How to Eat Healthy in College on a Budget

How to Eat Healthy in College on a Budget

I moved out of my parents’ house a couple months ago. It’s different than when I moved out for my freshman year — last year I was moving into a dorm, with a meal plan and proximity to a grocery store and on-campus snacks. Now, I’m entirely responsible for choosing to buy and prepare all my own food.

It’s difficult to steer clear of junk food in Jewel-Osco, and it’s even more difficult to remember all the seven food groups we need to eat to live — vegetables, fruits, grains, protein, dairy, oils and other. It’s much easier to choose ready-to-eat Oreos that taste amazing instead of carrots that you have to prepare and season yourself to make them taste just-okay.

Eating healthy as a college student can be challenging. For those of us who are no longer on campus, we’re on our own for the first time and can no longer rely on our parents or the university’s dining hall to make us food. But it’ll pay off in the future. According to Time magazine, when the average person eats healthier, their life expectancy increases by up to 17 percent.

I wanted to educate myself on how to decide what food I put into my body everyday — so I reached out to DePaul peers for advice on what I, and other students, can do to help stay on track when consuming a balanced diet. I already have enough responsibility with homework, work, making my own doctor’s appointments and pushing myself to go to the gym. I could use some nuggets of wisdom to lean on when I don’t feel like also juggling food.

Emily Baltierra recently started her junior year at DePaul. Eating healthy is important to her, she said, because she knows that decisions about how she treats her body now will affect long-term physical and mental health.

The science backs her up. Biologically, there’s a strong correlation between food and mental well-being. Most of a person’s serotonin, the “feel good” chemical, is produced by the gastrointestinal tract. So keeping the gastrointestinal tract healthy allows it to produce more serotonin and keep your brain healthy. It also feels good to know you’re eating well. 

For Baltierra, mindful grocery shopping isn’t a task she takes on alone. She lives with her sister — they meal prep together and keep each other on track. Motivation for lifestyle changes can simmer out fast, especially for a busy student who may also have a job or scholarship to worry about. 

For tips on how to implement good decisions into our everyday lives, Baltierra suggested eating beforehand if you have plans to go out with friends. “You’ll be less tempted to eat fast food and you’ll also save money,” she said. This advice resonates better than the commonly heard “just don’t go out,” which becomes an issue when your friends decide to hang out without you. This way, if you fill up ahead of time, you can have fun going out without ruining your nutrition goals.

Baltierra’s go-to meal is oatmeal with fruit toppings. This food is simple and healthy. Consider buying oatmeal in bulk, she said — not pre-packaged — so it lasts longer and costs less.

Fellow DePaul junior Matthew Yonemura enjoys the boost of energy nutritious food gives him. Some staples of his grocery list include yogurt, fruit, vegetables, peanut butter, rice cakes and chicken. 

Until recently, Yonemura thought that eating healthy was more expensive than living off pre-packaged junk food. “Eating healthy really is not as expensive as most people tend to think,” he said. “It is expensive when eating out at places like Veggie Grill or other ‘healthy’ restaurants.”

When grocery shopping completely alone for the first time, I felt overwhelmed by the choice and reached for brands I recognized as “healthy.” My receipt was much larger than I could sustain if I needed groceries every week —but I couldn’t go back to Ramen everyday. 

On my next outing after speaking to Yonemura, I tested if I could buy equally healthy foods without the brand. I witnessed price differences based on foods’ branding for myself. For example, on Target’s website, peanut butter from the brand Simply Balanced costs $3.99, while the Target brand of the same size of peanut butter costs $1.79.

Similarly, drastic price differences exist depending on the store the food is from and how it’s packaged. Knowing the price pitfalls that make people overpay for healthy food makes it easier to avoid them and still lead a fit lifestyle.

A pack of four fruit cups with sliced pears, apples and pineapples, in a cherry-flavored preservative juice, cost $12.99 at Walmart. Alternatively, you could buy five pounds of red apples for $5.92, three  pounds of pears for $3.77 and one whole pineapple for $2.88, for a total price of $12.57. Not only does the second option cost less, but it’s healthier without the added sugar in fruit cups, more filling, and will last much longer than four snacks.

“A lot of people our age are scared to cook because it seems hard,” he said, “But it’s easy to … cook a largish quantity one day, and then put the leftovers in a Tupperware so that you have your meals cooked in the following days.” 

Receiving advice from fellow college students helped ease my anxiety about how realistic my healthy goals were while living under my own roof. 

I also interviewed a professional, to backup Baltierra and Yonemura’s words and give her own expert advice. Chicago-based registered dietician Deborah “Debbie” Murphy was kind enough to answer my most burning questions. She also has a food blog that includes vegan, vegetarian and healthy recipes.

“Keep it simple and not overcomplicate,” she said when I asked her key nutritional rule. “The basic nutrition advice I give most often is to eat more fruits and vegetables because they are nutrient dense while also low in calories.” 

Murphy advises to choose more protein-rich plants rather than meat. Examples include tofu, edamame, chickpeas and beans, which each provide more than 10 grams of protein per serving. 

Murphy gave a few tips on grocery shopping with a healthier diet in mind. First, make a list, she said. Don’t just plan on winging it, because you’ll end up with a cart full of impulse buys even though you already have granola bars at home — and now you’ve gone over budget for the month. 

Murphy also encouraged not to shop on an empty stomach.“You are way more likely to end up with food that wasn’t on your list when you are shopping while hungry,” she said.

She also recommends limiting boxes and bags while grocery shopping. “The food you buy at the store that comes in boxes and bags (i.e. sugary cereal and potato chips) is typically more processed and nutrient-poor than fresh produce which is not in a package,” she said.  “Keep a few shelf stable items like canned beans, canned vegetables, and pasta on hand to create healthier meals without a lot of fuss.”

Shifting to a healthy diet seemed daunting after being used to a lifestyle where dinner was always made for me and the only foods I provided myself were McDonald’s fries or Reese’s cups. I was worried my motivation to commit to healthy meal planning would deteriorate before I even had time to adjust. It’s encouraging to know there are others out there making the same changes as me with the hope they’ll thank themselves later. 

Know it’s possible and don’t beat yourself up, because change takes time. Implementing even one of the tips I mentioned into your life can make a difference.  

Header image by Jenni Holtz