Cheap college meals don’t need to be extremely basic and flavorless. Here are our top tips for eating on a budget in college, while still meeting your increased nutrient needs as a student athlete!
If you’re an athlete trying to keep your grocery bill on the lower end, you might feel forced to compromise from the minute you walk into a grocery store.
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You might forego the convenience or performance benefits of your favorite protein bar because it’s $3/serving, and that steep price isn’t doable for you, if you’re following a diet for cheap college meals.
If you chose a cheaper product, however, you might be skimping on flavor or quality. But if you go ahead and buy it, you’re compromising your budget.
You might feel like you’re stuck, and living on ramen noodles for your college career.
Budget-friendly choices require awareness and intentionality, especially if you’re trying to fuel your body for a specific goal, like weight training or endurance running.
While yes, you can make your own bars (these trail mix bars are fantastic), it usually takes some sort of mental plan to figure out how to best fuel your body on a budget.
We’re going to walk you through how to do that.
Chances are, you’ll need to experiment and figure out which strategies work best for you, but here are a few tips to get you started with some cheap meals for college students.
Cheap Meals for College Students Brainstorm
One great strategy to save money in college is to meal plan and “multi-task” with your food.
In other words, think about all of the different ways you can use a food, and plan meals around it.
This one is for all of the athletes out there who hate leftovers or can’t stand to eat the same meal two days in a row.
Grab a pen and a piece of paper, or open up the notes app on your phone.
List Each Macronutrient and What You Like
Let’s start by listing the macronutrient groups. If you need some guidance, check out this post on performance plates and how we divide them up.
- Protein – List one protein, such as chicken breasts, ground beef, eggs, or tofu. Here are some more options for protein for athletes. Protein powders count – use this post on protein powders for runners as a guide.
- Carbohydrate – Now, list one carb, like rice, bread, or sweet potatoes. You can even use this high carb lunches for runners as a guide – chips, tortillas, pasta all count, and are very budget-friendly.
- Veggies – List three veggies/fruits you like to eat. They can be fresh, frozen, canned or dried. I highly recommend frozen veggies if you have a fridge in your dorm room as they are the most budget-friendly and have a long shelf life!
Remember, many of these options are freezer-friendly, if you have access to a freezer, so you likely don’t need to be buying them each week.
Think of Different Combinations
Using the small list you’ve created, brainstorm as many meals as you can think of that utilize the protein, carb, and at least one of the veggies.
Get creative, and imagine that you have unlimited herbs, spices, and sauces to play with, too.
And while many college students probably aren’t using athlete meal delivery services, they can be great in a pinch, and I’d be willing to bet many would offer a college discount if asked.
Let’s say you picked chicken breasts or rotisserie chicken (usually available for less than $6), white rice, and frozen broccoli, fresh bell peppers, and a bag of frozen mixed vegetables.
- Season the chicken, broccoli, and bell peppers with soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and fresh basil to make a stir fry to eat with rice.
- Sauté the chicken and peppers together with cumin and chili powder and serve them over rice as a fajita bowl, adding other toppings like salsa, fresh cilantro, and sour cream.
- Or, combine the chicken, rice, and frozen mixed vegetables with a little bit of sesame oil and soy sauce to make fried rice.
You probably have a busy schedule, too, don’t you? Cooking might be the last thing you want to do when you get home from work, class, practice.
In this case, prep as much as you can at the beginning of the week using these tips for meal prep for athletes.
Using my list again, I could cook the chicken breasts and white rice ahead of time, using minimal or no seasoning with both, and store them in the fridge.
When I’m ready to make dinner, I’ll start by cooking any veggies that might need to soften.
Then, I’ll add in my pre-cooked chicken, and throw in the rice last, or throw all in a tortilla.
Meal Ideas for College Students To Minimize Food Waste
The less food you waste, the less food you have to buy, right? And the less food you have to buy, the more money you save.
Minimizing food waste is the basis for cheap college meals!
When you’re gearing up to grocery shop, take a second to plan your meals. This gives you an opportunity to survey your pantry and refrigerator so that you can plan meals around what you have.
Taking this step protects your budget because it reduces food waste and decreases the temptation to make impulse purchases.
Once you’re at the grocery store, check to see if any of the items on your list are on sale.
If you come across foods in your pantry or fridge that are on the verge of spoiling, either freeze or repurpose them before they go bad.
To freeze foods, simply put them in a gallon freezer bag or stasher bag (my personal favorite) and seal tightly, making sure to squeeze as much air out of the bag as possible.
The appropriate time to freeze a food depends on the type of food, but most foods can be frozen for up to 8-10 months.
This post on freezer meals for new moms has tons of ideas for freezer meals.
Baked goods, like zucchini almond flour muffins, Gluten free chocolate zucchini muffins or 3-Ingredient vegan peanut butter cookies, are a great option to use up most produce, and can be frozen for later.
Again, save them in those stasher bags!
But fruits and vegetables aren’t the only foods you can salvage. These leftover oatmeal cookies are a personal favorite of mine, especially when I end up prepping too much oatmeal.
They make for great snacks for athletes between classes or before or after practice.
Cheap Meals for College Students that are Meatless
Generally, meatless proteins, such as tofu, quinoa, legumes, and even eggs and dairy products tend to be cheaper than meat, in a serving-by-serving cost comparison.
Even cooking one meat-free meal per week can reduce grocery costs more than you would imagine.
Some people are nervous about branching out into meatless proteins, so if that’s you, start off by choosing a recipe that sounds appetizing.
This hummus pasta salad is also a fun twist on your typical pasta salad, and it’s a healthy vegan college meal.
If you don’t know where to start with tofu or tempeh, making a tempeh buddha bowl and mixing it with veggies and a marinade is nice and easy!
All of these options would provide easy leftovers, too!
Breakfast might be less intimidating to make meatless, but it’s still important to make sure your meal is satisfying and packed with nutrients.
Here are some easy ideas:
- Veggie sweet potato egg casserole
- Cookie dough overnight oats
- Strawberry Baked Oatmeal (can use any frozen fruit option)
- Turmeric Oatmeal
- High protein overnight oats.
If you do choose to incorporate meat, choose a type of meat that doesn’t break the bank, like chicken sausage, rotisserie chicken, ground turkey or pork.
Utilize Budget-Friendly, Nutrient-Dense Foods
As an athlete, you not only need a significant amount of energy and macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins), but you also need micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals that help your body function properly on a biochemical level.
Diet culture has a way of marketing that may make foods with these nutrients seem expensive and complicated to get, but you can absolutely find options that fit your palate and your budget.
The following foods are nutrient-dense and on the less expensive side during most seasons.
However, all produce will be cheapest when it is in season, so you will likely have more affordable options than are listed here.
Further, farmer’s markets or local stores may be less expensive (and more sustainable!) than larger grocery stores, so check those out if you have the time and capability.
- Vegetables—broccoli, bagged spinach, russet potatoes, sweet potatoes, canned tomatoes, carrots, green cabbage, canned corn, canned pumpkin
- Grains/Legumes—brown rice, oats, canned beans, quinoa
- Fruit—apples, bananas, oranges, kiwi, peaches, frozen berries
- Meats/Seafood—canned fish, pork, eggs, chicken breasts
- Dairy—cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, milk, string cheese
Now that you have multiple game plans to fuel your training on a budget, pick one or two strategies to get started. Once you’re used to those, add in another.
Cheap college meal prep doesn’t have to be intimidating or flavorless.