Delicious, Nutritious, and Cheap: Healthy food you can afford


The dining hall will sustain you through lunch and dinner. But at 3:30 A.M., when your watery eyes can’t stand another minute of computer glare, the snacktime choice is yours. Keeping a dorm room stocked with food can be unhealthy and pricey for students.

The typical college student relies on ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, chips, cereal, peanut butter, oatmeal, and granola bars. These choices are cheap (at sites like FreshDirect, you can buy a 12-pack of Nissin Ramen Noodle Soup Mixes for $3.96, or 33 cents each), they last a long time, and they require little to no preparation.

But the typical college student also falls into nutrition traps: focusing on price to the exclusion of health value (ramen noodles are high in sodium and fat), eating poorly out of stress, eating too much, and not knowing what is nutritious. The good news is that, no matter how busy or broke you are, there are some shortcuts you can take to avoid unhealthy foods while still maintaining a reasonable budget. 

Low-Cost, High-Health Foods

As an undergraduate, my dorm room cuisine included meringues, macaroons, Viactiv chews, and olives that my roommate and I ate out of an enormous jar (hardly sanitary). Dr. Lisa Young, an adjunct professor of nutrition and a dietitian in NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education, has other, better ideas.

  • Fruit is among the healthiest snack options. But it can rot, and is often relatively pricey. To lengthen its shelf life, try dehydrated or dried fruit—but “don’t eat too much, because it does have calories,” Young cautioned. If you prefer the fresh stuff, Allison Fink, a freshman at Bryn Mawr College, suggests taking fruit back from the dining hall. (Hooded sweatshirts are useful: think huge pocket on the front.)

  • Nuts and nut butters are both nutritious and filling, so one purchase lasts for a long time. “Peanut butter is good. It’s high fat, but it’s good fat,” Young said. Natural peanut butter is much healthier, she added, “but you’re still far better off with the Skippy than you are with butter or margarine.” An 18-ounce jar of Jif or Skippy sells for less than $3.00 on Natural peanut butter is slightly more expensive—a 16-ounce jar of Smucker’s costs $3.29—but the added health value is worth more than a few dimes.

  • Cereal can be healthy, but brand selection is vital. Look at ingredient labels, and choose only whole-grain cereals—those where the first ingredient listed includes the word “whole” (as in “whole grain rolled oats” and “whole wheat flour”). Plain “wheat” flour is not the same as whole wheat—it is white flour with molasses added and has the same nutrient deficiencies. “Sometimes you have a combination, but if whole wheat is listed first, that’s the best thing,” Young said. “The problem with cereals is you don’t want to get the Cap’n Crunch. And again, you don’t want sugar to be the first ingredient. That’s the trap with cereals.” In lieu of Cap’n Crunch, Young recommends Barbara’s Puffins, Kashi Go-Lean Crunch, and Cheerios. Like peanut butter, cereal is price-efficient because it lasts over many servings and does not go bad.

  • Granola bars are similarly tricky. As with cereals (and all other carbohydrate-based snacks, like pretzels and rice cakes), “you want whole grain something to be the first ingredient. You don’t want it to be sugar and you don’t want it to be flour,” Young said. Nature Valley granola bars, for example, list whole grain rolled oats as the first ingredient (they pass!), while Cascadian Farm’s options list a sweetener called “organic brown rice syrup” (they fail). To reduce costs, buy in bulk.

  • If you are determined to choose chips, select baked chips over fried. Potato chips—made, as they are, of potatoes—lack whole grain choices, but the baked option at least avoids unnecessary added fat. Also think about healthy foods to add to less nutritious ones: “If you’ve gotta have chips around,” Young said, “add salsa, because it’s a great source of Vitamin C and lycopenes,” or antioxidants. Incorporating nutritious foods is as important as excising unhealthy options.

  • And if you do have a refrigerator to store perishables, yogurt, light cheese sticks, and hummus with vegetables are healthy and affordable. Again, buying in bulk reduces the per-unit price (I buy my yogurt in eight-packs).

Low-Cost, High-Health Habits

Healthy habits are as important as healthy foods. Amy Santo, a graduate student in NYU’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health and a recent college graduate, has practical suggestions for living healthfully on a student’s budget.
Portion sizes are often much larger than we need, and saving leftovers can save money, too. “Instead of two slices of pizza, have one slice and salad.  Eat half the pasta and bring home leftovers,” Santo recommended via e-mail. “I always measure out food with measuring cups or cut half of my food away so I know to bring that home for tomorrow. These are great tricks to be healthy and save money.”

Preparing healthy snacks ahead of time prevents you from buying unhealthy, expensive food on the run. “In terms of snacking, I always think it is best to plan ahead. I know I have an extremely busy schedule so I try to prepare snacks for myself the night before. I pack things such as trail mix (no trans fat), whole-wheat crackers/pretzels, fruit, and veggies so I am not tempted to grab a candy bar or chips,” Santo said.

The Bottom Line

To stay nutritious within a budget: (1) buy healthy foods in bulk; (2) check non-perishables for whole grains; (3) save food from the dining hall; (4) manage your portions and keep leftovers; and (5) plan your snacks. By choosing carefully, you can make nutrition work to your economic advantage.

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