Eating on a Budget: How to Avoid the Freshman 15

Before we begin, I would like to note that I am writing this at 9:07 PM on a Sunday.  Dinner was a few hours ago, and that burger to the left is looking very tempting.  I hope that you are reading this at a time when you can procure such a burger.  I must wait until tomorrow. 

Self-pity aside, let’s begin! 

So, the freshman 15 is something I’m sure you have heard of, either in movies or from friends.  If not, it’s the idea that incoming college freshman gain 15 pounds in the first year.  This could be for a variety of reasons, but most commonly the culprits are increased alcohol consumption, high-carb, high-fat food at the school cafeteria and an ungodly amount of fast-food.  There are different strategies that you can use to avoid the infamous freshman 15, but in this article, we will focus on how to eat healthy while sticking to your budget. 

Stick to Your Plan 

When you set out to create your budget you will want to allocate a certain amount of money each month for food.  If needed, you can learn how to create a budget here.  Once you have determined how much you have available for food each month, the planning begins!  

Meal Planning 

Take one day out of the week and plan your meals for all the other days.  This will help in a few ways.  First, creating this meal plan will take some time and force you to think about what you want to eat.  After you create your plan, you can review it to eliminate any unhealthy foods that you may have included.  Being prepared before entering the grocery store can help reduce impulse buys of unhealthy foods (also saving money!).  Another benefit is that you will be forced to look through recipes and see what ingredients you already have.  Knowing what items might already be in your cupboard or refrigerator will reduce making a duplicate purchase.  Finally, planning allows you time to do some research.  Many grocery stores provide flyers advertising deals of the week.  Pick one up for free and look to see what items will be on sale and plan your menus around these items.  Odds are you won’t go to the store and stand around looking at deals before doing your shopping, so do it in advance and be prepared.

When planning meals, one of my favorite sites to use is Slender Kitchen.  You can find a wide range of recipes for every meal.  The site lists the nutrient information on each meal and allows you to adjust the serving size so you know how much to buy.  The best part is you can find recipes that don’t require a lot of ingredients, so it’s easy to keep costs low. 

Purchase Planning 

As a follow up to being prepared, when making your plan think about what items are currently in season.  Buying in-season items, especially fruits and vegetables, will help keep your costs low while allowing you to still eat healthy.  Buying fruits and vegetables does not have to be expensive if you are conscious of when you are buying these items.  If you are fortunate enough to come upon a sale, say 2-for-1, and have the means of storing items in a freezer, then stock up while you can.  The frozen vegetable aisle is also a place to find some good deals at times. 

Another important consideration when planning your purchases is where exactly you will shop.  Going to some stores will naturally result in higher prices.  It would be great to have free-range, non-GMO, organic chicken every night, but not at $5.00 per pound like certain stores charge.  Spend some time going to different stores in your town and see if you can get certain items cheaper at one versus another.  Don’t forget to visit ethnic stores.  Often you can find special items much cheaper here than at a national or chain store.  You might also get the chance to find something new and exciting that you like!  You can also check out farmers markets to see if any good deals are available, though this may prove more expensive depending on where you live.

Bulk at Home (Not Just the Gym) 

Buying items in bulk can result in paying lower prices than if you buy smaller or individual servings.  Items such as beans, rice and nuts are great for buying in bulk.  These items, when stored properly, can last months, provide great health benefits and are filling.  Using these ingredients can keep costs low and help to complete many meals.  They are also easy to prepare and don’t require a lot of hands on cooking time.

Speaking of cooking, if time is the primary reason why you are constantly hitting the drive-thru, then begin cooking larger meals at home.  You could cook one large meal, say on Sunday, and use the leftovers Monday and Tuesday, thus reducing the amount of time you spend cooking each week. 

What About the Dorm Folk?

Sure, everything above sounds good, but what if you live in the dorms?  If your dorm is anything like mine was, you don’t have a cooking area or means of storing food.  We weren’t even allowed a heating plate to heat up water.  Tough times.  Fear not, there are options for dorm-dwellers as well! 

Cook for Friends 

If you have a friend who has an apartment, then offer to cook dinner for a group of friends on a regular basis.  Have all your friends contribute to a grocery fund and then you do the cooking.  This might seem odd, but if you play it right you might be eating for less, or even nothing, rather often.  Your friends might be looking for good alternatives to the school dining hall and, if you have a bit of cooking talent, this strategy could be very useful.  An added benefit is that at the end of the night, you can divvy up leftovers for the next day. 

Will Work for Food

I tried the previous method my freshman year.  The unfortunate part is, I lack all cooking abilities so it didn’t take long before my friends opted out of my home cooked meals.  So, I rolled up my sleeves and went to work at a local restaurant.  Now, eating out is not usually the healthiest option.  However, as an employee I was allowed one meal per shift from a specified list of items.  I could go for a salad or sandwich and remove some items to make it healthier.  The major benefit to me was that not only was I getting good food, I was also getting paid, and, by eating at work, I didn’t have to buy as much food for the rest of the day. 

Use Your Meal Plan

Some colleges may require incoming freshman to purchase a meal plan if they live in the dorms.  I think the plan I used offered me 2 meals a day 5 days per week.  Not a bad deal.  If you are required to have a meal plan, it makes sense to eat at the dining hall since you are already paying for the meals.  Now, earlier I mentioned that these meals are not always the healthiest option and that can be true.  So, it’s up to you to flex your willpower and choose to eat healthy.  Skip the burger and deep fried, greasy food line and go to the salad bar instead.  If there is an offering of fruit, go for that as opposed to the ice cream for dessert.  The school I attended allowed students to use their unused meal plan dollars at the end of the week to stock up on items for the dorm room.  If you can do this then stock up on some fruit, granola bars, trail mix or anything else that’s healthy.  You are already paying for the plan, so you might as well get your money’s worth.

College is a time of increased freedom, so use your power with care.  You don’t want to reach the end of freshman year and not be able to fit into your clothes.  Planning ahead carefully and thoughtfully will help save you money and keep you eating healthy.  You will be under enough stress with classes and possibly work.  Properly fueling your body will make it much easier to succeed with this pressure.  Also, don’t forget mom and dad.  If you can stop in to say hi and get food once in a while go for it!

Are you in college or maybe already graduated?  How did you juggle eating healthy while staying on a budget?  If you have anything to add, please leave a comment below.



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