Let me tell you a story…
So you’re off to University. You’re all giddy that you’re now all on your own. No parents. No rules. No chores. Party all day erry day.
The first couple days you go out with your new friends and housemates to grab food on campus. This nifty lil meal card buys me anything I want. COOL! Unlimited food. All the better as it leaves me with loads of dolla dollas for…
After lovin on some good ol’ campus food for a week and drankin the night away during frosh week shindigs, you’re now feelin a bit slower than usual. A bit foggier than what you’re used to. Are my pant’s shrinking? Why do I not have food prepared in my fridge when I’m too lazy to leave the house? Mooooooommmmmmm!!
Can anyone relate?
Basically I’m telling this lil story not to be mean or judgemental. Instead, I’m using it as an introduction to….
College Student Cooking 101
Most students generally reach a breaking point where they decide its time to learn to cook. This most often comes after the Freshman 15 hits OR perhaps some health reason has made them second guess what they are ingesting. Sometimes though, some people make changes simply because they want to make healthier choices. Although this change comes about for very different reasons for different people, they all can lead to one big question…
Again, not to make any assumptions, but if you have been lucky enough to have your parents cook for you over your teenage years than you may not know how to cook ANY food for yourself let alone make a nutritious meal. So, with all that said, I want to try to provide some tips on how a University student can go about buying affordable, but still healthy, food and cooking it. Hopefully this answers some of my readers questions about how to cook healthfully on a student budget.
Okay so lets break this post down a lil bit shall we. I will pose certain situations and form my responses from those mmmkay?
Scenario #1. You live at home and your parents buy and cook your food. Lucky you! 😉
Scenario #2. You live at school but your parents help ya out with buying groceries.
Scenario #3. You’re doing it all…and you’re doing it yoooouuuuur way. You buy your own food.
Scenario #4. When all else fails, you don’t have food on you and you’re HANGRY (when hunger turns dangerous for those around you)! Where to eat on campus or near by and how to make healthier choices.
So you’re crashin at your parents house while going off to school. Meals are taken care of for you. Seems like you’re all good right? Well, what if you are wanting to make some changes to your diet and your parents don’t? They are still buying and cooking the same foods as before.
What do you do?
There are a couple things you could do here:
- You could talk to your parents about your concerns and desire to make some different food choices and try to get them on board to try them out with you. This way, your journey may be easier to get a’rollin as you would have your parents support and action too. TIP: Be ready with a course of action as they are bound to ask questions when you want to change their routine. What are some recipes you would like to try. How much is this going to cost them? Do they have time to make these new things? Can you prep things in advance to make the meal time run more smoothly? Thinking about all these things could help your case and also allow for you to see the process of what is to come when making these changes.
- If you’re parents like what they are eating than perhaps it’s time for you to make your own food. It doesn’t have to be super complicated if you don’t want it to be. For example, say your parents have planned to have a big ol’ bowl of pasta for dinner and you are not a fan. You could take some pasta and add some veggies (get some frozen and steam them OR buy a pack of pre-chopped stir fry veggies and steam or cook those) to your pasta and a protein source if you have one on hand. If you can cook up some chicken or fish yourself, bake up a couple servings to have on hand for just these types of situations. In the end, you will be eating what your parents planned, just with a few tweaks.
- Cook a completely separate meal. This is if you are able to make something entirely on your own. See later in the post for more details and ideas. Sometimes there comes situations where you really don’t want to eat what your parents are having. For example, Hamburger Helper is on the menu for tonight and your goal is to eat more whole foods. In this case, you’re going to have to do it yourself. After all, most parents won’t have the time to cook a separate meal for everyone.
So you lucky duck still get free groceries eh? Well that’s all fine and dandy if you know what to do with them. Lets do a working example shall we? Okay so say these are the groceries your parents so graciously bought for ya:
- Salad mix
- Head of broccoli
- Ground beef
- Package of chicken breasts
- Piece of salmon
- Dozen eggs
- Loaf of bread
- Granola bars
- Package of whole grain pasta
- Brown Rice
- Balsamic vinegar
- Jar of pasta sauce
- Peanut butter
- Bag of frozen mixed vegetables
- Few cans of tuna
Okay whatcha gunna make?
So I have picked a stereotypical list of groceries here. I’m not going to throw in kale, organic this and organic that because that’s not what most parents would buy for their kids if they are already footin the bill. So provided these are your groceries to deal with, how would you use them up for meals and snacks to get you through the week? Here’s some examples of what you could do that doesn’t require too much effort or savvy cooking skills.
