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If you’re like many students, you need to stretch your dollars when it comes to food. Here’s a challenge: Make 10 dollars worth of groceries into enough meals to last a week.
Eat Well, Spend Wisely
There are plenty of ways to buy groceries on a budget. Here are some tips:
- Plan ahead. Decide what you’ll prepare for the whole week.
- Use multi-purpose ingredients. Use each item in more than one meal.
- Make a grocery list…and stick to it!
- Find the best price. Look for coupons and weekly specials, and ask about free rewards programs for instant discounts.
- Map out exactly how you’ll spend your 10 dollars.
When at the store:
- Compare prices. Most stores include “price per weight” and “price per unit” labels to make it easier.
- Buy in bulk. Grains, beans, nuts, and other dry goods will keep almost indefinitely and cost less in larger quantities. Many stores also have bulk bins that contain foods sold by weight. Bought this way, a portion will often cost less than if prepackaged.
- Buy generics. Most store-brand foods have nearly identical ingredients to their name-brand competitors.
- Avoid impulse buys. Stick to your list and don’t shop when you’re hungry.
Sample shopping list
Before you head to the grocery store, plan out your meals for the week. Consider how you can use ingredients in multiple ways so that none goes to waste. Here’s an example of a shopping list for a week of dinners for one to two people. Recipes can easily be multiplied to feed a family, but the overall cost will increase due to additional volume. Please note that prices vary based on location.
Foods to Buy:
- One box pasta ($.89)
- One pound brown rice ($.79)
- One can white (cannellini) beans ($.49)
- One can garbanzo beans (chickpeas) ($.49)
- One large jar or can tomato sauce ($2.99)
- Two bags frozen vegetables of your choice ($.99 each)
- Two chicken breasts (or other lean meat) ($1.65)
- Tuscan-Style Pasta
- Chicken Marinara
- Asian Stir-Fry
- Bean Salad
- Pasta Salad
- Tuscan-Style Pasta: Cook pasta according to directions. Refrigerate half. Combine the remaining amount with 1/2 can cannellini beans, 1/2 bag veggies and 2/3 can sauce. Viola! Enough for at least two meals.
- Chicken marinara: Sauté both chicken breasts until cooked. Set one aside in the fridge. Add 1/3 can sauce to remaining chicken and simmer. Steam 1/2 bag veggies and serve over half of the leftover pasta.
- Asian Stir-Fry: In a hot pan, stir-fry 1/2 bag veggies and sear the remaining chicken breast. Serve over cooked brown rice. Who needs takeout?
- Bean Salad: Combine 1/2 can cannellini beans, 1/2 can garbanzo beans, and 1/4 bag thawed veggies. Season to taste. Serve with brown rice if desired. You’ve made a protein-rich bean salad.
Sauté remaining 1/4 bag veggies with 1/2 can garbanzo beans. Eat warm over brown rice.
- Pasta Salad: Reserve leftovers and combine with remaining pasta for a pasta salad.
- Keeping olive oil, salt, pepper, and some other spices on hand will allow you to amp up the flavor of any dish you prepare.
- Fresh, green, leafy vegetables turn beans and chicken into a chef’s salad. Splurge on some cheese and bell peppers if you can.
- If you have access to a freezer, set aside leftovers for when you’re especially strapped for time (and cash).
Nutrition vs. Volume
It’s more important to buy nutritious foods than to buy large quantities of those with empty calories. For example, a jumbo bag of chips and two liters of soda may be cheap, but they won’t keep you energized and feeling full.
Fruits & Vegetables
Katie W., a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, says, “Fresh produce is extremely expensive.” Produce that’s in season, meaning it didn’t require pricey growing techniques and hasn’t traveled long distances, is less costly. And certain types are easy on your wallet all year round, such as carrots, leafy greens, potatoes, apples, and bananas.
Not sure what produce is in season?
Fruits and vegetables cost less when they are in season. Plus that’s when they’re tastier and richer in nutrients. Jenna Volpe, a registered dietitian in Waltham, Massachusetts, also recommends buying certain organic fruits and veggies if you can. She says, “Some produce is worth splurging on, like organic berries. Conventionally-grown items tend to have higher levels of pesticides.”
