10 Affordable Meal Ideas for College Students

Mar 17, 2011

College is expensive, but your dinner doesn't have to be. This article contains just ten of the hundreds of fast, affordable and healthy meal ideas perfect for the student budget and schedule.

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The Quick and the Frugal

College is expensive, as are textbooks, rent, utilities, gas and so many more necessities. And because working often conflicts with studying, many students find themselves part time employed (and very busy) or not working at all.

Still, even a student has to eat! Here are some affordable and fast meal ideas for the economical student on the go.

1. Ramen Noodles

Ramen can cost as little as $0.07 a package, but many students quickly grow tired of it. Never fear: The days of throwing noodles and seasoning powder in boiling water and calling it a meal are over. Today's college chef can use these incredibly inexpensive packets as a base for many different dishes.

Consider adding a few vegetables such as carrots or snap peas, throwing in some extra protein in the form of chicken or shrimp and finishing it off with a dash of toasted sesame oil. Or lightly cook the noodles, then stir fry them with peanut butter, coconut milk and veggies for a Thai flavor.

You will find that there's a lot of unhealthy sodium in the original recipe, but if you leave out the seasoning package and get creative with your own flavors, Ramen can become a delicious, affordable and healthy college meal.

2. Grilled Cheese and Soup

All you need is a can of soup, a loaf of bread and a bit of butter and cheese. Great for sick or rainy days, this simple classic is both hearty and light on the wallet.

3. Deli Sandwiches

Want more than cheese between your bread? Stock your cupboard with healthy condiments (think dill pickles and mustard), then get creative. Meat eaters will find sliced turkey, ham, pastrami and more in the deli aisle and vegetarians can just load up with their favorite raw veggies. Cheese is a great source of additional protein for either sandwich.

Tuna is another classic sandwich option. Whip up a can with a little mayo and some celery and red onion and you'll have a delicious and versatile tuna salad that can go on bread, crackers or straight into your mouth.

4. Beans and Rice

The bulk aisle in the grocery store is a college student's best friend. Here you'll find important staples like beans, rice and other grains for pennies on the dollar compared to pre-packaged products.

Beans and brown rice provide essential proteins, and the meal is an easy and cheap way to make a lot of leftovers. Cook up your beans with some onions and garlic for extra flavor and throw in some sausage if your diet and budget allow. Just remember that dehydrated beans need to be soaked overnight before you start and brown rice typically takes about 45 minutes to cook.

5. Burritos

Looking for something creative to do with those beans and rice leftovers? Throw 'em on a tortilla with some cheese for a quick and easy burrito. Add salsa for a little Mexican flavor and consider grabbing some fresh veggies and chicken or beef to round it out.

6. Chicken Breasts and Veggies

Chicken breasts are a great, low fat source of protein, but can become expensive. Buy breasts or tenders frozen in bulk for a big savings, then roast them, poach them or pan fry them in just a little bit of oil. Steam some basic veggies like broccoli or cauliflower, cook up a little rice (get back to that bulk aisle for white rice to speed things up) and you'll have a fast, healthy and affordable meal in no time.

7. Spaghetti

Spaghetti noodles and jarred pasta sauce are both cheap and easy to make and options for sprucing up the sauce are as endless as your imagination. Consider onions, garlic, bell peppers and ground beef or turkey. Sprinkle a little parmesan on top if your budget allows - you can get it cheaper if you look for a small wedge of fresh parmesan in the deli area of your local grocery store.

8. Stir-fry

Stir-frying is fantastic because, like Ramen, it can be as healthy and diverse as you'd like. Heat up a little bit of oil (use olive oil spray to keep the fat content down) in a skillet or wok and just toss in a few of your favorite veggies with some fresh ginger and garlic. Meat eaters may want to start with some sliced chicken or beef, then add bottled sauce to the whole mix.

Or save some money and get creative: Make your own sauce by combining soy sauce, chicken stock and our favorite sources of flavor, such as crushed red pepper or more ginger and garlic. Mix in a tablespoon or two of cornstarch, pour it over your stir fry and simmer until it thickens. Serve the mixture over rice or noodles and get ready for some delicious leftovers.

9. Eggs

Eggs are affordable, delicious and, in moderation, healthy. Poach two and throw them on some toast, or scramble some with veggies for a quick breakfast. You can even throw the mix into your burrito (above) for a Mexican-style morning meal that capitalizes on leftovers.

Eggs can also be dropped into boiling water to help dress up that Ramen (or any other soup, particularly those based on chicken stock) or stir fried into cooked rice as a base for fried rice.

10. Frozen Meals

Frozen dinners are nice on lazy days or during all-day study sessions, but don't fall back on these as your default. The costs can add up when compared with buying fresh or bulk ingredients and many frozen dinners contain a lot of salt and fat. Shop wisely to avoid the Freshman Fifteen: Look for dinners marked 'healthy' or designed for weight loss, and check the fat, carbohydrate and calorie content (bad) against the fiber and protein content (good).

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