A student budget doesn't always feel luxurious. But there are ways to make delicious, healthy meals without breaking the bank. Here's a week of breakfasts, lunches and dinners to get you started.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
February 16, 2020

Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.

For those of you that don't know, a grad student budget is not exactly generous. But it is possible to cook a week of healthy meals even on a modest budget (trust me—I was in your shoes just last year). Case in point, these recipes clock in at an average cost of $6.81 per day and $47.60 for the week, per person. Whether you are a student or just on a tight budget, check out my tips for cutting food costs without sacrificing nutrition, taste or all of your free time.

How To Plan

There are few things as valuable as making a plan (see more key lessons I've learned in 10 things I wish I had known before I started cooking at home). But, like most things, that doesn't mean there is a one-size-fits-all plan. It can be as simple as jotting down a grocery list of staples you need to resupply your pantry or as detailed as planning your menu and writing out all of the ingredients to save you trips later in the week. Both will save you time and money shopping. I fall into the more detailed camp (type-A people, unite!). Especially on a tighter budget, I found it helpful to follow a few simple steps to keep my grocery trips and food waste to a minimum. Here are a few golden nuggets I have to stretch your dollar:

  • Make a menu plan. Like the plan conveniently located below.
  • List out ingredients you need. I normally do this in the kitchen, so I don't accidentally double-purchase things. Wasted food = wasted money.
  • Check what you have first. And see what you need to use up. This can help guide your menu planning. If you have a zucchini that needs to get eaten, make it something delicious and easy like our Easy Shrimp Scampi with Zucchini Noodles (ready in 15 minutes, need I say more).
  • Go for legumes over meat. No, I am not trying to brainwash you to become a vegan. But beans and lentils are packed with protein and nutrients, and cost a fraction of the price of steak. They are a good choice for your wallet, your body and the planet.
  • Make from scratch when you can. In some instances, this requires more time. But making things like vegetable stock or salad dressing from scratch taste better and they're cheaper.

Student Budget Shopping List

You can make all of the recipes below with the ingredients on this shopping list (barring a few staples like salt, pepper and basic spices). I usually do one big weekly shop to save me trips throughout the week, but feel free to break it up however best fits your schedule. Daily cost totals that are included in the plan below were calculated using prices from national grocery stores to calculate cost per serving (this may vary slightly based on where you shop). Quantities may also vary depending on how many people you are feeding.

Tips for Meal Prepping Your Week

Make Ahead: To simplify your life, there are a few things you can make in advance and enjoy throughout the week. Make the Easy Loaded Omelet Muffins and Peanut Butter Protein Oats for easy breakfasts on the go. The Chipotle-Lime Cauliflower Taco Bowls make for four perfectly portioned lunches that can be made ahead to streamline your week.

Snack Time: You'll notice there are no snacks included on this list. However, I do absolutely support snacking between meals when you feel hungry. One meal planning hack that helps you stick to your budget is using leftover ingredients for snacking. For example, if you have to buy a whole container of yogurt or loaf of bread or block of cheese for a recipe, use what you have left over as snacks. Same goes for fruits and vegetables. If you feel like getting creative, you can tack on an extra can of chickpeas and make hummus to dip them in.

Use your best judgement: If a recipe makes 6 servings but you only want to have two, divide the quantity of ingredients by 3. Make substitutions when necessary or where it makes sense. For example, you can definitely use dairy milk in place of almond milk for your oats or maple syrup in the place of honey. When I make Shakshuka, I only make one serving because I know it won't save well. For other things, like soups and stews, I'll make the whole recipe and freeze leftovers for a rainy day. Play around with it and overtime you will find what works for you. Get creative and let this be a guide, not a rubric.

7-Day Meal Plan on a Student Budget

Day 1: $9.13 per person

Breakfast - $0.91/serving

Lunch - $3.89/serving

Dinner - $4.33/serving

Day 2: $9.98 per person

Breakfast - $1.51/serving

Lunch - $2.70/serving

Dinner- $5.77/serving

Day 3: $5.47 per person

Breakfast- $0.91/serving

Lunch- $2.70/serving

Dinner - $1.86/serving

Day 4: $6.47 per person

Breakfast - $1.51/serving

Lunch - $2.70/serving

Dinner - $2.26/serving

Day 5: $4.76 per person

Breakfast - $0.91/serving

Lunch - $2.70/serving

Dinner - $1.15/serving

Day 6: $5.83 per person

Breakfast- $0.32/serving

Lunch - $1.59/serving

Dinner- $3.92/serving

Day 7: $5.96 per person

Breakfast - $0.72/serving

Lunch - $2.92/serving

Dinner- $2.32/serving

Bottom Line

Being on a budget doesn't mean healthy, delicious food is off limits. As a student, it can be especially tough to stretch your dollar and successfully plan for success. With the tips above and recipe inspiration, you will be on your way to being a meal prep pro, all while saving money on groceries and preventing food waste.

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