Prep before hand. Yes, you may need to cook a few things in advance so they are easy to grab and go
- Cook your chicken. If you are completely new to this here’s a simple way of doing it. Take a oven safe dish with a lid and put a lil bit of water in the bottom of the dish (like I’m talking a cm here). Cut away any excessive fat on the chicken and place in the dish. Top with whatever sauce or spices you prefer. Don’t leave it naked as you probably won’t be amused with that. Some examples could be topping with some low sodium salsa, homemade BBQ sauce (check out pinterest!), spice rubs/blends (I love Mrs. Dash!), etc. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes to an hour or until the chicken is cooked through (Firm to the touch and no more pink in the middle if cut into). What’s even easier? Pull out the old Foreman grill if you have one and simply grill your chicken (with your topping/sauce/herbs) until the middle is not longer pink)
- Hard boil a few eggs. These can be useful for snacks, breakfast or lunch/dinner salads
- Cook up some rice. For most rice it’s 2:1, water to rice ratio. Add your water to a pot and bring to a boil. Toss your rice in the water, pop a lid on the pot and drop the heat down to medium. The rice is done when all of the water has been absorbed.
- Chop some of your veggies. Pre-cutting things like peppers and broccoli makes it easy to throw these into meals or for snacking on too.
Meals to cart around on campus
- Big ol’ salad. Salad mix + pre-cooked chicken (or tuna) + some of your pre-chopped veggies + a homemade dressing (can do just vinegar and oil if you choose, or, for extra flavour, throw in some dried herbs and mustard for a thicker dressing) makes for a quick and easy meal. Added extras if you have time: Roasted sweet potato would make this meal more filling as it adds a carbohydrate source AND roasted vegetables in salads is actually amazing.
- Cold pasta salad. Cooked pasta + raw veggies + diced onion + tuna + homemade Italian dressing (http://www.pennilessparenting.com/2010/07/perfect-homemade-italian-dressing.html ->you can sub some water for some of the oil if you would like and don’t add the sugar. If you need it to be sweeter, use the honey option OR better yet, Stevia).
- Bowl of stuff. My favourite kinds of meal. Throw whatever you have on hand into a container and you’re good to go. Cooked rice + chicken + veggies (lightly sauteed-> cook in a little bit of oil with some spices on the stove)= easy peasy squeezy.
- Sandwich. Be a bit more creative than just a plain peanut butter sammich. Adding more fillings will not only fill you up more but it will also be more nutrient dense. For example, you could do a quick throw-together sammich of sliced chicken + spinach + any veggies of your choice (tomatoes, cucumber, what ever) + healthier spreads (mustard, hot sauce, etc) OR, if you have the time and patience, you can get more creative and try making a more involved version. Again, check out Pinterest for some amazing sandwich ideas OR Instagram using the hashtag #SandwichSundays for some intense sandwich makin.
Meals to eat at home
- Salmon dinner. Baked salmon + carb source + veggies. You can bake your salmon simply in the oven at 350 until it flakes with a fork. For seasoning you can add a squirt of lemon juice and some dried herbs (rosemary works nicely, dill is a common pairing too) OR you can have some pesto to spread on top (basil pesto is amazing). Your carbohydrate source could be some of your cooked rice OR you can roast some potatoes (set oven to 400. Chop potatoes into cubes and toss with olive oil, pepper, rosemary and garlic powder (optional). Roast in the oven until they are crispy (anywhere from 30 minutes onward depending on size of the chunks. Small= cooks faster. Just remember to toss them around once and a while to get all sides to crisp up). For your veggie source you can steam some veggies OR boil (loose more nutrients than steaming) them OR roast them (place chopped veggies in a piece of aluminum foil with olive oil and some herbs. Seal the aluminum foil into a pouch and bake with the potatoes until they are soft.). You could also do a lil side salad too.
- The quick dinner: Pre-cooked chicken + pre-cooked rice + side salad. This will literally take you about 5 minutes to put together.
- The pasta dinner. Cooked pasta + Easy meat sauce + side salad/steamed vegetables. For your meat sauce, chop some onion and garlic and cook in a lightly oiled pan until fragrant and the onions are clear. Add some ground beef to the pan and cook until no pink is left. Add some of your pasta sauce to the pan, herbs (basil, oregano, chili, pepper, parsley, italian spice would all be good here) and any vegetables that you would like to be in your sauce. Bring your sauce to a boil (turn up heat until bubbling) then pop a lid on the pan and turn the heat down to medium. Let simmer (at that medium heat and the sauce should be bubbling gently) for a few minutes to let the flavours come together and to soften any vegetables. Top your pasta with your sauce and add your veggies.
