When I first moved to Morgantown in August, I went to buy pots and pans at Target. On my way to the register, this man approached me and said, “Are you sure you know how to use those?,” just joking with me, of course. He didn’t know I’d been eating on my own for several years by that point, but it was funny nonetheless.
Actually, in a way, it shouldn’t be that funny. It seems like most college students (especially my fellow bachelor friends, whose culinary skills are limited to La Choy and frozen chicken nuggets) don’t really know how or what to cook, much less go to the store. When I’m at Kroger, I notice what other people are buying, and (guys especially) are buying
garbage unhealthy products (think Cheese-Its, Mountain Dew, Cup Noodles, cake; oh, and sometimes bread, for a Cheese-It sandwich). Furthermore, it’s often much easier to justify spending a few dollars at a fast food place then to spend the same amount and make your own food (but it’s much healthier to cook yourself, and I prefer to know how my food is handled and made).
For us in grad school, one of the biggest problems being a single student on a fixed income is the challenge of eating well at home without wasting leftovers or spending a ton of money. Most food in supermarkets is not packaged for individuals, and it is hard to justify paying more money for food that can go to waste. Obviously, this topic could be a blog in and of itself, but here are some simple ways I use to cut costs and at least try to adhere to the food pyramid:
-Go to the store like the rest of the world – often. As grad students, this might be a bit difficult to fit in between our assistantships, classes, individual projects, freelance work,
drinking socializing, #gradschoolproblems, commuting, trying to get our old cars and computers fixed…the list goes on. But, it’s good to keep your kitchen constantly re-stocked. This way, you won’t need to buy food with a lot of preservatives that’s meant to last through a nuclear war. Additionally, this enables you to buy fresh food more often, and in smaller amounts, meaning that the bananas you bought earlier in the week won’t get rotten. Sundays and Thursdays work best for me, since I have the least amount of work those days.
-Know what you need, and don’t deviate too much. The key to getting through the market is to have a few basic things in mind that you need, like bread, eggs, chicken or fruit. You don’t need to make a huge checklist, but before you leave your efficiency
box apartment in the bad colorful part of town, jot down a few things you have run out of, or what you will run out of in the next few days. Once you get to the store, start by going straight for the things you need, but also look around for other things you buy often. For example, at Kroger, sliced turkey lunchmeat has gotten pretty expensive in the past year or so, but probably once a month, it will be on sale for about $2.50 – or four sandwiches for me (two lunches). When that happens, I’ll snag it.
The same is true for other food that is a bit more expensive, don’t buy it unless it’s on sale (or if you absolutely need it).
-For fresh produce, plan ahead for how it can be used. Fruit is something that I always can use without it going bad. But vegetables, it’s a bit different, since I tend to not use a whole green pepper or tomato for one meal. So before I buy those things, I think about how I can use each within 2-3 days. A green pepper, for example, can be used in an omelet, combined with hummus and cucumber for a lunch, used in enchiladas or pizza or can be thrown into pasta sauce.
Or, if you’re not sure of how to use something within a few days, instead of buying fresh vegetables, consider buying half-cans of vegetables. They’re the perfect size for a side dish, and usually cost about 65-75 cents each.
-Swap traditional ingredients for something different, cheaper and/or healthier. Last semester, my new thing to try and make was enchiladas. I found several simple recipes online, most of which wanted me to buy olives, chilies, tomatoes and a number of other ingredients that I probably wouldn’t use until at least some of them went bad. So since salsa is basically the same as all those separate ingredients, I just used salsa instead – and it worked perfectly.
Another thing to try to cut the ridiculous amount of fat or calories from certain foods is to substitute ingredients or buy a healthier alternative. This is particularly easy for dairy products. If you need sour cream – buy the fat-free version. For butter, try Parkay or Smart Balance. And with instant oatmeal, buy the lower sugar version instead of the regular version, which is typically the same price.
-Always, always, always buy store brands. Not only are they cheaper, but the majority of the time, they’re exactly the same as brand-name products. No really. For example, Kroger brand ketchup is just Red Gold ketchup re-branded and packaged differently.
-Murphy’s Dollar(ish) Rule. When I first started shopping and cooking for myself in undergrad, I would just go with the cheapest thing possible. So for bread, I would get the store brand wheat bread. However, I realized that buying multigrain bread (which is better for you and tastes better) is about 50 cents more than regular bread, so now, I go with multigrain. We’re always trying to save money, even those two quarters for better bread. But, I’ve developed a system for buying food that is made healthier versus the run-of-the-mill style.
So, my general rule of thumb is that if something I frequently buy is within a dollar or so more, then I buy the more expensive (but healthier!) item. If it’s something that will take awhile to use, like peanut butter or cheese, then the amount I’m willing to pay extra goes up. But, if something is several dollars more, I’ll go with the cheaper, less-healthy item.
-Organic/local food. This is a problem for us as grad students, because organic food is typically more expensive, and we’re broke. But, it’s great because I’m (hopefully) not putting as many chemicals in my body as with normally-processed produce. I’ve found that in general, Kroger does a pretty good job of not making organic produce a whole lot more expensive than regular produce (i.e. organic bananas are usually 10 cents more per pound, bagged apples may be the same price). Obviously, it’s always better to eat fruit and vegetables, organic or not, but less chemicals are always good.
-Splurge once in awhile. Attempt to make something new or more involved at least every week or two. Men’s Health usually has a number of great, simple recipes to eat well, both on its website and in print. But, since the magazine (and most other magazines) assume you have lots of money and didn’t go to grad school, keep in mind my point about swapping out ingredients. And no, you don’t need basil or oregano.
Do those spices improve taste? Yes, but that’s more money you’ll be shelling out.
And don’t buy Cheese-Its, Mountain Dew or Cup Noodles.