How To Eat Healthy On A Budget In College


How to eat healthy on a budget in college. One of the first things we do when we enter college is go food shopping in order to stock our new dorm rooms with cereal, ramen noodles and ramen (I don’t know how many of you were as obsessed with ramen noodles as I was, but I might have ate them once or twice a week back in the day). However, in my opinion, it is not wise to rely on this kind of food to survive your first semester…

How to Eat Healthy in College (on the Cheap!)

What if you could get good, tasty, healthy, AND cheap food for your dorm room? This personal trainer and nutrition specialist explains how.

What if you could get good, tasty, healthy, AND cheap food for your dorm room? This personal trainer and nutrition specialist explains how.

As a college student, you probably have barely enough money to buy ramen, much less fancy salads, salmon, and other healthy foods.  

However, even though healthy food has a reputation for being expensive, it doesn’t have to be that way—even for college students. If you want to stock up on good-for-you foods to keep in your dorm room, use these tips. You’ll get what you need and save cash at the same time.

Learn the sales cycle at your local grocery store

All stores have a cycle for their sale and clearance items, and if they’re near your campus, they might be especially sensitive to cost-conscious college students.

Maybe you’ve seen their weekly sales flyers, which promote the deals for that week. If you can’t get these flyers in person, the grocery store might even share them on social media. At any rate, the key here is knowing when those promo cycles end, because that’s usually when surplus items go on sale.

Some grocery stores even offer double discounts on the day the old sales end and new ones begin. This may not sound like the cheapest technique, but AOL’s finance blog says this can save you as much as 50% off your grocery bill. All you have to do is plan your grocery trip ahead of time.

Buy simple foods and prepare them yourself if you can

Prepping your own meals is an easy way to cut costs and eat healthier in college. You might be surprised by how much healthy food you can keep in your dorm and even how much meal prep you can do if you have mini-fridge and/or microwave. And if you live in an off-campus apartment or an on-campus suite with a full kitchen? Well, the world is your oyster! (Except not really because oysters are crazy expensive.)

For example, pre-bagged salads are convenient, but you pay more for that convenience. To save on cash, grab a head of lettuce ($1–$2), along with carrots (less than $2 for a whole bunch), a cucumber ($1), and maybe a few more veggies of your choice (spend up to $5). Chop everything up at home and store in an airtight container in your fridge for an easy-to-grab base for lunch and dinner salads.

You can likely get at least five small salads out of that, which ends up costing less than $2 per salad. You can even bring some to the cafeteria and eat it as a side with an entree they’re serving.

But salad math is just the beginning. Other great cheap but healthy food choices for college students include:

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Beans and/or lentils
  • Eggs (microwave mug omelets, anyone?)
  • Garlic
  • Hummus
  • Onions
  • Peanut butter
  • Popcorn (look for low-salt, low-calorie options, not the butter-drenched kind)
  • Rice, preferably brown (grab the microwaveable bag if you don’t have a stove top)
  • Rotisserie chicken (if you can’t cook a chicken yourself)
  • Salsa
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Tortillas
  • Tuna fish (look for low sodium/forgiving roommates)
  • Whole grain bread
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Yogurt, preferably plain, low sugar, and/or Greek

With all the recipes online, you’ll have no trouble finding easy, healthy dishes you can make in a dorm. (Editor’s note: if you have a full kitchen, we highly recommend this “epically frugal” rice and beans recipe!) And don’t forget, cooking is a super-handy life skill, so the more practice you get, the better. 

Shop bulk items

The bulk section is where you’ll save on the cost of packaging. You can get the same amount of most granola, nuts, and grains for significantly less, especially if they’re running a sale. If your grocery store has bulk bins—and you aren’t picky—go for the items that are on sale to get a lot of food at a steep discount. Supplement these dry goods with other perishable items mentioned above to make healthy meals and snacks right in your dorm room.

Then there are bulk stores. And just like you might’ve teamed up with your roommate to share big-ticket dorm items like your mini fridge or TV, you might be able to go in on a bulk store membership together. If not, why not ask for one as a holiday or birthday gift? (Just be prepared for a look of amazement from your parents.)

Shop around first

Sometimes the stores we assume are the cheapest are actually more expensive than we realize. While Trader Joe’s is known for their low prices, a recent grocery store analysis found that stores like Aldi, Publix, and Kroger came in above Trader Joe’s for offering the most weekly savings.

If you have access to more than one grocery store, shop around before settling on your go-to. To test the difference in pricing, do the same exact grocery trip two weeks in a row (buying all the same exact items) at two different stores. Compare the total to see where you can save the most.

Clever Ways to Eat Healthy on a Tight Budget

Nutritious food can be expensive, and it can be difficult to eat a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables when you’re on a tight budget.

The good news is, there are many ways you can save money and still eat whole foods. In fact, here are 19 tips that can help you eat healthier when you’re on a budget.

1. Plan your meals

When it comes to saving money at the grocery store, planning ahead is essential.

Pick 1 day each week and on that day, plan your meals for the upcoming week. Then, make a grocery list of everything you need to prepare those meals.

