By Ashley Miles, Contributor
Everyone dreads the prospect of the infamous “freshman 15.” As a college student, your budget may allot ramen noodles two meals a day, seven days a week. A good number of students attend school full-time and can’t (or won’t!) hold a job. For these students, as well as those with minimum-wage part-time jobs, finding a way to eat healthy and stay in shape (or lose some weight once you get to college) is a challenge. Keeping a budget and knowing how to shop are key components in being healthy while saving money.
The first mistake you can make is assuming you can move away from your parents and continue to shop at Whole Foods. Unless your parents pay for your groceries, buying top-notch organic whatever-that-green-stuff-is might not fit into your measly budget for the month. Often times, Wal-Mart and Hy-Vee can offer inexpensive (and nutritious) alternatives.
Buying fresh fruits and veggies may not be the right choice. All supermarkets offer a frozen food section, and many fruits and veggies can be bought flash-frozen to be stored in the freezer and thawed when you get a craving. A benefit to buying your fruits and veggies frozen is that produce can be purchased even when it’s out of season.
Another major mistake is buying perishable food and never actually eating it. If you’re going to buy perishables, you have to pay attention to expiration dates. Letting food go to waste is like throwing your money away. If you have perishable food and you don’t think you’ll eat it before it expires, throw it in the freezer. You can thaw it quickly when you need to use it, and you won’t have to worry about finding the moldy bread in your cabinets.
Many of us make the mistake of purchasing snacks instead of meals. If you want to eat healthy while staying on budget, you have to make purchases based on what is going to feed you more in the long run. When students buy a hoard of junk food, they waste so much money on empty carbs that won’t keep them full, and also end up costing more because they have to buy food more often.
Making a food plan for the week (or even the month) is an easy way to buy food in bulk for meals and spend less money later. You can buy 20 chicken breasts for $10 in a freezer bag to be used for the entire month, or you can buy eight breasts over two weeks and spend $15. Many students don’t realize that buying in bulk saves money when you know you’re going to purchase something anyway.
A popular alternative to buying groceries is using the school’s cafeteria, which offers positives and negatives. Most cafeteria costs range around $7 to $10 for a buffet-style dinner. Although you may be able to eat more food in a single sitting at the cafeteria, don’t ignore the fact you can afford two to three meals off those $10. Spending money in a cafeteria can be just as expensive as shopping at Whole Foods. It may be a great break from your usual eating routine, but it might not be a practical alternative to buying your groceries from the store.
You have to understand that you can’t go out to a restaurant five nights a week. If you’re trying to save money and stay on budget, eating at a restaurant frequently will drain your wallet faster than anything else. Not only is restaurant food often overpriced, they also exaggerate portions. This means you may make the healthy decision to have a salad, but you eat three serving sizes instead of one. Also, you can’t personally keep track of everything a restaurant puts in your food. If you’re trying to manage what you eat, making your own meals at home and having knowledge of what you’re actually eating will help you make smarter decisions not only in purchases, but also in ingredients.
Knowing the limits of your budget and sticking to a plan will help you understand not only the importance of balancing your purchases, but also when to hold off on the M&M’s.