Planning helps when cooking economically in college

Wednesday, January 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:25 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The microwave is set on high and going on two minutes. Samuel Martin, a junior education major at MU, is preparing frozen pizza for his lunch and has to dash to class soon. Sometimes, this is his only meal for the day.

Martin knows how to eat well, but he says he cannot eat the way he’d like to when he has a lot of work to do and a limited budget.

Martin is not alone in trying to find a balanced diet amid a busy schedule. One common problem among college students’ diets is that students tend to skip meals and grab high-sugar, quick food, said Jill Trotman, a dietitian at MU Health Care. Irregular eating habits result in imbalances in energy levels, and this can affect a student’s learning and thinking ability, she said.

Less money and cooking time are usually among the top considerations for college students looking for food. The good news is there are options for college students who want to meet their dietary needs with cheap and easy dishes, experts say.

Try the cafeteria

Food service at a school cafeteria is one of the ways many students find quick sustenance. There are four cafeterias on the MU campus that help most students living in a dormitory save time shopping, cooking and washing dishes. Students can dine at the all-you-can-eat cafeterias 21 times per week for $84.42 each week.

School cafeteria menus are designed to provide various kinds of dishes, including salad bars, pizza, fish, sandwiches, breakfast food, chips, fruit, soups and deserts. But this convenient option might not sound appealing for frugal consumers: It’s $60 more than the $20 to $30 some students average during weekly grocery store runs.

Plus, the $4.02 per meal can be wasted if students miss dining hours or dislike the food that’s served.

Because of this, some students purchase a less economic meal plan. John Bachmann, a junior business major at MU, purchases the school’s seven-meal-a-week plan at a costs of $7.50 per meal, or $52.50 each week. The meal plan might not offer the lowest price per meal, but it can be an easy way for students who have a bit more budget for food to have an easy and balanced meal. Bachmann said it’s worthwhile to buy the school’s meal plan because he uses the quota when he’s very busy and when he needs more food than just pizza rolls from his refrigerator.

Find easy ways to round out the pyramid

College students consume higher quantities of fats and sodium while eating inadequate amounts of fruits and vegetables, according to an article from the Journal of American College Health.

But it’s not as difficult to keep a nutritious diet as you might think.

An apple, a bag of mixed baby carrots and broccoli and your favorite peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be ready in less than 10 minutes. Scrambled or sunny-fried eggs are also easy to make, and the high protein content can boost your energy.

Frozen vegetables have almost as much nutrition as fresh vegetables, and they can be quick and easy to fix, as well as cheap to buy, Trotman said.

Some canned foods — which may be easier and cheaper than their fresh counterparts — can also have nutritional benefits. A University of Massachusetts nutrition study gives canned food lovers a good news:

  • Canned tuna can help reduce the risk of deteriorating eyesight.
  • Canned beans of all types are often fat-free with high proportions of fiber and protein.
  • Canned products have comparables levels of Vitamin A to their fresh or frozen alternatives.
  • Shop smart, and make it stretch

    Buying the right items can save you preparation time as well as money.

    A family-size carton of milk and a box of cereal won’t cost you more than $5 in total, and these items can provide a week’s breakfast and snacks.

    For meat lovers, buying two pounds of ground beef and a bag of burger buns can generate about 8 good-sized burgers, which are cheaper and healthier than eating processed sausages and hotdogs. It takes no more than half an hour to mix chopped onions and ground beef, seasoned with black pepper and salt, to make enough burgers for one or two weeks, and this process costs about $7 for all the ingredients.

    Store extra patties in the freezer, where they will keep for weeks or months, if properly wrapped.

    Potatoes and pastas dishes are also rich in nutrition and economic in cost.

    Bulk potatoes and onions and cans of tomatoes can be cheap and long-lasting. At about $2 for potatoes, $1.50 for tomatoes, $1 for two small onions, $1.50 for a pack of mushrooms and $2 for one pound of ground beef or two sausages, $8 worth of ingredients can make a big pot of pasta sauce and a variety of potato dishes — enough to share with roommates for a week.

    Things like potato soup and pasta sauce might take a bit longer for beginning cooks, but the upfront effort will leave you with spare time later and a bowl of hot and nutritious food available anytime.

    Find a balance

    Although these tips can help busy students without many resources make it through the semester, they need to have a variety in their diets, experts say. While it may be thrifty and efficient, a daily diet of milk and cereal for breakfast, potato soup for lunch and pasta with beef, mushroom and tomato sauce for dinner will eventually lead to nutritional deficiencies.

    “Eating well means eating a variety of foods that include sufficient amounts of protein, fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, water and calcium,” said Karen Derrick, chief clinical dietitian at MU Healthcare.

    A final tip from the dietitian: Focus on portion size rather than changing food choices. Derrick said that every food has some nutritional value, but its benefit to your body depends on how much you eat and and how often you eat it.

    “Remember, even the smallest of changes to your diet can make a difference. It seems the smaller the change, the greater the likelihood that you will stick to it, because making changes you can live with is essential,” Derrick said.

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