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Nutrition Recommendations for Eating on a Budget (November 2022)


Hi all! This is fellow Mountaineer Kinsey Hershberger speaking. I am an undergraduate student in the Human Nutrition and Foods program (and I'm getting ready to start my graduate degree next semester).

The transition from high school to college is challenging in more ways than one. Frequently, the healthy habits we established in high school don’t follow us to college. Living in a residence hall provides barriers to cooking and eating healthfully. With limited refrigerator and freezer space, lack of access to a stove and sometimes even a toaster or microwave, it might feel next to impossible to cook.

But even as students transition off campus to apartment living, there still can be challenges. These challenges can look like: adjusting to shopping and cooking on your own, no longer having a dining plan, budgeting challenges, no transportation to go grocery shopping, busy lifestyles, limited kitchen supplies, lack of cooking skills and a lack of confidence (just to name a few!).

If this feels familiar, stick around to read the rest of this post. My hope is to provide you with some low-cost recipes and tools to cook fun and easy meals in your home away from home (Let's Go Mountaineers!).

The Problem

According to a study surveying the cooking frequency of college students, less than 50% of participants reported cooking often. In the same study, 14% of students reported that they never cook. 1 Another study surveying the quality of meals found that the college environment can be a contributing factor to a less nutritional diet. Interestingly, this can impact college students’ relationships with food. Advertisements, buffet-style dining halls and increased availability to low-nutrient convenience foods all are examples of how the college environment can support a low-nutrient diet.

Another example of an environmental factor that influences our relationship with food is “diet culture.” According to a study evaluating the link between social media and food choices, social media engagement and image-related content can negatively impact food choices and body image. 2 Media and advertising are highly responsible for the toxic diet culture that promotes strong restrictions and poor body image. 3 Many college students report that they engage in dieting to change and decrease weight. However, an increase in dieting does not show any decrease in the population's BMI. In fact, the rise in diet culture has been associated with the rise in obesity and eating disorders. 4 Rigorous food rules and caloric restrictions to comply with diet culture can lead to food-seeking behaviors and a cycle of restricting and binge eating. 3

While all of these things play a factor, busy lifestyles and financial concerns are the largest contributors to less-nutrient-dense dietary choices among college students. 5 The American College Health Association did a study in 2018 and reported that 95.8% of college students did not consume the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Another study found that only 3.6% of college students consumed five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day and only 32.9% of college students consumed 20 grams of fiber per day, neither meeting the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 7 Compounding the change in diet, physical activity tends to see a sharp decrease from high school to college. 8

So what’s the bottom line? Students spend four years engulfed in diet culture and building habits surrounding convenience foods and low physical activity. These habits likely will extend beyond college years and are associated with higher risk for chronic diseases and eating disorders. 3,7 Keep reading for some simple, easy recipes that you can add to your weekly routine!

Home Cooked Meals and Intuitive Eating Associated with Healthier Dietary Patterns 2,10

Home Cooked Meals

One study found that college students who cooked four to seven times per week and more frequently prepared meals from basic ingredients were associated with greater fruit and vegetable intake. 2 Busy lifestyles and financial concerns are the biggest barriers to nutritious, home cooked meals. 5 Meal prepping is a valuable tool that can help, in part, to overcome both of these barriers.

Meal prepping addresses time constraints. Preparing meals at the beginning of the week allows home cooked meals to be more convenient and readily available than fast food. Meal prepping addresses financial constraints. Some of the items discussed in this post will pose more expensive costs up front at the grocery store. However, if you can afford a couple of upfront costs, you’ll save money in the long run. A study was done to evaluate the association between food expenditure, eating out and home cooked meals. Frequent eating out was linked to higher expenditure, while frequent home cooked meals was associated with less food expenditure as well as away-from-home costs. 11

Intuitive Eating

Another study found that those who eat intuitively may be more likely to consume more fruits and vegetables. 10 Intuitive eating is a dietary pattern that places emphasis on the body’s natural hunger and fullness cues to guide eating behaviors rather than external dieting or food rules. 4

Intuitive eaating strategies include:

  • Eating consistently. As a busy college student, it might feel easy to miss a meal here and there. Try eating consistently without skipping meals.
  • Check in on how much caffeine you’re consuming. Caffeine is an appetite suppressant and will hide the natural hunger cues your body may be trying to express.
  • Practice mindful eating. Strategies for this can include eating meals without distractions (e.g., tv and social media), eating slower, chewing more, taking time to focus on the food's texture and how the food makes you feel. For more information, watch a mindful eating meditation video tutorial.
  • If you’ve eliminated foods, check in with a dietitian to discuss food rules.
  • Add foods to your diet instead of taking foods away.
  • Try to view food as more than just fuel. Including foods that you find pleasurable and satisfying at meals is important for your mind and body.

For more information on intuitive eating, view the Health at Every Size article.

Recipes and Foods for Busy Lifestyles and Financial Concerns

Breakfast and Snacks

Eggs / Omelet in a Mug

No stove? No problem. All you need is a mug, olive oil, eggs and a microwave! Oil the mug, drop two eggs in, beat with a fork, season with pepper, and pop it into the microwave for 45 seconds. Remove and stir, then cook for another 45 seconds until eggs are set but not dry. You can also add cheese, diced bell peppers, spinach, canadian bacon and more seasonings like garlic powder or onion powder. Add a splash of milk or water for fluffier eggs!

Overnight Oats

Overnight oats are quick to make and easy to take on the go. This meal offers so much room for variation. Spice it up with nuts, fruits and cinnamon, or stick with the basics. With one serving of whole grains, fruit and dairy, you’re setting yourself up for a productive day. Make sure to grab a leak-proof storage container for breakfast on the go. Check out my favorite recipes mentioned in this step-by-step video tutorial.


This is another meal that provides a packed serving of grains, fruit and dairy. Smoothies are a great option for convenience and can be very nutritionally dense. They can serve as a full breakfast meal, post-workout meal or midday snack. Frozen fruit can be expensive and take up a lot of room in the freezer. If this is a barrier, you can use bananas and fresh berries — just be sure to add some ice cubes before blending!

There are so many variations online. My go-to basic recipe includes oats, fruit, non-fat Greek yogurt or peanut butter and a handful of spinach.


One serving of fruit is one medium sized fruit (like a banana, orange or apple) or a cup of fruit (like berries). Be wary of dried fruit, as it is easy to eat over the serving size. Frozen and canned are just as fresh and may be more cost effective.

Vegetables and Hummus

Cut up cucumbers, celery and bell peppers at the beginning of the week and store them in a plastic bag (to avoid taking up fridge space). Add these to baby carrots and cherry tomatoes. Hummus is a great option for dipping, but can be somewhat expensive.

Cottage Cheese

Opt for low-fat cottage cheese.


Opt for low-fat Greek yogurt but pay attention to added sugars. Greek yogurt options have high protein which is a great perk!


Nuts are a great source of unsaturated fatty acids, which can aid in decreasing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. 12

Lunch and Dinner

Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich on Whole Grain Bread

Fun and filling! When selecting a jam or jelly from the store, be sure to look at the ingredients. High fructose corn syrup as the first ingredient is something to avoid. Jams and jellies with fruit and sugar as the main ingredients are ideal. This may be expensive up front, but is quite affordable when considering serving amounts per jar. Be mindful of the peanut butter and jelly serving sizes and pair with fruit or veggies with hummus for a full meal.

Vegetable Quesadillas

This meal leaves a lot of room for creativity. Options for the filling include bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, spinach, corn, black beans, chicken and an assortment of cheeses! Top with salsa and plain greek yogurt with lime juice for a high protein sour cream substitute. One quesadilla with bell peppers, cheese, and the salsa yogurt combination can be made for $1.13.

Fried Rice

View this fried rice recipe to make a dish you already love but with a healthy and convenient twist. Consider using turkey bacon or ditching the meat altogether.

Sweet Potatoes

Enjoy microwaved sweet potatoes topped with butter and pepper and served with other vegetables and a protein. Sweet potatoes can be bought for $0.97 each.

