how do I keep cooking cheap, quick, and still good if I'm a college student?

I love food and cooking but have a very small budget for school. How can I make the most of it?

  • Posted by: Natalia
  • August 18, 2013


Raquelita August 24, 2013
Rely on spices and herbs to keep the basic flavors interesting! If you have family who could be persuaded to send you care packages, encourage them to have fun picking out some spice blends from Penzey's Spices or the Savory Spice Shop (both online).

Learn to make sauces. Some cookbooks have chapters for this, and it's good to study how they're made and how you can vary them on the fly. Think of things like a basic flour-thickened white sauce, a tomato sauce, a cheese sauce, a vinegar dressing/marinade, a brown sauce... you can put them over grains, beans, eggs, potatoes and vegetables in infinite combinations).

Use cheese, meats and imported items in small amounts, if at all. You can make good food without covering it in cheese!

Shop in-season ingredients when you can, some of the above tips are excellent about roasting veggies and using up the scraps. Even though it may seem like riskier/more expensive shopping, your food will taste better and you're building in healthy habits for life by buying from farmers' markets or local food co-ops. When you focus on what's grown nearby, you'll get maximum flavor and freshness, which means your food needs less help.

If you're shopping at a grocery store, avoid any pre-cut packaged veggies aside from frozen, since they'll go bad much faster and the prepped food costs more than it should. Obtain and learn to use a decent knife instead, it will pay for itself!

By the way, in terms of prices, you're on the right path just by cooking! Meals out and packaged foods (avoid the semi-homemade approach of basically assembling prepared foods from the aisles of the grocery store) are expensive compared to actual ingredients. For instance, you can buy tomato sauce, but you could also just buy canned (or fresh in season) tomatoes, add onion, garlic and dried herbs and spices and it's going to taste a lot better and be a lot more fulfilling to you. Use cooking as a way to destress, not something to fret over, and you'll realize it's saving you some invisible costs as you feel happier and act more grounded through college. Homemade meals are also great for dates, and that's when to spend a little more on fancy ingredients, but the ingredients won't get you far if you haven't mastered a basic sauce like a vinaigrette.

One more thing: yeast breads are a great challenge to a beginning cook, but the intervals between mixing, shaping, proofing and baking offer great windows for doing homework. You can make bread and set reasonable study goals for yourself through that process. And flour is much less expensive than buying bread.

If the dorm/residential life makes some things (like bread baking) too difficult, remember that a one-skillet sautée will ALWAYS taste good if you've got nice ingredients and the right touch with salt, pepper, spices and a little liquid thickened to make sauce.
susan G. August 23, 2013
Keep it simple: basic ingredients (dry staples and fresh produce) make unlimited variety. Then accumulate spices and condiments so that even the simplest cooking can be varied and leftovers are different every time.
nutcakes August 22, 2013
Try to find a food coop or natural foods store with bulk items so you can just buy what you need. This is especially cost effective with spices.
David August 21, 2013
Clean out your fridge produce drawer(s)once a week...omelettes, tacos, salads, pasta, rice,pizza great ways to use up leftover produce. Make your own snacks(a weeks worth at a time)...trail mix, breakfast bars etc. Shop at farmer's markets and smaller stores for as much as possible. Build meals around eggs, beans, pasta, rice, olive oil, cheese, canned tomatoes, fresh veggies and salad. Cook one new recipe each week...splurge a little on one meal each week....have 4 or 5 go to affordable recipes that are easy and affordable. Stretch recipes with cheap carbs like pasta or rice...instead of chili eat chili with macaroni, same with tuna.
Hilarybee August 20, 2013
I actually teach a course for college students on easy, budget (and often kitchenless!) food. My number one recommendation: Get a hot pot. It's amazing what you can make with boiled water-- from rice and thread noodles, to tea- to defrosting frozen soup. You can even hardboil eggs using a hotpot. Buy high nutrient nuts like almonds and cashews. An avocado can make an easy meal, just cut in half and sprinkle with salt and lemon. Good olive oil can make a bad salad great. The college students I work with usually have access to a microwave, hot pot, fridge and sometimes a blender. I advocate fruit smoothies from pre-frozen fruit, adding high quality protein can make it a meal. Canned beans are another good idea for college students. Use them as a topping or a full meal. Add eggs and greens and you are complete. I advocate buying few ingredients, but high quality ones. I still abide by these rules, even though I have a bigger budget and a better kitchen now.
ellenl August 20, 2013
google "oui, chef" (Steve Dunn) he has some recipes on this site and has a geat blog. He has an adaptation of Thomas Keller's split pea soup that he says if you try it, you'll never eat another. Oh, is he correct!!!
ellenl August 20, 2013
Silver Palate chili for a crowd is the best I have ever had. People always want the recipe. Cut it down---recipe is for a huge amount, use less meat to kidney bean ratio. On this sie liz the chef's white chicken chili (with a bit more salt/bouillion) is wonderful and has become an inexpensive, healthy staple in our house.
ATG117 August 20, 2013
In college, I lived on farm fresh eggs, good salads, roasted veg depending on the seasons, and greek yogurt. I would assume my food budget was pretty lean compared to others. I also agree with those who have suggested leaning on beans and grains. Quinoa, in particular, might be a good one because it contains protein.
Rebecca V. August 20, 2013
For between larger meals, I've been making my own granola and beef jerky, plus a batch of biscotti once or twice a month for breakfasts on-the-go. I've also been doing cold brew coffee overnight in the fridge for a tasty cup every morning that doesn't drain the wallet.
savorthis August 20, 2013
I love the co-op idea where people cook together. We had a soup group here for a while where everyone would show up with 6 buckets of soup and we all went home with six different kinds each. It freezes well and you don't burn out on one kind. Or you could gather to make things like tamales which are inexpensive and also freeze well.