- Egg-tastic breakfast. Eggs + sauteed vegetables (cook veggies in a lightly oiled pan until soft) + toast. This breakfast is very customizable to your taste and hunger levels. You can choose to have 3 full eggs if you’re really hungry (or a male) OR you could choose to have 1-2 full eggs and 1-2 egg whites if you need less. You can also create many different versions of this meal. For example, make an omelet with a side of toast. Make your omelet into a breakfast sammich. Add beef or chicken to your eggs. Make big scramble. Etc. Etc. Next level cooking. Make a mini quiche. Set your oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, whisk the number of eggs/egg whites you would like. Add a little bit of milk (maybe a few tablespoons), toss in some vegetables, pre-cooked meat and herbs of your choice. Pour into a sprayed/lightly oiled oven safe dish. Bake in the oven until the top is golden and the eggs have cooked all the way through (should be opaque at that point). Serve with toast, fruit or whatever you would like.
- Oatmeal breakfast. Oats + milk + cinnamon. For the most basic oatmeal all you have to do is use those 3 ingredients and cook either via stove top or microwave style. For stove top-> Add double the amount of liquid (milk/water/mix of the 2) as you have oats in a pot. Bring that to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium (simmer) and add your oats. Let the oats cook, stirring occasionally and add spices of your choice. You can also add fruit at this point if you like it hot or wait until they are done to have the fruit on top. Your oatmeal will be done when all of the liquid has been absorbed. Top with whatever you please. For the microwave version, add everyting (liquid, oats, spices, fruit, etc) to a bowl (make sure it’s big enough to have some space at the top for expansion). Nuke for 2-4 minutes depending on temperature preference and style of oats (rolled oats take longer than quick oats). Be mindful to watch for overflowing oatmeal! For more protein packed oatmeal bowls or just some ideas for toppings and flavourings check out my post on oatmeal. Snacks
- Granola bars. My best suggestion would be to make your own bars as many granola bars at the grocery store do not contain the healthiest of ingredients. Check Pinterest or Google for recipe ideas! If you are stuck and need to choose a pre-made bar, ensure that there is a good amount of protein and fibre to help with satiety, little to no added sugar (none would be the best option but these types of bars are hard to find), not candy coated, have a fairly short ingredient list with items that you understand and have some healthy fats in them (nuts, seeds, coconut/coconut oil, etc). Don’t fear the fats as they help with taming the 3pm hunger beast! Some bars I would recommend would be Questbars (obviously!), Larabars (5ish ingredients in most of them and all whole foods. Slightly high in sugar because of the dates), Simply bars (lowest sugar bars, other than Questbars, that I have seen), Kind bars are okay (gluten free, short ingredient list), Rise bars (GMO and gluten free, minimal ingredients that are whole foods, little high in sugar due to dried fruit and/or honey use).
- Hard boiled egg(s). Easy grab and go from your prep
- Piece of fruit with peanut butter. Again easy to grab and most people really enjoy it.
- Homemade parfait. Yogurt + fruit + oats. Combine these ingredients together with any other spices you would like or sweeteners (Stevia is preferred if you must sweeten). Optional add-in: Peanut butter for more holding power.
So what do ya think? Not too bad right? You can be as elaborate or non-elaborate as you feel comfortable with. Your cooking will get better as soon as you start actually doin some. I promise.
This is pretty much the same as #2 with regards to my cooking suggestions. Again, cook what you are comfortable with. The difference here is that you are buying all your own food and are than more conscious perhaps of price. Due to this, you may be tempted to buy what you think will be the cheapest…
This is not true. Wholesome food is actually not crazy expensive unless you are buying some exotic fruits and vegetables, sirloins and gluten-free, organic breads. Here are some things that are mad cheap.
Fruits and Vegetables. One note here-> things in season will always be crazy cheap compared to the off season. Take advantage of local produce when you can!
