How to eat healthy on a budget

One of the benefits of moving into an apartment is that you are completely in control of what you eat. If you gained the dreaded freshman 15 (give or take a few pounds), you might see this as an opportunity to start choosing healthier foods.

While campus dining provides students with a variety of meal and snack options daily, there are too many choices for one individual. Their expansive menus try to accommodate the thousands of students who eat there every day, which is a good thing. The downside is that many students choose to overflow their plates with unhealthy options that lead to weight gain.

Now, living outside of the dorms, you’ll be shopping for and preparing your own meals. You can eliminate the temptations of easily accessible greasy foods and rich desserts simply by not buying them.

I made the choice to do so when I moved in to my apartment this summer. However, I quickly realized that I was spending more money than I needed to on food. Eating healthy is more expensive, but maintaining a budget is possible. With some trial and error, I figured out how to cut down my grocery bill to $40 to $50 a week.

If that seems like a lot, keep in mind that the cost of a 10 classics/45 cafe credits meal plan for the 2014-2015 school year is $6,271 for non-residents. That’s over $600 a month for your meals.

With that in mind, here are my tips for healthier and cheaper eating:

Stock up with your parents

This may not be an option for everyone, but if you have parents that are willing to take you grocery shopping when they help you move in or visit, take advantage. This is the time to load your grocery cart with the additional little things that will last a while but add up. I’m talking about canned items, spices, salts, organic sweeteners, healthy cooking oils and sprays, etc. Having a large selection of spices and oils will add variety to your meals, which is extra important for maintaining a healthy diet. If you’re eating the same bland recipes every day, you’re more likely to indulge in some Manolo’s or Jimmy John’s. Not only does this break your diet, but also that’s cash out of your pocket that you could have saved.

Have go-to meals and snacks

I usually eat three small meals a day and three or four snacks. For breakfast it’s either scrambled egg whites with spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms, healthy pancakes or a quick bowl of healthy cereal with some fruit or raisins. For lunch and dinner I eat a salad or chicken with some steamed veggies. My snacks usually consist of Greek yogurt with sugar-free honey and cinnamon, healthy granola bars, apples and peanut butter, ants on a log or veggies with hummus. If you eat similar meals every day, you’ll eliminate waste by ensuring that all of your groceries are used. You’d also be surprised by the variety you can create in these simple meals by adding different spices and sauces.

Plan out your meals — and days!

Planning is everything in regards to healthy eating. Not only do you need to plan out your meals, but you should also sit down at the beginning of each week and write out your schedule. This will help you understand when you have time to cook meals or when you will need to have something quick or already prepared. According to this schedule, choose what you will eat when. Before you do this, take stock of the groceries you have and think of meals or snacks you can create with them. If you have foods that will expire soon, plan to eat those early in the week. Anything you are running low of or are out of, add to your grocery list.

Plan a new meal or dessert every week

When eating a healthier diet, it can be really tempting to give into cravings for fast food. It’s even more tempting when you’re eating similar meals every day to save money. Not to mention the fact that we’re constantly surrounded by unhealthy food options on a college campus. In order to make sure you don’t break your diet, plan for one new meal or healthy dessert every week. This will add some extra variety and something to look forward to. And while you may have to spend money on extra ingredients, you will have enough to make the recipe multiple times.

Buy cheaper

If you’re going to eat healthy on a budget, you need to buy generic brands. There’s not really any difference, and they’re usually cheaper. You’ll also want to check the unit prices or “cost per unit” of foods. This tells you the cost per pound, quart or other unit of weight or volume of the item you are purchasing. It is usually posted on the shelf below the food. For example, a 12-ounce can of tomatoes may cost $1 while another brand might be 15-ounce for $1.10. When you do the division, you will find that the 15-ounce can is actually cheaper.

It’s also helpful if you can drive to a Walmart or Aldi, where the food is cheaper than County Market. There are buses that go to these stores, but the long trip may not be worth it. If you don’t have a vehicle, ask your friends with cars where they do their grocery shopping. If they already make the trip to these stores, ask if you can tag along. If these options don’t work out, it’s no big deal. Just follow these other tips and you will still save money.

Meal and snack preparation

Now that you’ve planned out your meals and bought your groceries, it’s time to prepare them. At the beginning of the week, it’s helpful to prepare meals and snacks ahead of time. For example, if there’s a day where you know you’re schedule will be tight, put some veggies or cut up fruit in a baggie that you can grab out of the fridge in a hurry. Or for a quick breakfast option, you can use these pre-cut fruits or veggies to make a smoothie you can sip on your way to class. You can also make some salads for the week and store them in the fridge in containers. When all else fails, a piece of fruit on the go can curb your appetite for a while. If you have options prepared ahead of time, you’re less likely to stop at a cafe or the Illini Union food court to buy something.

Stop eating out!

You’ve probably already gotten this point by now, but it’s a very important one. At the beginning of the summer, I noticed I was spending a lot of money at restaurants or convenience shops to buy food when I didn’t have time to prepare something. Later, I’d be surprised when I had to throw out half my groceries. That’s why planning and preparation is so important — to avoid waste and more spending. It’s OK to eat out once in a while, but I would reserve this for when you go out with friends. Other than that, eat what’s in your kitchen before it goes bad.

Karyna is a junior in Media. She can be reached at [email protected]