Eating healthy on a budget: Set limits, cook your own food

Although the transition from dorm living to apartment living can be an exciting one, becoming more independent may be difficult. With more independence comes more responsibility — rent, maintenance issues, food — they’re all new things to worry about. 

When you previously relied on the dining hall to provide you with all the food you eat, preparing your own food can become a significant challenge. Here are five healthy tips to help you make it through the year without starving, mooching food off of your friends or going broke by frequently ordering takeout.

Set a budget

Consider this new aspect of your life as training for the “real world.” After graduation, you will not have a meal plan, or some type of budgeted cafeteria eating. While University Housing made everything easy by organizing your room and meals into a nice contract, now it’s up to you to keep track your own expenses. After setting your money (or your parents’) aside each month for rent and other expenses, settle on an amount you need for food and divide that into four weeks. Each week, you can use this money to do grocery shopping. For the amount that remains, allow yourself to use it for takeout for that day you don’t feel like touching the stove or that rough night when the procrastinator in you is going to need that Trenta coffee from Starbucks to finish that project. Do not get in the habit of frequently purchasing expensive restaurant food that will only empty your wallet and fill out your waistline.

Limit yourself

Peer pressure does not only apply to drugs and alcohol. It also applies to eating. Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is turn down your best friend’s offer to go get pizza. And ice cream. Or drinks at Murphy’s. Or maybe you are the one doing the offering. For most people, money doesn’t grow on trees. It’s OK to turn down people’s invitations. It’s also OK to celebrate that one time after making it through midterms or securing your dream internship — but don’t do it too much.

Let’s face it — takeout is generally more expensive than preparing your own food. It’s just alluringly convenient and tasty. While you are budgeting your expenses, decide on a number of times you will allow yourself to buy restaurant food on a weekly basis. Keep track, and if you exceed your allowed numbers, you will face the financial consequences. An extra $8.50 at Chipotle every week is an extra $34 you could save every month. Spend wisely.

Buy groceries often and regularly

You may assume that stopping by County Market frequently is a bad idea. However, it’s not, if you do it correctly. Many people make the mistake of grocery shopping once a month and instantaneously swiping away close to $200 in a single day.

Shopping on a weekly basis, only making the essential purchases, can be easier on your wallet and your arms. Budgeting on a weekly basis is simpler than trying to guess how much you should spend, then being unpleasantly surprised at the end of the month.

When shopping in bulk, it usually means that your supply of food is nearly non-existent. Thus, you may buy more than you need, and you’ll waste money on unnecessary food that will just rot in your pantry. If you buy a set list of staples (cereal, bread, not too many snacks) every week, you’ll eliminate the money you waste on pointless purchases that you will end up lugging over to your apartment.

Cook in your free time

Cooking is scary, especially if you’re used to your parents or the Ike having your meals ready at the exact time that you need them. For those who have the time, cooking in an apartment is a great way to improve your baking skills, relieve stress and bond with roommates. Whereas cooking in dorms can be difficult with limited kitchen materials and time, cooking in apartments has fewer restraints. There’s more time and space, and you get to prepare whatever you please from the comfort of your own home and appliances.

Spontaneously preparing a batch of chocolate chip cookies after class may sound great, but for those who have limited time, providing your own meals may seem more like a nuisance than an opportunity. When you are run down on energy and time, the easiest go-to is takeout. However, if you prepare a good amount of food over weekends, eating during the week may be less difficult. It could be as simple as boiling pasta on a Sunday afternoon, and putting it into five separate containers and reheating for lunch Monday through Friday. Sacrificing an hour here and there could save you a lot of time and stress when things are in full swing during the week.

Take advantage of free food

As a college student, people expect you to be broke, stressed and sleep-deprived. Thus, free, cheap and discounted food is always prevalent on campus. You may feel bad attending that cultural event or info night in which you are not remotely interested but the feeling will pass. Your time as an undergrad is only a few short years, and soon this time will pass and you will pay your dues to society. Until then, take advantage of the fact that this campus has a lot of perks to offer you.

Whether you get unlimited chips with your Burrito King meal, coupons for new restaurants in issues of The Daily Illini, fundraisers at Potbelly or free lunches at the Women’s Resources Center, faculty, restaurant owners and fellow students have your best interest in mind.

Food is a basic need, but there are also other cooler things on which you can spend your money if you budget your expenses properly. Moving from the dorms to an apartment can be quite the transition, but it teaches students to build good financial and dietary discipline.

Eunie is a junior in Fine and Applied Arts. She can be reached at [email protected]