- Apples (fall especially)
- Frozen berries (the bulk bags)
- Zucchini (seasonal-summer)
- Sweet potatoes
- Squash (especially during harvest-fall)
- Salad mixes aren’t too bad price wise, especially if they contain spinach and don’t have added ‘goodies’ (dressing and toppings)
- Onions and garlic
- Ground meats (go for lean types)
- Beef (eye of round is very cheap, fast fry)
- Turkey breast meat (chicken is a tad bit expensive compared to turkey)
- Canned tuna (go for low sodium)
- Discounted frozen fish (a lot of fish counters will freeze excess fish stock and reduce the price. You just have to eat it once it has thawed, don’t refreeze)
Milk/Alternatives. Dairy is going to be expensive no matter how you look at it. Pick and choose what you need
- Almond milk and other dairy free alternatives are around the same price as regular milk.
- If you want cheese, pick up some kraft cheese strings. No seriously, I have read the labels on these things and they don’t add any preservatives or weird things as they are for kids. They also give you a nice serving size to go off of, good source of protein and they are cheaper than buying a block of cheese.
- Eggs are fairly cheap and so are bulk cartons of egg whites.
- Yogurt is not cheap. Plain and simple. If you’re buying yogurt, I would go for PLAIN Greek style as they are packed with protein, have no added sugars and give you good options for snacks. Good bang for your buck!
- Big bags of pasta, oats and rice are probably the cheapest things you can pick up. Gluten free versions of pasta (brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, etc) get a lil bit more pricy but theystill aren’t that bad.
- For other whole grains like bulgar, buckwheat, couscous, millet, etc, head over the to bulk bins and bag it out yourself.
- Loaves of pre-packaged bread are not expensive. Anything fancy will be the thing to jack up the price.
- Canned legumes and beans are very cost effective and are great for easy snacks or adding protein to meals. Chickpeas, black beans, lentils, etc are all great vegetarian alternative proteins to meat. Raid the bulk bins for these too if you don’t mind boiling them yourself.
- Spices. Go for bulk bins as packaged ones tend to be overpriced.
- Other canned veggies are also low in price. Things like tomatoes can help you out in making a fast and easy meat sauce. ***I would recommend buying organic for any high acid canned goods as that acid leads to more leaching of the can into the food. Organic cans are at least BPA free, making them a bit better***
- Nuts. Natural nut butters (don’t buy the cheap Kraft or Skippy as they are loaded with hydrogenated oils, sugar and other chemicals) are going to range in price based on the type of nut used. This is the same as when you buy raw nuts. Peanuts and seeds (sunflower, pumpkin) will be your cheapest options, almonds will come in next and things like cashews, walnuts, brazil nuts, etc will be the more expensive ones.
- Sauces. Lowest cost would probably come from ketchup and mustard. Although I’m personally not a fan of ketchup (sugar bomb), mustard is my jam. Use your own judgement for other sauces like pasta, BBQ, soy, and hot sauces as there can be some hidden ickies in there. I prefer to make my own sauces because I don’t like the ingredients in most pre-made ones but that’s just me being uber picky about what I eat.
- Dressing. I always go with a homemade oil, vinegar, mustard and herb version of a dressing but if you are really wanting a bottled version for cost and time saving, ensure the one you pick up doesn’t contain sugar or too much chemicals or salt.
Finally we reach …
You forgot your lunch at home and are staaaaarrrving. How can you make healthier choices while eating out?
It’s actually fairly easy despite what you may think. There is always a “healthier option” at every establishment….even McD’s! Here are some examples of what you could do at a few common restaurants/fast food places (NOTE that these are common Canadian places, sorry US friends, I’m not sure what is common in your neck of the woods).
Known for their
heart attacks on a plate burgers and fries, what the heck could you order there?
- You could go for a salad. For example, their Tuscan Entree salad has the option of grilled chicken rather than fried ‘crispy’ chicken, you can forgo the cheese and you can use as much or as lil dressing as you please. Pros: You’re getting some protein (chicken) and veggies. Cons: Sodium, dressing is fairly high fat and processed. TRY THIS. Ask if you can have their garden salad (no cheese) with some added chicken (grilled).
- Mediterranean Veggie Signature Wrap. If you’re gunna go with a sammich of any kind this would be your best bet. Also helps our vegetarians out too. Pros: hummus gives you some protein and fats to keep you fuller, it’s on a whole wheat wrap (meh, whole wheat vs. white, not much difference…later post), you get some vegetables and the cheese they used is a naturally lower fat one (feta) but you can ask to have this left out. Cons. A LOT OF BREAD. This could lead to you being hungry later because of a sugar crash (yes I know it’s whole wheat, more on that in a later post), tons of sodium and an unknown sauce.
So okay, not the best, but hey, if you’re stuck there and need food, you work with what is there to the best of your ability.
