Cheap college meals for life on campus

Hungry? These easy meal suggestions are also easy on the wallet and perfect for life on campus.

As many college students will attest, regularly buying food on campus is not only expensive, but often unhealthy. Buying your lunch for 10 dollars a day at the fast food restaurants, pizza joints, and coffee shops on campus can really add up, and most have limited healthy menu options. Taking the time to plan out your lunches and pack healthy meals for college students can make a huge difference in your energy levels throughout the day. Best of all, there are easy meals for college students that you can whip up on a budget.

A group of college students eating at the dining hall.

The following meal plan shows how to eat on a college budget and offers healthy lunch recipes and easy meals for college students. The guide features tips from Jacqueline de Grave, a former student and college athlete who is passionate about cooking and eating well on a budget, and it’s also been reviewed by Kathryn Alp, a registered dietitian.


Rice and Beans

How to eat on a college budget starts with this quick and easy meal that you can make in a big batch a night or two in advance. It’s just what you’re looking for on a busy week with back-to-back tests and papers. Choose brown rice to hike up your fiber intake and add all sorts of veggies like corn, avocado, tomatoes and peppers for even more nutrition and flavor. Black beans and kidney beans work well, but you can also try other varieties like navy, white or chickpeas. Bean dishes can be perfect healthy meals for college students—and they can be done on a college budget.


Super Salad

It’s time to revamp your tired bowl of greens by topping it with tasty sources of protein and fiber. In addition to your favorite fruits or vegetables, try adding chickpeas, chicken breast, canned tuna or a sliced hard-boiled egg to keep you full throughout the day as you go from class to class. Hemp hearts are another great source of protein that are delicious sprinkled on top of salads. You may even be able to throw one of these together at your cafeteria’s salad bars when you’re on the hunt for easy meals for college students.

Closeup of hands tossing a healthy green salad.

One of de Grave’s creations is a super simple orzo pasta salad with ground turkey, veggies, and feta cheese.

“Salads don’t have to be boring,” de Grave says. “I love to have fun mixing up ingredients that vary from pasta salads, chickpea or bean salads, to chicken salad sandwiches or chicken salad on a bed of greens. As long as you are willing to get creative with your ingredients, salads can take on many shapes and flavors and be perfect for light snacks or heartier meals that are easy to carry around.”


Pita Pockets

Sounds like the perfect budget meal to accompany a marathon study session, right? You can also put it on your list of healthy meals for college students. Variations include marinated tofu for vegetarians or sliced chicken breast or pork chop for meat eaters. Stuff the pita with bean sprouts, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, avocado, and Greek yogurt and voila: You’ve got a quick, easy lunch that’s cheaper and healthier than a sandwich or burger at any campus fast food joint. Go ahead and get creative with your fillings.

“I sometimes replace the pita with romaine lettuce,” de Grave says. “Topping it with veggies, chicken, ground turkey, or chicken and homemade dressings is a super simple way to throw together a quick and affordable meal.”


Egg Salad and Tuna Sandwich

How to eat on a college budget? Look no further than this mashup of two classic (and inexpensive) sandwich toppers: egg salad and tuna. You can splurge on your favorite veggie toppings. Use low-fat mayonnaise or Greek yogurt and hearty whole grain bread to make this an even healthier option.

“Carbs provide us with the only source of fuel for our brains,” Alp says. “If you eat enough high-quality carbs like whole grains, fruits and vegetables—that’s going to be your brain food,” she adds.


DIY Fresh Spring Rolls

These are a little bit more time consuming to prepare, but totally worth it if you’re looking for healthy meals for college students. Simply roll up vegetables and your favorite protein in rice paper, and serve with your favorite dipping sauce. You can use any filling you like including chicken breasts, avocado, or cherry tomatoes. Tofu is a great alternative because it can be cheaper than meat and can absorb any flavor, making it very versatile.

Daily Snacks

When learning how to eat on a college budget, it’s important to curb your hunger with healthy snacks throughout the day. For a well-balanced snack, Alp recommends including a food high in protein or fiber combined with carbs from fruits or vegetables. Need a few ideas to get you going? Get started with these:

Healthy Granola Cookies

Granola-based cookies can be tailored to all taste buds. Make them sweet by adding cacao nibs and plenty of dried fruit like cranberries, blueberries, and raisins, or opt for higher protein with peanut butter, coconut flakes, slivered almonds, and pumpkin seeds. Buying the dried fruit, nuts, and seeds at your nearest bulk store can make them more affordable.

Overnight Oats

Make this delicious and inexpensive snack in a mason jar and leave it in your fridge overnight. You can get creative with this one and add anything from cocoa to pumpkin puree to fresh fruit and peanut butter.

A counter top with a cutting board, food processor, and various ingredients for making hummus.

Homemade White Bean Dip

Make this dip in a big batch in advance and store it in sealed containers for up to three days. Serve with pita, sliced veggies, or crackers.

Ants on a Log

Nope, it’s not just for kids. This one is a fun, easy meal for college students. Top celery stalks with peanut butter and raisins the good old-fashioned way or experiment with other toppings.

If eating on campus is your only option, keep these tips in mind for eating well in a pinch…

Alp says there is one key area where college students often slip up. “Drinking your calories. If I could tell everyone to quit juice, I would,” she says.

Alp suggests avoiding soda or juice because these drinks can contain added sugar that can slow you down over the course of the day. Even so-called “sports drinks” can pack a lot of sugar into just one bottle.

And when you need an extra caffeine kick, consider avoiding energy drinks or sweet coffee drinks. Not only do these drinks cost a pretty penny, many pre-made coffee drinks have more sugar than a can of soda.

 A young woman drinking from a bottle of water.

“If students choose water over juice, extra sugar in their coffee, energy drinks, or pop they would be cutting quite a lot of calories out of their diet,” Alp says.

Because sometimes it’s impossible to avoid the food court when you’re stuck on campus all day, Alp has some guidance for choosing the healthiest option from fast food restaurants.

“Choose tomato-based sauces over cream sauces. Choose the grilled option over the fried option. And choose the whole wheat option whenever possible,” she says.

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