Student life: Eating healthy on a budget

August 25, 2014

Is it possible to eat healthy in college, while sticking to your budget? Campus experts say, of course.

A typical student's go-to's usually consist of ramen noodles or macaroni and cheese, but as Niomi Williams, financial literacy educator with CU Money Sense, points out, these food options  “aren’t doing any favors for your future self.”

The main food groups often missing from student diets typically include fruits and veggies, fresh veggies, fiber, milk and protein. And the reasons why vary from assuming a tight budget won’t buy the right items, too much time is required for grocery shopping, or even the fact that healthy food just isn’t too tasty.

These assumptions can all be proven false with a little strategic planning, and because college-aged student bodies are developing bone density and maximum brain capacity, putting some thought towards food might go a long way.

According to nutritionists at CU-Boulder's Wardenberg Health Center, the most important food groups for college students are calcium, iron and protein. So whether you’re on campus or at a grocery store, items like milk, hard boiled eggs, grilled meat and spinach are great places to start. And if meat isn’t your thing, almonds, broccoli, beans or quinoa can just as easily fulfill these needs.

Lauren Heising, CU’s Housing and Dining Services certified dietician and coordinator for sustainable dining points out that healthy food options are available all over campus, with salad bar options in every dining hall, whichever type of protein fits your fancy, and meals prepared with specific diets in mind, like a gluten intolerance or kosher meal preferences.

“There are healthy food options in almost every location, venue or station on every line,” said Heising. She recommends making quick adjustments when choosing items to complete your food plate, like choosing baked over fried foods, or selecting items as fresh as possible.

However, many CU-Boulder students live off-campus, and must decide whether or not they want to purchase campus meal plans. One benefit to eating on campus is it saves time, and Heisinger points out that many students who buy a meal plan will eat their largest meal of the day on campus.

Another option is home preparation, which Williams said can “cost cents per day per meal." Eating at home allows for more cost savings on food, and there are a few ways to stretch your budget.

“A good process to go through when setting up a budget is know your income – what it is, where it comes from, and how it compares to your expenses,” Williams said. Variable expenses, she said, include things like housing, transportation and bills. Everything after that can be considered additional, or money that goes toward groceries, entertainment and maybe going out to eat.

“There’s a couple different ways of setting up a budget,” explained Williams. “You can do the old pen and paper version, or use a Google Doc, Excel spreadsheet, and there are also websites like mint.com that have apps that put your budget into a digital form.”

Williams added that a reasonable food allowance for students will vary, since not everyone’s needs are the same.

“I like to go by a per month basis because sometimes if there’s a really good sale, I want to stock up on those items,” Williams said. She believes that the best items to start with on a tight budget are things that can be bought in bulk, high in protein and healthy, like beans, rice and pasta.

Digital coupons for stores like King Soopers and Safeway are also great tools available to conveniently cut down costs, Williams said. With a King Soopers or Safeway shopper’s card, coupons can digitally be added to a card online before getting to the grocery store. This kind of process may also help in planning a grocery list ahead of time.

Above all, knowing your income, bills and what’s in the food you eat are the best ways to plan healthy food budget.

“Really try to increase fruits and vegetables,” Heising said. “Watch fried food, watch alcohol consumption, and also look at snack items…Are they potato chips or a handful of peanuts?”

Story by Nika Durham, CU-Boulder graduate student, journalism and mass communication. Video produced by Jamie Henderson, CU-Boulder junior, broadcast production.

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