How to Slash Food Costs in College
August 15th, 2016 by Anum Yoon

food costs

If you are currently planning to be a college student in the U.S. or if you already attend a U.S. college, you have probably thought about one of the most important expenses that all students face — food.

Feeding yourself in college can be a challenge, especially if you’re new to living independently. You have to plan when you’re going to eat and where your meal is going to come from. You also need to determine how you intend to pay for it — all while still trying to remain healthy so you can keep up with a demanding schedule and course load.

So how can you not only effectively plan to eat, but also pay for it? Here are some tips:

  1. Choose the right campus meal plan and use meal points efficiently.

Many colleges require you to live on campus your first year, and many also require on campus students to purchase a meal plan. While a meal plan is not always the best deal, you might as well make the most of it.

Meal plans typically come with a certain number of meals per week or per semester, as well as some additional meal points that can be used to buy snacks or larger meals.

Choose a meal plan that is the most cost-effective and that best fits your current eating habits. If you’re the type of person who sleeps in until lunchtime, don’t waste money on three meals per day. Likewise, if you typically eat three meals a day and snack in between, don’t get a plan that’s too small.

All of your food doesn’t have to come from your meal plan, either. For example, consider buying a box of granola bars to keep in your dorm room as a snack when you’re running late.

  1. Plan your meals.

Once you have a meal plan, you need to know ahead of time how you intend to use it.

For example, if you have two meals per day, you might plan to wake up early and eat a big breakfast. You might have some meal points that you can spend on light snacks throughout the day, and then finish the day with dinner.

Look at your class schedule and see where you might be able to fit your mealtimes. Some days you may have large blocks of time for a longer, more leisurely meal at the dining hall. Other days you might have a packed schedule, and a full lunch won’t be a practical option.

If you schedule your meals and make them part of your routine, your body will be able to adjust, and you will feel healthier.

  1. Live off-campus.

If your college requires a meal plan for students living on campus but you don’t want to keep eating in the same few dining halls every day, you may consider moving out of campus housing.

Contact your school’s housing department to find out if they offer information about local landlords. You can learn a lot about a landlord by word of mouth and by looking at their leases

Most schools also have on-campus apartments, but they may be more expensive than what you’ll find off-campus. Be wary of hidden costs like furniture, transportation and utilities, though.

Living off-campus opens up the door to cooking for yourself, which can provide you with healthier and more diverse meals than what you might get from a campus meal plan. You may even be allowed to grow potted herbs and vegetables!

  1. Stick to a grocery list and budget.

Once you’re off campus with a smaller meal plan — or no meal plan at all — it can be tempting to eat out all the time. While it’s okay to treat yourself every once in a while, it’s much more affordable to live on a grocery budget. Save your trips out for special occasions or nights with friends, and start making a grocery list.

Your grocery list should include items that are affordable and healthy. Consider adding some of these to your list:

  • Fresh (or frozen) fruits and vegetables
  • Meats that can be frozen for later
  • Boxes of pasta that will last a long time and can be used for different recipes
  • Easy snacks like granola bars or popcorn

You can also buy ingredients for deli sandwiches or peanut butter and jelly that you can pack and bring to campus with you for lunch.

Plan a trip to the grocery store on a regular basis, such as every week or two, to make sure you keep your most important food items stocked.

  1. Prep and cook your own meals.

Just like with a meal plan, be sure to schedule when your meals will be and give yourself enough time to prepare. Simple meals are best, so during your free time search for recipes that don’t require a lot of expensive ingredients.

You should also make large portions when you can — leftovers are a college kid’s best friend, especially if it’s something delicious you made yourself! Record your favorite recipes to use again later. The best part of prepping your meals also means reducing food waste.

Even after you’ve taken all of these tips into consideration and planned out your meals, you might need to adjust occasionally — if you keep running to the snack bar between classes, for instance, stop spending points on something you could buy in bulk elsewhere.

Learning to budget and plan meals is a big part of transitioning to independence, and college is the perfect time to learn how to do it.

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