White woman with long dark hair, hat, carrying bag of veggies, smiling at pepper

How to Eat Healthy in College on the Cheap

What if you could get tasty, healthy, AND cheap food for your dorm room? This personal trainer and nutrition specialist has the tips to make it happen.

As a college student, you probably have barely enough money to buy ramen, much less fancy salads, salmon, and other healthy foods.  However, even though healthy food has a reputation for being expensive, it doesn’t have to be that way—even for college students. If you want to stock up on good-for-you foods to keep in your dorm room, use these tips to get organized and shop smarter. You’ll get what you need and save cash at the same time.

Buy simple foods and prepare them yourself 

Prepping your own meals is an easy way to cut costs and eat healthier in college. You might be surprised by how much healthy food you can keep in your dorm and meal prep you can do with just a mini fridge and microwave. And if you live in an off-campus apartment or an on-campus suite with a full kitchen? Well, the world is your oyster! (Except not really because oysters are crazy expensive.) 

A good example is pre-bagged salads: They're convenient, but you pay more for that convenience. To save on cash, grab a head of lettuce, along with carrots, a cucumber, and maybe a few more veggies of your choice for a reasonable amount. Chop everything up at home at once and store it in an airtight container in your fridge for an easy-to-grab base for lunch and dinner salads. You can likely get at least five small salads out of that, and if you're eating more foods from your dorm, you'll be saving your swipes at the dining hall. But salad math is just the beginning. Other great cheap but healthy food choices for college students include:

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Beans and lentils
  • Eggs (microwave mug omelets, anyone?)
  • Hummus
  • Peanut butter
  • Popcorn (look for low-salt, low-calorie options)
  • Rice (grab the microwaveable bags)
  • Rotisserie chicken (if you can’t cook a chicken yourself)
  • Chips and salsa
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Tortillas
  • Whole grain bread
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Yogurt (preferably plain, low sugar, and/or Greek)

With all the recipes online, you’ll have no trouble finding easy, healthy dishes you can make in a dorm. Cooking is a super-handy life skill, so the more practice you get, the better. 

Related: 5 Fun and Easy Recipes to Cook Up in Your Dorm

Learn the sales cycle at your local grocery stores

All stores have a cycle for their reduced-price and clearance items, and if they’re near your campus, they might be especially sensitive to cost-conscious college students. If you have access to multiple grocery stores, shop around before settling on your go-to. To test the difference in pricing, do the same exact grocery trip two weeks in a row (buying all the same exact items) at two different stores. Compare the total to see where you can save the most, which includes accounting for weekly promotions and sales.

Maybe you’ve seen their weekly sales flyers that promote the deals for that week. Some grocery stores might share these on social media if you can’t get them in person. At any rate, the key here is knowing when those promo cycles end, because that’s usually when surplus items go on sale. Some grocery stores even offer double discounts on the day the old sales end and new ones begin; this may not sound like the cheapest technique, but it could save you a lot off your grocery bill. All you have to do is plan your grocery trip ahead of time.

Shop bulk items

The bulk section is where you’ll save on the cost of packaging. You can get a lot more bang for your buck on things like granola, nuts, and grains buying in bulk, especially if they’re running a sale. If your grocery store has bulk bins—and you aren’t picky—go for the items that are on sale to get a lot of food at a steep discount. Supplement these dry goods that will last a while with other perishable items mentioned above to make healthy meals and snacks right in your dorm room. Just like you might’ve teamed up with your roommate to share big-ticket dorm items like your mini fridge or TV, you might consider going in on a bulk store membership together. If not, why not ask for one from your parents as a holiday or birthday gift? They'll appreciate a practical gift geared toward saving money. 

Take advantage of coupons, pricing apps, and student discounts

Coupons are one of the best ways to save on healthy food. The local papers are packed with manufacturer coupons, and many brands promote newer, less-processed foods, allowing you to save big on the stuff you want most. You can also use grocery pricing apps that direct you toward the best deals and might even give you cash back for shopping. Most retailers and grocery stores in college towns also offer discounts for students as long as they show an ID, so be sure to ask around about it. Not only is it the easiest way to save but the discount is also usually high, around 20% off in many cases.

Related: The Best Student Discounts: Food, Clothes, and More

Saving money on healthy food in college is totally doable. Whether you use an app, do your research, or rely on the bulk bins each week, you can get what you need without going over budget. Don't be afraid of fresh produce because you only have a mini fridge and don't assume you can't make delicious meals with just your microwave. All you have to do is get a little creative, and what you can't do...well, that's what the campus café is for. 

Do you know what else helps you eat better in college? Scholarship money! Use our Scholarship Search tool to help you find pocket money that pays for nonacademic expenses like food and fun. 

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About Jessica Thiefels

Jessica Thiefels has been writing for more than 10 years and is currently a full-time blogger. She is also an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, NASM Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist, and the owner of her own personal training business, Honest Body Fitness.


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