Frozen Vegetables

Be sure to check the ingredients list when selecting your frozen vegetables at the store. The only ingredients listed should be a vegetable. Frozen packages can sometimes come with seasonings that include a high amount of sodium (these will also typically be more expensive). You can season at home yourself by adding a small amount of garlic, pepper, onion powder, Italian seasoning, paprika or whatever you have on hand.

Minute Rice

Quickly cook rice on a stove top or pop a rice pouch into the microwave.


Chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) are a good source of protein and fiber. They can be bought in a can for $0.79 (that’s $0.23 per serving). There are endless ways to incorporate these into a meal. Try adding them in a rice bowl, over a salad or over a sweet potato. Check out this spiced chickpea recipe.

Healthy Tips and Tricks

  • Plain Greek yogurt can be used as a high protein substitute for sour cream.
  • Buy storage containers. If you can afford the upfront cost, go with pyrex dishes. They are microwave safe and will last much longer than plastic containers.
  • If a barrier to meal prepping is disinterest in eating the same meal more than once during the week, try using common bases with different toppings, seasonings and sauces. For example, take the base ingredients of rice, chicken and vegetables and try one meal with broccoli, Italian seasonings and dressing. The second variation can be made with a California-style vegetable mix, greek yogurt (sour cream substitute) and salsa. The third variation can be made with stir fry vegetables and soy sauce. All of these vegetable mixes can be found frozen for only a couple of dollars!
  • Plan ahead. Set aside a specific time once a week to dedicate to meal prepping.
  • Don’t allow the idea of meal prepping to overwhelm you. If making a batch of overnight oats is all that feels achievable at the moment, start there!

Cooking Tools for Residence Halls


  1. Soldavini J, Berner M. P23 examining characteristics associated with cooking frequency among college students. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Published July 8, 2019. Accessed November 18, 2022.
  2. Rounsefell K, McLean S, Gibson S. Social media, body image and food choices in ... - Wiley Online Library. Wiley Online Library. Published 2019. Accessed November 18, 2022.
  3. Qazi HIA, Keval H. At war with their bodies or at war with their minds? A glimpse into the ... Journal of International Women's Studies. Published 2013. Accessed November 18, 2022.
  4. Carbonneau E;Bégin C;Lemieux S;Mongeau L;Paquette MC;Turcotte M;Labonté MÈ;Provencher V; A health at every size intervention improves intuitive eating and diet quality in Canadian women. Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland). Accessed November 18, 2022.
  5. Vilaro MJ, Colby SE, Riggsbee K, et al. Food choice priorities change over time and predict dietary intake at the end of the first year of college among students in the U.S. Nutrients. Published September 13, 2018. Accessed November 18, 2022.
  6. Hanson AJ, Kattelmann KK, McCormack LA, et al. Cooking and meal planning as predictors of fruit and vegetable intake and BMI in first-year college students. International journal of environmental research and public health. Published July 11, 2019. Accessed November 18, 2022.
  7. Kaesberg Z. Effects of video technology on cooking self-efficacy. ISU ReD: Research and eData. Accessed November 18, 2022.
  8. Van Dyck D, De Bourdeaudhuij I, Deliens T, Deforche B. Can changes in psychosocial factors and residency explain the decrease in physical activity during the transition from high school to college or university? - International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. SpringerLink. Published July 17, 2014. Accessed November 18, 2022.
  9. What is MyPlate? MyPlate. Accessed November 18, 2022.
  10. Christoph MJ, Hazzard VM, Järvelä-Reijonen E, Hooper L, Larson N, Neumark-Sztainer D. Intuitive eating is associated with higher fruit and vegetable intake among adults. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Published January 8, 2021. Accessed November 18, 2022.
  11. Tiwari A, Aggarwal A, Tang W, Drewnowski A. Cooking at home: A strategy to comply with U.S. dietary guidelines at no extra cost. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Published February 28, 2017. Accessed November 18, 2022.
  12. Brufau G, Boatella J, Rafecas M. Nuts: Source of energy and macronutrients: British Journal of Nutrition. Cambridge Core. Published April 19, 2007. Accessed November 18, 2022.