My Strategy for Eating Well on a Small (Student) Budget

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My dad, from whom I inherited my love of food and cooking, is a former gourmet chef, and I am a graduate student — which creates the difficult personal combination of high-quality taste and very little money. The typical small-budget response of skimping first on groceries has always seemed counterintuitive to me. Good food is important, even central, to a lifetime of wellness. It nourishes body and mind and builds friendship and community around countless dinner tables.

But what happens when you're in a constant state of near-bankruptcy? Having been a student for six years, I've curated a few simple strategies for eating well on a tight budget.

Eating well includes making "healthy" choices but is never exclusive to that. Rather, the secret lies in finding the foods and creating habits that turn the mundane into extravagance and make being in the kitchen and sitting down to a meal feel like a luxury.

1. Plan Your Meals

This is the most basic strategy, but so essential. Start by planning your meals weekly, then work up to bi-weekly.

I'm currently working on planning our meals monthly (all staples and basics stocked on the first of the month with one to two extra runs for fresh produce). You will save time and money by planning ahead, cutting out last-minute grocery runs, last-minute purchases, and all that time spent wondering what to cook for dinner tonight.

Smart help for meal planning: 15 Tips for Better Weekly Meal Planning

2. Choose Your Own Adventure

Try at least one new recipe every week. This keeps spark and variety in your meals, letting your small-budget intake feel fancy.

When I was young, my dad would let me "pick a country," and then would make a meal of ethnic foods from the place I chose. This helps keep cooking fun and is a great idea for all ages. Have your partner, roommate, or child pick new countries or regions, or just do it for yourself.

3. Splurge on Eating In, Not Out

Splurge on grocery items, not on eating out. This goes hand-in-hand with choosing your own adventure in the kitchen. With better quality options at home, you'll be more likely to cook at home rather than going out for dinner.

4. Stay Classy

When I think classy, I usually think French, so I do what the French do: stick with simple staples, whole foods (nix the processed) and fresh produce for a basic meal that feels decadent. Our staples are chicken, fish, rice, grains, noodles, and greens, and we build on any combination of those. Start with greens and add chicken, pasta, nuts, dried fruit, and other vegetables for a fancy salad, or serve small portions of meat and starch with fresh veggies, fruit, and cheese. Rub white meat or seafood with lemon juice, fresh garlic, and cracked pepper for a favorite seasoning that's cheap but feels fancy.

5. Process Your Own Food

Instead of buying processed foods, make your own versions of sometimes expensive staples like cereal. Homemade salad dressing is another staple that is simple, luxurious, and cheap, as it uses ingredients already in your pantry. Try homemade granola with milk or yogurt and fresh or frozen fruit for a breakfast that's equal parts filling, beautiful, and easy. Homemade hummus can also make a great main dish for Mediterranean-themed meals, especially lunches.

6. Pick Your Sweets Wisely

Swap prepackaged baked goods with high quality chocolate, naturally-sweet fruit smoothies, and simple ice cream (check the ingredients for ice creams that are mostly milk, cream and sugar). High-quality desserts go a long way: cut out excessive and empty carbs and go for options that are pure but still feed the cravings. Besides, it's an accepted scientific fact that dark chocolate is good for you. It's right up there in my food pyramid next to water, feta cheese, and fresh peaches.

How do you eat well on a budget? Leave additional tips or ideas in the comments!

(Image credits: Michaela Cisney)

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Michaela is a recipe developer for The Kitchn. She spent her childhood pulling carrots and hunting wild strawberries on a sustainable farm, actually believes that fresh food is the best medicine, and drinks more tea than is proper. She also writes here.