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If you’re like many students, you need to stretch your dollars when it comes to food. Here’s a challenge: Make 20 dollars worth of groceries into enough meals to last a week.
Eat Well, Spend Wisely
There are plenty of ways to buy groceries on a budget. Here are some tips:
- Plan ahead. Decide what you’ll prepare for the whole week.
- Use multi-purpose ingredients. Use each item in more than one meal.
- Make a grocery list…and stick to it!
- Find the best price. Look for coupons and weekly specials, and ask about free rewards programs for instant discounts.
- Map out exactly how you’ll spend your 20 dollars.
When at the store:
- Compare prices. Most stores include “price per weight” and “price per unit” labels to make it easier.
- Buy in bulk. Grains, beans, nuts, and other dry goods will keep almost indefinitely and cost less in larger quantities. Split with a friend if necessary.
- Buy generics. Most store-brand foods have nearly identical ingredients to their name-brand competitors.
- Avoid impulse buys. Stick to your list and don’t shop when you’re hungry.
Sample shopping list
Before you head to the grocery store, plan out your meals for the week. Consider how you can use ingredients in multiple ways so that none goes to waste. Here’s an example of a shopping list for a week of dinners. Please note that prices vary based on location.
Foods to Buy:
- One 454g box of pasta ($1.49)
- One 900g bag of brown rice ($1.99)
- One can of white (kidney) beans ($1.49)
- One can of garbanzo beans (chickpeas) ($1.49)
- One can of tomato sauce ($1.39)
- Two bags of frozen vegetables of your choice ($2.49 each)
- Two chicken breasts (or other lean meat) ($5.80)
- Tuscan-Style Pasta
- Chicken Marinara
- Asian Stir-Fry
- Bean Salad
- Pasta Salad
- Tuscan-Style Pasta: Cook pasta according to directions. Refrigerate half. Combine the remaining amount with 1/2 can white kidney beans, 1/2 bag vegetables, and 2/3 can sauce. Voilá! Enough for at least two meals.
- Chicken Marinara: Sauté both chicken breasts until cooked. Set one aside in the fridge. Add 1/3 can sauce to remaining chicken and simmer. Steam 1/2 bag vegetables and serve over half of the leftover pasta.
- Asian Stir-Fry: In a hot pan, stir-fry 1/2 bag vegetables and sear the remaining chicken breast. Serve over cooked brown rice. Who needs takeout?
- Bean Salad: Combine 1/2 can white kidney beans, 1/2 can garbanzo beans, and 1/4 bag thawed vegetables. Season to taste. Serve with brown rice if desired. You’ve made a protein-rich bean salad.
Sauté remaining 1/4 bag vegetables with 1/2 can garbanzo beans. Eat warm over brown rice.
- Pasta Salad: Reserve leftovers and combine with remaining pasta for a pasta salad.
- Keeping olive oil, salt, pepper, and some other spices on hand will allow you to amp up the flavour of any dish you prepare.
- Fresh, green, leafy vegetables turn beans and chicken into a chef’s salad. Splurge on some cheese and bell peppers if you can.
- If you have access to a freezer, set aside leftovers for when you’re especially strapped for time (and cash).
Nutrition vs. Volume
It’s more important to buy nutritious foods than to buy large quantities of those with empty calories. For example, a jumbo bag of chips and two liters of soda may be cheap, but they won’t keep you energized and feeling full.
Fruits & Vegetables
“I try to eat at least one or two servings of fruit per day, but I’m not always successful,” says Mary L.*, a first-year student at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. Produce that’s in season, meaning it didn’t require expensive growing techniques and hasn’t travelled long distances, is less expensive. And certain types are easy on your wallet all year round, such as carrots, potatoes, apples, and bananas.
Not sure what produce is in season?
Fruits and vegetables cost less when they are in season. Plus that’s when they’re tastier and richer in nutrients. Janice de Boer, a registered dietitian in Calgary, Alberta, also recommends buying certain organic fruits and vegetables if you can. She says, “Start with the ‘Dirty Dozen.’ Conventionally-grown items tend to have higher levels of pesticide residues.”
