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Eating on the Cheap: Budget-Friendly Meals for College Students

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Your bank account balance is hovering in the low single digits, your meal card is cashed out for the week, and a thorough search behind your second-hand couch’s cushions yielded nothing but a few dust bunnies — and now your stomach is rumbling louder than a freight train. What’s a starving college student to do?

Take heart, my impoverished friend. The grocery store shelves are chock-full of cheap and filling items that can carry you through to your next payday. Some of them may not be especially delicious, and your mother (and her dietician) probably wouldn’t bestow the seal of approval, but it is possible to keep your stomach full on a college student’s meager budget.

Creativity: The Key to Cheap Eats

With a little ingenuity and elbow grease, you can stock your pantry for a week for less than $20. If you’re used to caviar and Kobe steak, you might be in for a bit of a disappointment. But if you’re just looking for a way to stay alive until your next care package from home arrives, check out these cheap meal ideas.

-Instant ramen noodles. The staple food of starving college students everywhere, you can usually pick up packages of these tasty, sodium-laden noodles ten for a dollar. Traditionalists may stick closely to the instructions on the packet, but creative campus cooks take ramen a step farther, using the noodles as the base for dozens of other cheap dishes. Add extra broth and few veggies, and you’ve got a hearty soup that will keep you warm on a cold winter’s day. If you can get your hands on a bit of chicken or beef and drain all the water from the noodles, you’ll have a stir-fry that’s fit for a king, er, well, kind of. With ramen noodles, the only limit is your imagination.

-Sandwiches. With most grocery stores selling their generic loaves of bread for less than a dollar each, even the most cash-strapped college students have the basic ingredients for dozens of quick, easy meals. If you’re a meat-eater, pair it with bologna and mustard for a surprisingly tasty – if not exactly heart-healthy – lunch. If you prefer a vegetarian alternative, you can stick with that old childhood favorite, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Check out your local dollar store for cheap PB & J supplies.

-Macaroni and cheese. Steer clear of those pricey boxes of “deluxe” mac and cheese. For college students on a tight budget, generic is where it’s at – some store-brand boxes of instant macaroni and cheese are as cheap as 25 cents each. As with ramen, you can switch things up a bit by adding different ingredients to your mac and cheese. Ground beef, canned tomatoes, or ranch-flavored cans of pinto beans are all good bets.

-Spaghetti. Like a classic piece of clothing, this old standard can be dressed up and or dressed down depending on the situation. If you’re in a rush and need a quick meal before class, boil a pot of pasta and toss it with a smidge of olive oil and Parmesan cheese. If you’re trying to impress a dinner date, you can make a surprisingly delicious sauce by just simmering some tomato paste, diced canned tomatoes, and a few dried herbs. If you’ve got a few extra bucks, throw in some pepperoni for an extra kick. Many stores sell boxes of generic pasta two for a dollar.

-Eggs. Nature’s most versatile protein is easy on the wallet and non-threatening for amateur cooks. Whether you like them hard-boiled, scrambled, or fried, your favorite preparation usually takes only ten or fifteen minutes to make. Paired with a few pieces of toast, it’s a meal that’s sure to feel you up for hours.

-If all else fails, hit the dollar menu. Most fast food joints offer an array of surprisingly filling a la carte items for a buck or less. Eat up!

Got any ideas for cheap, easy meals? How have you made it through dorm-room famines in the past? Share your insight in the comments section.


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Rachael over 7 years ago Rachael


I was hoping for some creative ideas, but this was disappointing. Who doesn't already know the pros and cons of the Almighty Ramen Noodle? And the dollar menu? Personally, I have a grocery budget of about $20/wk, and I have yet to resort to Ramen or McD's. And I don't have much of a kitchen either- just a microwave, mini-fridge, and a blender. I always keep my cupboard stocked with rice [I totally second philocook], oatmeal, peanut butter, and basics like spices and soy sauce. Off my receipt from last week: [I shop at Aldi] *1dz eggs *1qt soymilk *1qt fatfree yogurt *2/cans tuna *whole wheat bread *1lb spaghetti *2/cans tomato paste *mushrooms *baby carrots *lettuce *6 bananas *3 kiwis *bag of apples *froz. broccoli *dark chocolate bar TOTAL SPENT: $21.13 I manage to eat cheap *and* healthy. I'll be looking elsewhere for inspiration...

Travis over 8 years ago Travis


I just had angel hair pasta in vodka sauce with slices of sweet Italian sausage and sauted mushrooms with grated parmesan on top. $1.68 per HEAPING plate of the stuff. I made it myself and I'm not experienced in the kitchen. At Wal-Mart: Angel Hair Noodles: $1.23 (6 uses per box) Sweet Italian Sausage: $3.50 (5 uses, 1 per sausage) Mushrooms (sliced): 1.88 (5 uses per container) Vodka Sauce: $1.98 (8-10 uses per container) Parmesan Cheese (grated): $2.68 (lasts forever) Just boil the noodles (with a little butter and about 1/4 cup of milk in the water), put the mushrooms and sausage slices together in a frying pan coated with vegetable oil, then combine everything as you like it.

philocook over 8 years ago philocook


Rice! Very cheap and you can combine it with anything. Frozen veggies also go well with rice and compliment many other things. Spend your money on various spices! This is very important since you can have the same meal all week, but it can taste differently each time. Also quesodillas are somewhat cheap and can hold you over for an hour or so till you get to the cafeteria. These are a base meal for me. I add salsa, chipotle tabasco, or a little pasta sauce to them. Just be creative and talk to people who cook. Cooking is much easier than you think, and is highly rewarding.