- Breakfast panini (not the sausage ones). They have some that are just eggs or egg whites and cheese in a multigrain panini. You could dump the cheese and ask for some lettuce and tomatoes in there (as they make them in the store so that shouldn’t be a problem). Pros: Protein from the eggs, healthy fat from the yolk if you choose to get that and hopefully some veggies. Cons: Sodium and lots of carbohydrates which may lead to a quicker energy crash.
Salads. They’re actually pretty decent and you can ask for vinegar as a dressing or their olive oil blend which is much better than the pre-made dressings. I believe you can also build your own salad! If you want a pre-made version, here are a some good examples: Double chopped chicken salad, oven roasted turkey, turkey salad, veggie delight (for the vegetarians) with added hummus for staying power (from the sandwich topping station). Pros: You can order extra toppings like avocado (healthy fat) if you would like as they make it in front of you, good choices for dressings, lots of veggies, good amount of protein and the sodium isn’t horrible for a fast food place. Cons: Vegetarians may be hungry in an hour off a salad with low protein.
Sandwich. I tend to have an issue with bread loaded options (sugar spike) BUT if you are less picky than me, you could go ahead and just make your own sandwich and have a pretty healthy meal. Load’er up with veggies, the non-deli style meats (they are sodium loaded) and a more natural sauce like mustard. To cut some of the bread, you can order a sammich as you like it and take off the top half of the bun and eat it open faced.
Very limited but sometimes the smallest of coffee shops are all you have.
- Bistro Boxes. Some are better than others but these might be your best bet at this lil coffee shop. Chicken and hummus, protein and the chicken lettuce wrap boxes all look pretty good. Pros: You can pick and choose what you eat from the boxes. All of the boxes contain a vegetable of some kind, a protein source and some healthy fats. Cons: The ones with dressings may be questionable and higher in sodium. They are also small so they may not fill you up for a meal.
- Wraps. Again, some are better than others and some of the cafes may not carry many options. They have a breakfast wrap with sundried tomatoes, egg whites, feta and spinach that doesn’t look too bad while also having a nice roasted turkey wrap. Again, your choices will depend on the location. Pros: Good source of protein with some veggies involved. Cons: They are pre-made and packaged so sauces cannot be taken off or other things cannot be added.
A little extra for my McMaster University readers…
- Teriyaki. Veggies and protein. This is a great spot if you are looking for a hot meal quick that is veggie loaded and filling. I believe they sell brown rice now which you can choose to have or not. You can also choose not to have sauce (or get a low sodium one if they have it) if you don’t like the extra salt. Pros: Bowls are customizable in the sense that you can have less rice/noodles if you want, have it cooked in water or choose to not have the sauces for less sodium. You’re getting quality protein (vegetarian options too!), lots of vegetables and it’s nice and hot. Cons: Salt.
- Tomasitos (Student Centre). Another good option as you get to choose what goes in your food. Pick your veggies, protein and carb source (pasta of some kind). Pros and cons will be similar to Teriyaki.
- Salad bar (Student Centre). You can make your own lil salad with the toppings provided. Pros: Lots of vegetables, some protein options (chickpeas). Cons: the pre-made grain and pasta salads have no labels as to their nutrition, a salad is not really going to fill you up as there aren’t very many protein options to make it more satisfying.
- Bridges. They are yet another option for customized meals with many vegetarian options. You can make your own stirfry or pasta dish allowing you to choose how it’s cooked and what’s in it. I can’t comment on their other menu options though as I cannot find that online to check out.
- Williams Cafe. Like Starbucks, items may be in some locations but not in others. The larger the cafe, the more options you will have so the one on Main Street West will have the most for ya. They have some salads that you can add protein to (you can also probably swap out the dressing for basic balsamic if you would like) for holding power. Their sandwiches and panini’s tend to be very bread heavy so perhaps the wraps may be a better option OR go for open faced (take one half of the bread off). Grilled chicken or their Mediterranean wraps don’t look too bad but I would loose the dressing if you can. Some cafes also have hot rice boxes that have brown rice, a protein source and some veggies. Go with the veggie or chicken options as the salmon version is rubbed in brown sugar.
I really hope this post can help out some of my readers! I always have to restrain myself from giving suggestions that may be perceived as too extreme. Not everyone is as picky as I am so just go for what makes you happy and feeling your best! 🙂
Happy hump day everyone! Also, for more quick and easy meal ideas, check out Mrs. Jen’s page over at Peas and Crayons for the Wednesday WIAW tradition. I will be bowing out this week, but will be back next week for the partying 😀