My go-to lately has been whole chicken legs which are great in the slow cooker or oven and can also be frozen so you can do big batches. That and bulk grains/beans which can be easily flavored with herby pestos, simple tomato sauces and bulked up with hearty greens.

You should also check out the Cheap Feast contest which had lots of great submissions:
QueenSashy August 19, 2013
I takes a bit of a discipline, but creating a weekly menu or a menu for a couple of days ahead helps a lot. You can avoid unnecessary purchases, buy the right amount of quantities you need, and also make sure you are eating well.

Another thing you could do is to focus on roasted seasonal vegetables. They do not require a lot of work, and the time they spend in the oven you can spend doing something else (studying, reading, whatever). They will shine with a little bit of herbs, salt, pepper and olive oil, or balsamic and some grated cheese. The possibilities are endless and you are getting a wholesome meal. And no special hardware required.
boulangere August 19, 2013
I feel for you. My pantry staples during transit through a couple of universities and degrees were pretty much salt, pepper, flour, sugar, eggs, and pasta. Omelettes were my best friend. They could be prepared and eaten (standing up in the kitchen) in one pan, a small cast iron skillet I bought for $1 at a second-hand store, and which I have to this day. The concept of 20-minute 20 dollar meals would have been an unspeakable luxury. To have 20 minutes, let alone 20 dollars to spend on a meal was unimaginable in those days. And after 4 days of anything, I was sick of it. I agree that a slow cooker is a good investment, and thrift stores are full of them. So pick one up cheaply. Fill it with inexpensive vegetables: carrots, celery, onions, garlic, mushroom stems (save the caps for dinner!). Cook them overnight or all day for vegetable stock. Strain it (I also still have my $1 graniteware thrift store colander), and use the stock to cook rice. Poach a couple of eggs in some more stock and gently slip them out onto your rice. Dine line a queen while writing a brilliant paper.
Kate August 19, 2013
There's a good column on this site, "20 minute, 20-dollar meals," (that feed four! or you, four times....) A well-stocked pantry saved me when all I had time/money for was some lentils, or red beans and rice, etc..
lizzyinthekitchen August 19, 2013
Beans and grains will be a good friend along with buying seasonal food. Search online for farmers markets. Even in the winter, many areas have indoor markets.
Maedl August 19, 2013
All good ideas above, but don't overlook the social aspects of meal time. Some of my best memories of college are from gatherings around a huge, round table where we would sit long after the mostly unremarkable food was eaten, talking over politics or more mundane daily events. Find a way to integrate friends into your meal times--and a way to share some of the cooking so you aren't spending a lot of time preparing meals only for yourself.
lloreen August 19, 2013
It is really hard to cook for one person on a budget, not to mention time consuming! I like the suggestion of finding other students to cook with. I know college students who arranged a kind of coop where they would take turns cooking a few times a month and the group would get together for a cheap meal. If you don't have that option, your freezer is your best friend. Make a batch of lentil soup, let it cool, then dish it into plastic baggies in meal sized portions and freeze it. Chili is also great this way, and cheap. Lentils and beans are the cheapest and healthiest proteins. when the finals are upon you, you just grab a Baggie of frozen soup and defrost it for dinner. This was my trick for getting through my MA!
Kristen W. August 19, 2013
You can also try shopping at ethnic markets, which tend to be cheaper than mainstream ones. Save meat/chicken bones for stock to make soups/stews and save veggie scraps to make veg stock for the same purpose -- that way you can raid your own freezer for meal inspiration rather than spending extra money at the store. Also, meat tends to drive up the price of groceries, so you can also try to cook meals in which smaller pieces of meat are iintegrated into the dish as a whole (I.e., soup, curries, stir-fries, tacos). That stretches an expensive item further. Read Tamar Adler's "An Everlasting Meal" -- she has great ideas about how to eat well and inexpensively. Oh, and put a few pots in a sunny place and grow some herbs. Fresh herbs can elevate all kinds of things and buying them at the store can be unnecessarily expensive. Have fun!
JanetFL August 18, 2013
If you can buy local, seek out someone coming to you. We are in Colorado during the summer and fall and have always traveled to Palisade to buy peaches and vegetables. I just one day ago came across a man and his daughter and his truck right here in town - they were selling Palisade peaches and vegetables at better prices. Example: I bought 6 heavy ears of Olathe corn, 6 amazingly good tomatoes, assorted squash, and about 24 tomatillos for....are you ready???......$6.00!!!!
nutcakes August 18, 2013
Keep a few decent staples, olive oil, real parmesan from a deli or Trader Joes has ok for a good price.

