shit should be illegal, it's that good.

(Self confessed ex snacker of high fat, high salt potato chips before I discovered them. I like my junk food. Make no mistakes. But these things taste so bloody good I almost don't feel like I'm missing out on anything.)
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:50 PM on May 31, 2006

Kale, yams, tofu.

Protein, carbs, calcium, and mad fiber. That calcium-rich kale is like a brillo pad for your colon.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:15 AM on June 1, 2006

Asparagus microwaves really well. Make your own vinaigrette: oil, vinegar, grey poupon, salt, pepper, shake in a jar.

Frozen spinach works well with the same treatment.

Either of these with rice and a small piece of chicken or meat and you're right up there with the restaurant eaters.

Get a pepper mill, nothing add flavor so much as fresh (white) pepper. It loses its spicy aroma in 5 or 10 minutes.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:38 AM on June 1, 2006

White rice. A few minutes before it's done, add some canned makeral (cheapest protein I know of). The makeral is loaded with omega 3. I like to eat this with marjarine (not butter, only thing I prefer marjarine with) and cheap 'parmasea-like' grated cheese. In my poorest student times this served me very well.

Brown rice, served toped with a can of black beans (Goya, for example) into which you have sliced/grated cheddar cheese.

Eggs, served any way you care to imagine.

Chicken is cheap!
posted by Goofyy at 1:52 AM on June 1, 2006

Get yourself a recipe book, cook stuff in batches of 4, eat 1 and freeze the other 3 to be microwaved later. This means you only have to cook every 1 in 4 nights, and it usually works out £1-2 a serving (I guess thats $2-4). Stuff like spaghetti bolagnese, chicken/vegetable curry, pasta bakes, chilli con carne, stir fry are all really easy to make in batches.
posted by Orange Goblin at 2:51 AM on June 1, 2006

posted by fire&wings at 5:21 AM on June 1, 2006

I just discovered the delights of miso soup. I found a great instant one that comes in single serve sachets. It takes 2 minutes to boil the kettle, and is really yum. Plus, every time I have a mug I instantly seem to feel healthier, which, no doubt, is just a placebo effect.
posted by jonathanstrange at 5:48 AM on June 1, 2006

teem, can you post your meal plans? I need some inspiration.
posted by eustatic at 5:57 AM on June 1, 2006

Not a meal, but a good/healthy/cheap/tasty/filling snack: rice cakes spread with hummus.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:07 AM on June 1, 2006

1. Dry lentils are cheap, extremely nutritious and don't have to be soaked before cooking. Cook them with some chopped onion and garlic, add some ground meat (cooked first) and spices (viz cumin, tumeric, chili powder, garam masala), cut up pototo and carrot pieces. Pure nutrition. and not bad tasting once you work together a recipe you like. You can also use any kind of dry bean but you'll have to soak it first.

2. steel cut oats.. get them at a whole foods store, they are dirt cheap. Here is how I cook them:
a. toast 1 cup of the oats in 1 tablespoon of butter medium heat for about 2 minutes.
b. add 3 cups boiling water; boil the oats gently for about 20 minutes
c. add 1 tbl spoon sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp molasses, 1 cup milk and cook for a little longer, about 5 minutes
d. add some cut up banana pieces to the bowl when you eat.

3. ramen noodles. Make ramen as usual but add the following:
komoboko slices (from asian market), roast beef slices, sliced boiled egg, green beans, seaweed (from asian market), chili pepper, chopped green onion -- delicious and cheap
-komoboko seems odd to westerners but it is good
posted by jockc at 10:48 AM on June 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Steal these recipes. Especially cheap is Rice with Cong Sauce. Poor in protein though, so add some beans or lentils to your diet.

On that subject, the best lentil dish I ever had is one I made up. I have tried to replicate it since, never with the same scrumptiousness. Here's what I recall: Heat a couple T of oil in a heavy pot and thoroughly brown half a pound of pork stew meat. Add a couple cloves of garlic, crushed or minced, toward the end of browning. Add water to cover plus a quart or so, and bring to the boil. Pitch in enough good lentils (I had the good luck of having little French lentils on hand, and they are not inclined to go mushy as larger ones are) to take up the water and half a cup or more of wine. Yeah, make it more, actually. When the lentils are al dente throw in a can of stewed tomatoes and salt generously. This was cheap for me because I already had the stuff on hand, some of it (e.g., the wine) abandoned by recent ex-roommates.

While you're drinking water with lemon juice, once in a while try crushing a slice of root ginger in the glass. Mmmmm. You really ought to have ginger on hand anyway, for all the cheap, nutritious stir-fries you'll be making.

And I totally second the bread thing. Few things incur a lower cost per calorie than bulk bread flour ($4 for 25 pounds at warehouse stores).
posted by eritain at 11:18 AM on June 1, 2006

P.S.: I think I sprinkled some Five Spice powder into the oil. Garam masala would be good too.
posted by eritain at 12:25 PM on June 1, 2006

Potatoes. Cheap, versatile, healthy unless you glom on the fat and salt.

- Roast potatoes in the oven. Cut in chunks, add a teaspoon or so of oil (olive oil is nice) per potato, salt and pepper. 325F for @ 1 hour. Stir every 15 minutes so they get brown on all sides. You can mix in sweet potatoes, too.

- Baked potato, butter and/or sourcream and/or plain yogurt. Or pesto, or cheese.

Beans. Canned black bean soup with a dollop of yogurt and a side of rice is tasy and provides complete protein.

Lentils cook in 20 minutes and taste good with butter, salt & pepper. Add some cooked carrots or other veg.

Learn to make mac & cheese from scratch. Cooks Illust. The Best Recipe has my favorite recipe.
posted by theora55 at 7:17 PM on June 1, 2006

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