Make sure to also scan your fridge and cabinets to see what you already have. You may have foods hidden in the back that can be used, or you may want to plan your meals around foods you need to use before they expire.

Only plan to purchase what you know you’re going to use. This way, you won’t end up throwing away a lot of what you buy and don’t use.


Plan your meals for the week and make a grocery list. Only buy what you’re sure you will use, and check out what you already have in your cupboards first.

2. Stick to your grocery list

Once you’ve planned your meals and made your grocery list, stick to it.

It’s very easy to get sidetracked at the grocery store, which can lead to unintended purchases — and unintended expense.

As a general rule, try to shop the perimeter (the outer edges) of the store first. This is where whole foods are generally placed and will make you more likely to fill your cart with them first.

The middle of the store often contains the most processed foods. If you find yourself in these aisles, look to the top or bottom of the shelves, rather than straight ahead. The most expensive items are usually placed at eye level.

Additionally, you can download a grocery list app to help you shop. Some of them can even save favorite items or share lists between multiple shoppers.

Using an app is also a great way to make sure you don’t forget your list at home.


Stick to your grocery list when you’re shopping. Shop the perimeter of the store first, since this is where the whole foods are generally located.

3. Cook at home

Cooking at home can be cheaper than dining out. Generally, you can feed a family of four for the same price as buying food for one or two people at a restaurant.

So, make it a habit to cook at home, rather than deciding to eat out at the last minute.

Some people find it best to cook for the entire week on the weekends, while others cook one meal each day.

By cooking for yourself, you also gain the benefit of knowing exactly what ingredients are in your meals.


Cooking at home can be much less expensive than eating out. Some find it best to cook for the entire week on weekends, while others like to cook one meal at a time.

4. Cook large portions and use your leftovers

Cooking large meals can save you both time and money.

Leftovers can be used for lunches or in other recipes. They can be reused in stews, stir-fries, salads and burritos.

It is great when you are on a budget because having leftovers can stop you from eating out on days when you don’t have time to cook a meal from scratch.

You can also freeze leftovers in single-portion sizes to enjoy at a later date.


Cook large meals from inexpensive ingredients, and use your leftovers during the following days.

5. Don’t shop when you’re hungry

If you go to the grocery store while hungry, you’re more likely to stray from your grocery list and buy something on impulse.

When you’re hungry, you may often reach for processed foods that have fewer beneficial nutrients than whole foods. And since these generally aren’t on your list, they’re not good for your budget, either.

Try to eat a piece of fruit, yogurt, or another nutritious snack before you go to the store, this way you won’t be hungry when you get there.


Shopping while hungry can lead to impulsive buying. If you’re hungry, have a snack before you go grocery shopping.


Having a budget in college is essential if you want to make ends meet. Here's how you can eat healthy on a college food budget.

If your college student is going to be a bit cash poor while they are at school, having a college food budget is essential. After all, it’s hard to learn, study, or take tests when your stomach is growling, so your student needs to make sure they can afford enough to eat.

Additionally, knowing how to buy healthy food on a college budget is critical. While surviving on Hot Pockets and Ramen may sound appealing to your student, it won’t help them maintain their health.

Luckily, it isn’t too challenging to learn how to budget food in college as long as your student knows what is involved and how to make every dollar of their college food budget count.


While each college student food budget will vary from one student to the next, there are three food categories everyone needs to consider: meal plans, groceries, and dining out.

If your student is living on campus, paying for a meal plan can be the simplest way to figure out the majority of their college food budget. However, meal plans can be expensive, depending on the school, and not all of them provide for three meals a day, seven days a week.

Once your student knows where they want to go to school, they need to review the board (the official term for meal plans at on-campus dining facilities) options available. Additionally, they need to find out if on-campus students are required to have a meal plan, as some schools do make one mandatory.

Having a budget in college is essential if you want to make ends meet. Here's how you can eat healthy on a college food budget.

After meal plans, basic groceries are the most common college student food budget category. But it’s important to understand the options may be limited, particularly if they do not have access to a full kitchen.

Convenience foods can be expensive, and can significantly impact their college food budget. Similarly, if they plan on dining out (including buying fast food), accounting for that cost in their budget is also a necessity.


Since so many factors determine how much your student needs in their food budget, relying on averages is not a great approach. Not every student needs to worry about paying for a meal plan on campus, while, for other students, it may be mandatory.

During the 2017-2018 school year, the average cost for board was $4,982 at four-year colleges and universities (both public and private). However, some schools are far above average. For example, New York University charged up to $3,133 per semester, or $6,266 a year (providing your student doesn’t attend during the summer), starting in the fall of 2021.

college student food budget

In some cases, students who live on-campus are required to purchase a meal plan, making it a fundamental part of their college food budget. That means your student can’t avoid the charge if they live in the dorm, while those who live off-campus can.

Similarly, food preferences and dietary restrictions could impact their college student food budget. Students who live at home may not even need to budget for food while in school, depending on their arrangements with their parents.

Ultimately, relying on average college food budget data isn’t ideal. Your student’s situation may not mirror the average and could result in a budget that won’t meet their needs.

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