Eating Well on a Student Budget

Student writer Elliot shares advice on eating well and spending less…

I had a housemate who cooked once, found it bothersome, then got pizza five days a week for almost two terms. He was surprised when he started developing health issues. Still don’t know how he was affording it.

Not everyone goes this far (with unfortunate exceptions), but it’s practically a cliché that students eat poorly, and studies bear this out.

 

I want to talk about why and (more importantly) how, you might want to address this.

 Is this a big deal?

Fair question.

Changing diet is no small task, so – what are the benefits of a healthy one, right now, at uni?

  1. More energy and better health. Your food affects everything from appearance and mood, to mental energy[i]. Give your body good fuel, and you’ll push harder, and find strength when needed. Don’t, and you’ll be sluggish, or too mentally tired to cope. Moreover – poor diet is a leading factor to lethal conditions as you age[ii]. Dealing with this now reduces future time and money spent on ill-health (the last things you need at university).
  2. You develop self – discipline. The daily habits you get at uni will last decades, if not a lifetime[iii]. Nailing good diet now rather than later is simpler[iv]. And more generally, if you can pull it off, you’ll be learning how to develop useful habits – a critical skill in many other parts of your life.
  3. It saves money. Counterintuitive? Well, good, regular meals will leave you full, saving you money on overpriced snacks. Meaning that overall, you’ll be spending less often.

To recap – the benefits of a better diet are: improved day-to-day function, protection against ill-health, mastering a huge piece of self-discipline, and more money to spend elsewhere. All big things.

So: if you’re self-improvement focused (and if you’re reading this blog, I assume you are) – the answer is yes. This is a big deal, and something you want handled.

Why is it so hard?

If so many students WANT to eat healthy, why are so few succeeding?

There are two big answers:

  1. Time and money. Our full-time job is to master a chosen discipline for 3-4 years. It’s considered such an endeavor that we’re given the money in advance to do it, leaving us with limited extra time and money to buy, and cook 3 meals a day, 7 days a week – particularly when balancing hobbies and a social life. But, these DO have workarounds (more on that in a minute) – the bigger issue, I think, is…
  2. Emotional/psychological barriers. Not as in bulimia or anorexia – those are well beyond the scope of this article and require specialised support. ‘Getting healthy’ is misunderstood as an extreme act – working out twice a day, or fad diets involving nothing but herbal tea for a month. We all know people who try to ‘get healthy’ like this, get discouraged, then return to old habits in less than a week.

‘Getting healthy’ happens when you create small lifestyle improvements, keep them, and keep building on them. In other words – to get healthy, eating well just has to become how you eat most of the time.

THAT must be your goal, if you want lasting change.

How to develop (and keep) a healthy diet

Without further ado, here are some realistic steps you can take to develop healthy and affordable eating as a university student:

  1. Understand what it means to eat healthy. Eating healthy doesn’t necessarily mean only eating veg or never eating a donut again. That would be ridiculous. I recommend reading this beginner’s guide to exercise and eating healthy as a primer (focusing on the mindset and diet sections). It approaches common misconceptions, gives a list of healthy food staples, and addresses fruits, veg, water, and vegetarian/vegan diets.
  2. Cut fast foods and soda. If absolutely nothing else, this is THE step to improving health[v]. Occasional fast foods and desserts are fine IF you’re on top of your diet the rest of your time. If these are your staples though, you’ll need to replace them.
  3. Learn to cook. Not easy – but simple. Focus on learning to follow individual recipes – I recommend a beginner’s goal of mastering 7 different recipes, using healthy staples. Youtube cooking shows like Bon Appetit, and Binging with Babish have established formats and good recipes. You might also want to check out Allrecipes, or even RUSU’s very own Diversity Digest for tried and tested student recipes.
  4. Meal prep. AKA shop and cook in bulk. Never buy or cook for one –instead, do large quantities of food, and portion out. Buying in bulk is cheaper, and you’ll save time – cooking for 6, then portioning out means that you have 6 meals ready then and there. Boom. No need to cook 3 times a day if you can just cook 3 times a week. For guides on meal-prepping, including recipes, start here.
  5. Eat regular meals, avoid snacks. This will stop you from getting too hungry and from over-indulging in fast food and sugary snacks – meal prepping is your friend. If you know you won’t have time to go home to cook, pack a container of pasta or a sandwich the night beforehand.

Conclusion

A healthy diet is about replacing your STAPLES with healthier foods, so that you can be stronger (physically and mentally), control money, save time, and practice self-discipline in a visceral way (it also doesn’t completely exclude donuts and kebabs). People might approach changing it the wrong way, then get discouraged – but in reality, it just requires some intelligent thought, patience, and willingness to push past mistakes.

And when you break the process down, the time investment and effort is pretty modest for something that will alter your day-to-day experiences, your future health, and last you a lifetime.

I’d say that’s worth picking up.

 

[i] https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/food-for-thought-mental-health-nutrition-briefing-march-2017.pdf [Last accessed 16/10/18]

[ii] Jina Tanton, Lorna J. Dodd, Lorayne Woodfield, and Mzwandile Mabhala, “Eating Behaviours of British University Students: A Cluster Analysis on a Neglected Issue,” Advances in Preventive Medicine, vol. 2015, Article ID 639239, 8 pages, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/639239.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] https://theundercoverrecruiter.com/college-life-vs-work-life/ [Last accessed 16/10/18]

[v]Monteiro, C. (2009). Nutrition and health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing. Public Health Nutrition, 12(5), 729-731. doi:10.1017/S1368980009005291

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