Budget-Friendly Meals for the College Student

This fall, my son starts his junior year of college. For a myriad of reasons, his meal plan is smaller this year. There was a moment of anxiety when he realized he would have to feed himself and his budget is limited. He is living in the dorms so has a microwave and mini-fridge with a tiny freezer in his room. The freezer is barely big enough for two ice trays, though. There are common kitchen areas, but at this time we are unsure if they will be open this year due to COVID-19. They are not allowed to have things like toasters and hotplates in their rooms. This limits his meal options, and, although he is working, he doesn’t want to spend a lot of money dining out.

We have come up with a list of meals that don’t take up much space and can either be prepared using just a microwave or do not need any heating. Naturally, I thought other college students could benefit from this.

Breakfasts

  • Cold cereal and fruit
  • Oatmeal sprinkled with walnuts or pecans
  • Bagel with peanut butter and fruit
  • Yogurt and granola
  • Hard-boiled egg and a bagel

Pro-Tip: Be sure to eat protein and fruit every morning for long-lasting energy.

Lunches and Dinners

  • Rotisserie chicken and salad or vegetables—Save the leftover chicken and use it for chicken nachos, chicken quesadillas, sandwiches and wraps, or adding to a salad or ramen.
  • Wraps and sandwiches
  • Sandwich and salad
  • Quesadillas—cheese or chicken
  • Soup and crackers
  • Soup and salad
  • Salads—can make your own or buy pre-made
  • Nachos
  • Ramen—But not your average ramen! Add protein such as some of that rotisserie chicken or a sliced hard-boiled egg and toss in some mixed vegetables.
  • Chili dogs

Pro-Tip: Round out the meal with fresh or canned vegetables. Add fruit for a fuller meal.

Snacks

  • Chips and salsa
  • Hard-boiled egg
  • Granola bar and fruit
  • Crackers and peanut butter
  • Fruit and cheese
  • Crackers and cheese
  • Carrot sticks and peanut butter
  • Apple and peanut butter

Pro-Tip: Snacks should include protein. This reduces the chance of mindless snacking while you study.

Fruit that keeps well outside of the fridge (use within a week)

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Bananas
  • Peaches
  • Plums
  • Oranges

Pro-Tip: For the softer fruits like peaches and plums, buy slightly unripened unless you plan to eat them within a day or two.

Hard-boiled eggs can be found in the deli section, already peeled and ready to eat. Salads are also near the deli and usually are only $3-5. However, these salads contain mostly iceberg lettuce, which does not have a lot of nutrients, so adding things like egg, chicken, or cheese will give the salad a boost. Divide the salad into two servings and have half with a sandwich or bowl of soup. Purchase baby carrots so you don’t have to worry about peeling and slicing them.

Notice a lot of these ideas have similar ingredients. This is to keep the budget within reason. Planning ahead before you go shopping will also help.

First, make a list of the meals you need. If you work at a restaurant and eat for free or reduced cost, or have some cafeteria meals, plan your other meals around those. Then make a list of what you would like to eat and what you need to buy for those meals. Try to only purchase 3-4 days at a time, as a mini-fridge probably won’t hold a full week’s worth of groceries. Dedicate a shelf or cabinet for your pantry items. If all else fails, you can store canned goods in a cardboard box on the floor of your closet or under your bed.

The first time you go shopping, you will have to buy all the ingredients you need. After that, check what is on your shelf and in your fridge before you go to the store and plan your next few meals to use what you already have. Things like peanut butter and crackers are cheaper per ounce if they are purchased in larger containers. Cheese is more expensive if it’s already sliced or grated, so take that into consideration. A small knife and cutting board would be useful and help save money.

It will take some practice, and maybe some help from a parent or other family member, but you can feed yourself on less than $50 a week while at college. This is also good practice for when you are in your own apartment and might have to eat for less due to rent, utilities, and other costs that are not subsidized by scholarships and student loans.

Use this list to plan your meals and save money for other things, like textbooks!

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