Groceries that Make "Cents:" College Cooking on a Budget

Every college student deserves better than ramen and Monster. Expand your culinary horizons — your stomach and your wallet will thank you.

By Connor Daniels — March 22, 2023

Groceries that Make "Cents:" College Cooking on a Budget

Like any other fad diet, the infamous "college diet"—instant ramen washed down with Monster—is likely to injure your long—term health.

Unfortunately, it's all too common for students not enrolled in an expensive college-provided meal plan. For many students, the challenge of balancing classes, homework, part-time jobs, and social activities simply leaves little time for healthy cooking. As a result, the only options seem to be instant ramen (affordable but nutritionally limited) or dining out (potentially more well-rounded but very expensive).

If you're planning to save some money by cooking for yourself in college, for every meal or even just a few times a week, it's worth putting in some time to figure out how to make the most of your dollar at the grocery store—while also taking care of your health.

Inexpensive Calories

Forget the fad diets—calories are, in principle, a good thing. They give you the energy your body and brain need to tackle your daily activities. While consuming more calories than you use causes weight gain, it's essential to consume enough calories to function to stay healthy. This leads to the key principle of affordable grocery shopping: Plan your meals around the staple foods that provide the most calories per dollar.

Other than plain flour, your best options by this criterion are bread, rice, oatmeal (old fashioned, not instant), and pasta or noodles—yes, including ramen. Of course, you shouldn't make these carbohydrate-heavy ingredients a meal in their own right, but they're an excellent starting point when you're looking to keep costs low.

This principle also makes it easier to see hidden costs behind foods that people often assume are "cheap." Canned goods and most processed foods, for example, generally do poorly on a cost-per-calorie basis. If you're interested in average cost figures for most common grocery store items, you should check out this spreadsheet. Inflation may have changed the exact numbers, but the general rankings should be substantially the same.

Inexpensive Proteins

No meal is complete without a source of protein to help you feel full, reduce blood sugar spikes, and sustain healthy muscle growth. Along with carbohydrates and fat, protein is an essential macronutrient. As a result, your second priority in creating an affordable shopping list should be to include foods that provide the most protein per dollar.

Dried legumes—such as lentils and beans—are the best option here. They're easy to rehydrate by soaking overnight and have a far better value than canned. Even if you're not vegan, you should consider making lentils and beans your staple protein—they're delicious and will help you save a little money.

Eggs, milk, and chicken are usually the next most affordable options and should be in any non-vegan grocery rotation. Canned mackerel is an affordable substitute for tuna if you want a lean protein or you're trying to introduce some seafood for variety. While red meat is delicious, it's also much more expensive, so save the hamburgers and pork chops for special occasions and buy them on sale.

Inexpensive Nutrition

If you think that the menu to this point sounds rather bland, you'd be right. Even more importantly, you need more vitamins and minerals to survive—catching scurvy would be a suboptimal outcome of your affordable shopping plan.

The cheapest place to find these nutrients is in the produce section of your grocery store. Fresh, in-season fruits and vegetables are generally cheaper than frozen and always cheaper than canned. The primary goal should be selecting fruits and veggies that will suit the recipes you are cooking. Leafy greens and carrots punch above their weight on a nutrient-per-dollar basis. If you want to keep frozen vegetables on hand, so you have to worry less about food waste, frozen peas are a delicious and affordable choice. Check out this spreadsheet for more info.

Inexpensive Snacks

Every plan needs an exception now and again. Although cooking everything yourself is an excellent goal, it's worth the additional expense to have some snacks on hand to keep you going between meals or when you don't have time to cook. That said, there are healthier and more affordable alternatives to the prepackaged and heavily processed snacks that you might find at a vending machine.

A few of my favorite options include peanut butter with fruit, such as apples or bananas; hummus with carrots, sweet peppers, or pita bread; hard-boiled eggs with olive oil, salt, and pepper; and homemade trail mix.

If you absolutely must splurge on fast food, you can keep your costs down by skipping the soda and picking the most affordable option on a calorie-per-dollar basis. A $5 Little Caesar's Pizza does very well in that regard, but it's still cheaper to eat at home.

Planning: Time and Tools

The best grocery shopping plan won't save you money unless you make the necessary time and have the necessary cooking equipment. As a busy student, your biggest friend is meal prep-it's far more efficient to do as much cooking as possible at once, preferably over the weekend, and eat leftovers throughout the week. Don't try to cook something new every night. If you budget the time in advance, you will enjoy convenient, home-cooked meals later.

Essential cooking tools for you to get started are an all-purpose pan (any pan would do, but cast iron is a great value if you take care of it), a good chef's knife (it's worth the investment to buy a good one if you can), an inexpensive cutting board, and several cheap storage containers. A rice cooker or Instant Pot is not strictly necessary, but a superb value—they will save you a lot of time babysitting pots of rice and beans.

Finally, if you are cooking for yourself, don't be afraid to use salt and olive oil for cooking or to buy the nice spices that you want to try. You won't keep cooking for yourself if you can't make it taste good, and the cost of these seasonings is far less on a per-meal basis than dining out. If you don't know where to start, the basics of flavor are easy to learn. Check out Samin Nosrat's book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat for an excellent introduction to the art of cooking.

Every college student deserves better than ramen and Monster. Expand your culinary horizons-your stomach and your wallet will thank you.

Connor Daniels

Connor Daniels

Connor Daniels teaches humanities to 7th through 12th grade students at Bloomfield Christian School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. In 2021, he graduated summa cum laude from Hillsdale College with a degree in history and politics.
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