Learn a few basics that can be varied depending on what you have around.

Fried rice is a great vehicle for leftovers
Stir fry- uses smaller meat to veg ratio, learn a few sauces for variety.
Frittata - make with bits of sausage or all veg
No cook pasta sauces, google it, but I like this one:

Here's a quick recipe my daughter lived on and sticky garlic chicken leftovers are great:
pierino August 18, 2013
Burritos were one of the staples of my college years
Now I've turned pro.
Guilty pleasures (and always close by); Shin Ramyun "Black". This is Korean style ramen. Inexpensive at about $1.79. Spicy! If you don't use all of the seasoning packets at once. Hang onto them and use them for something else. Maybe your kimchi burrito.
TobiT August 18, 2013
I would also recommend seeking out other cooking fans in your dorm or elsewhere on campus. Then you can pool your resources for one or two nice and interesting meals each month, and broaden your horizons while you're at it. Looking forward to something delectable will help you survive the (hopefully occasional) ramen and Kraft dinner!
ellenl August 18, 2013
Trader Joe's gyoza/dumplings in broth with vegetables.
ellenl August 18, 2013
American chop suey.
ellenl August 18, 2013
Legumes and beans.
CHeeb August 18, 2013
World Market also stocks delicious Tonnino Tuna in cans if you have one in your town.They also keep shelf stable(while unopened) sliced salamis in cryofilm. Both made hearty additions to their pastas or stuffing for soft flatbreads . Olives,pestos,jarred peppers are also good things to keep on hand. NJOY!!!
Natalia August 18, 2013
World Market is an amazing resource, thank you!!
Gryphen August 18, 2013
Buy a crock pot. It can be used in a dorm, left
on if properly set, and makes many different recipes( usually from cuts of meat that are inexpensive but very substantial) that would be ready after you sleep, after class, or after an all night kegger. :)
Monita August 18, 2013
There are a couple of ways you can eat well on a budget:
Buy seasonal ingredients; Build meals around large salads - they're quick and inexpensive. Add a protein (like, chicken or cheese) to turn a salad into a meal. Soups can be made in bulk and frozen; and then used as need. Same with stews. Make a big pot of fresh tomato sauce and then use it with different pastas and other ingredients. Roast a whole chicken. Use the meat throughout the week to make chicken salad, salad with chicken; stir fry etc.
Natalia August 18, 2013
thank you so much, these tips are great!
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