Marice P., a student at San Bernardino Valley College in California, suggests buying seasonal produce that’s also locally grown. She says, “I’m trying to consume more plant-based food, so I shop a lot at my local farmers’ market.”More about seasonal produce
Jenna Volpe, a registered dietitian in Waltham, Massachusetts, suggests, “Frozen or canned veggies go a long way. They’re not perishable so they last a long time.”
Charlette R., a student at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California, agrees. “You can get a bag of frozen vegetables for one dollar, and that makes your wallet happy,” she says.
Protein & Fiber
When planning your weekly menu, consider dishes that are filling, pack a nutritious punch, keep well, and are large enough to make multiple servings. Volpe says, “Make an inexpensive chili recipe. You can get six or seven meals from [one batch].”
You can stretch your dollars away from home, too. Here’s how to eat at a restaurant on a budget:
- Look up restaurants that offer healthy options in your preferred price range.
- Use Web sites and apps to review menus ahead of time, suggests Jennifer Miller, a dietitian at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
- Scan for budget-friendly, healthy choices. Some restaurants post ingredients (and even nutritional information) right on the menu or online. If not, ask your server or the person behind the counter.
- Miller says, “Don’t be afraid to customize your meal.” If you don’t want the greasy sides or extra toppings, the price may be lowered.
- Look for vegetarian meals, which may be less expensive than meat or seafood.
- At fast-food establishments, opt for a chef’s salad, grilled chicken sandwich, or veggie wrap and smoothie. Beware of “value menus.” Why pay for food you don’t actually want?
- At a mid-priced restaurant, order a dinner-sized salad or an appetizer as your entrée.
- Consider sharing an entrée when dining with your family, partner, or friends.
- Make use of online coupons and promotions.
- Search for price reductions or special discounts for children. Some restaurants offer half-off or free meals on certain days.
- Ask if you can order from the children’s menu, which has smaller portions with smaller price tags.
Quick questions to ask your server
Ask Before Eating
Don’t be shy. Chances are your restaurant server is used to answering many questions from patrons. Consider asking some of these the next time you’re dining out:
- Can you make a half portion for half the price?
- Is there a charge for splitting an item?
- Is there a minimum bill per person?
- Is the seafood fresh or frozen? Do you know when it was caught?
- Are the vegetables fresh or frozen? Are they organic?
- Can you put the sauce/dressing on the side?
- Can I order my meal grilled/broiled instead of fried?
- Will the chef make this without using butter or salt?
- What cut of meat is used in this dish? Is it lean or fatty?
Here are more tips from Volpe:
Ask your server, in advance, to wrap up half the meal. You’ll have food for another day.
- Skip sodas and other drinks. Opt for water instead.
By planning ahead and thinking creatively, you can enjoy delicious meals on the cheap.
*Name changed for privacy.
Value vs. Convenience
- Bag of brown rice
- Canister of oatmeal
- Store-brand 100% whole-grain bread
- Frozen or low-sodium canned veggies; frozen fruit or canned (with no added sugar)
- Canned tuna or salmon
- Whole roasted chicken
- Tub of store-brand yogurt
- Individual packages of instant white rice
- Individual packets of flavored oatmeal
- Name-brand bread
- Out-of-season produce (shipped from afar)
- Fresh filet at the fish counter
- Pre-seasoned, individual chicken breasts
- Individual cups of name-brand yogurt
- Plan meals ahead of time using multi-purpose ingredients.
- Compare prices and buy in bulk.
- Skip name brands. Most store-brand products have the same ingredients.
- Prepare nutritious, filling meals made with low-cost ingredients, like chili.
- Research restaurant menus in advance.
- Use coupons at grocery stores and restaurants.
Get help or find out more
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Kids Eat Right, Five Ways to Stretch Your Dollar at the Grocery Store
American Heart Association, Cooking Healthy On a Budget
American Heart Association, Dining Out Tips by Cuisine
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Spend Smart, Eat Smart
Ohio Department of Health, Healthy Eating for Families