The “Dirty Dozen” are the 12 fruits and vegetables most likely to have high levels of pesticides. According to the Environmental Working Group, they are:
- Cherry tomatoes
- Hot peppers
- Sweet bell peppers
Try to buy these organic if you can!
Janice de Boer, a registered dietitian in Calgary, Alberta, suggests, “Frozen or canned vegetables help stretch your food dollars and are just as nutritious.”
Serina G., a second-year student at the Western Regional School of Nursing at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook, agrees. “They’re convenient when I don’t have fresh vegetables on hand,” she says.
Protein & Fibre
When planning your weekly menu, consider dishes that are filling, pack a nutritious punch, and keep well. De Boer says, “Make an inexpensive chili recipe. You can often get several meals out of one large batch.”
You can stretch your dollars off campus, too. Here’s how to eat at a restaurant for 20 dollars or less:
- Look up restaurants that offer healthy options in your preferred price range.
- “Use Web sites and apps to review menus ahead of time,” says Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian in Ottawa, Ontario.
- Scan for budget-friendly, healthy choices. Some restaurants post ingredients (and even nutritional information) right on the menu or online. If not, ask your server or the person behind the counter.
- Sass says, “Make a plan and resolve to stick with it.” If you don’t want the greasy sides or extra toppings, the price may be lowered.
- Look for vegetarian meals. They might be less expensive than meat or seafood.
- At fast-food establishments, opt for a chef’s salad, grilled chicken sandwich, or veggie wrap and smoothie. These items are usually more healthful. Beware of “value menus.” Why order what you don’t really want because it’s cheaper?
- At a mid-priced restaurant, order a dinner-sized salad or an appetizer as your entrée.
- Make use of online coupons, promotions, and special pricing for students with ID.
- Ask if you can order from the children’s menu, which has smaller portions with smaller price tags.
Quick questions to ask your server
Ask Before Eating
Don’t be shy. Chances are your restaurant server is used to answering many questions from patrons. Consider asking some of these the next time you’re dining out:
- Can you make a half portion for half the price?
- Is there a charge for splitting an item?
- Is there a minimum bill per person?
- Is the seafood fresh or frozen? Do you know when it was caught?
- Are the vegetables fresh or frozen? Are they organic?
- Can you put the sauce/dressing on the side?
- Can I order my meal grilled/broiled instead of fried?
- Will the chef make this without using butter or salt?
- What cut of meat is used in this dish? Is it lean or fatty?
Here are more tips from De Boer:
- Ask your server to wrap up half the meal. You can usually get two meals out of one.
- Skip soft drinks and juices. Opt for water instead.
- Share your entrée. Restaurant portions are often large enough for two people.
By planning ahead and thinking creatively, you can enjoy delicious meals on the cheap.
*Name changed for privacy.
- Plan meals ahead of time using multi-purpose ingredients.
- Compare prices and buy in bulk.
- Skip name brands. Most store-brand products have the same ingredients.
- Prepare nutritious, filling meals made with low-cost ingredients, like chili.
- Research restaurant menus in advance.
- Use coupons at grocery stores and restaurants.
Value vs. Convenience
- Bag of brown rice
- Canister of oatmeal
- Store-brand 100% whole-grain bread
- Frozen or low-sodium canned vegetables; frozen fruit or canned (with no added sugar)
- Canned tuna or salmon
- Whole roasted chicken
- Tub of store-brand yogurt
- Individual packages of instant white rice
- Individual packets of flavoured oatmeal
- Name-brand bread
- Out-of-season produce (shipped from afar)
- Fresh fillet at the fish counter
- Pre-seasoned, individual chicken breasts
- Individual cups of name-brand yogurt
Get help or find out more
EatRight Ontario, 10 Tips for Planning Meals on a Budget
Food Banks Canada, Healthy Grocery Shopping on a Budget
Government of Canada, Healthy Canadians, Eating well when eating out
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, Eating out
University of Alberta, University Health Centre, Nutrition, Recipes for Healthy Eating on a Budget