College Cooking on a Budget – Reader Question

Chelsea asks…

As a college student, our access to food is limited by our budget and even our supplies (I only have a mini fridge, microwave, hot pot and secret hot plate). We have our highlights outside of ramen and pizza but good food is hard to come by. So I was wondering if you have any suggestions for meal ideas for us?

First off, I have to share the all-time best meal I made for myself during my senior year of college.  Somewhere around here I have a print version of a photograph of this meal (but I can’t find it).  I’m in my work clothes, clearly in a hurry…and here’s what was on my plate.

Toaster struedel.

Green beans.

How’s the for nutritious and delicious?!? Thankfully I’ve learned a few things about food and meal prep since then.

A few suggestions…

If you don’t have time to cook (or perhaps learn how to cook), then you’ll end up eating from a box most of the time. Maybe plan a few nights a month to get friends together and learn how to make something new together.  A “dinner club” of sorts!

Try with something like Smothered Okra with Chicken or Southern Spicy Chili to your repertoire. Both of these can be made in one pot on a hot plate, with a side of rice or bread instead of a bread bowl.

If you can get access to a “full kitchen,” that will make the prep even easier and faster.

Enjoy, have fun, learn a little and laugh a lot!

What thoughts, ideas or suggestions do you have for Chelsea…and other friends in college?!

Photo Credit


  1. Emma says

    Buy cheap foods in bulk (ramen, mac&cheese, plain pasta) and add some healthiness and taste by throwing in some veggies – frozen or fresh – into the boiling water.

    Also, consider what kind of meal plans your school offers. Compare it in terms of price, time, and health. It might not be the best deal dollar for dollar, but if it allows you to eat a healthy range of foods, then it might be worth it.

  2. mojogeoff says

    Food is a wonderful thing, I love to cook and eat (of course). While living an on the run minimilists lifestyle does not have to be free of flavor. When I was in college I ate a lot of rice….a lot.

    Here is my quick tip:

    1 Large Thermos
    1 cup uncooked (rinsed) rice
    1 handful of frozen veggies
    1/2 boullion (teaspoon or cube)

    1. Rinse the rice and strain (not required just my preference)
    2. Put the rice in the thermos
    3. Add boullion and veggies on top of rice
    4. Pout in boiling water and ‘swirl’ to mix it up – use a butter knife if needed
    5. Put the lid on and go to class
    6. Rice is ready to eat in 6 hours

    How to change it up:

    1. Get some sauce packets from the local Teriyaki joint
    2. Cut up a chicken strip from 7-11 and toss in with rice
    3. Mix in sour cream to make it saucy and eat on bread like a sandwich or dip

    Hope this gives you ideas and makes eating affordable! I look forward to reading other posts as well.

  3. says

    I remember steaming vegetables in the microwave when I wanted something fresh and green. I bought the pre-cut bags of vegetables. They weren’t the most cost effective, but I couldn’t eat a whole head of broccoli, etc. before it went bad. I also put potatoes in the crockpot in the morning to bake while I was in class and at work.

  4. Tammy says

    when my daughter went off to college a couple of years ago, she and her roommate had only an itty bitty microwave and tiny fridge ~ hot pots weren’t even allowed! I printed a bunch of cooking for 2 recipes, microwave cooking recipes, etc. ~ there are tons. I packed a 3 drawer plastic bin full of “kitchen gadgets” and plates, bowls, etc.) For veggies, we found single serving cups of veggies at Wally World (they are packaged like lunch box fruit cups). For breakfast, you can buy just 6 eggs at most grocery stores. Use 2 in a coffee mug, mixed with a bit of milk and a little shredded cheese and make an “omelet”. She and her roommate agreed to keep only food and milk (a tiny carton from the dining hall whenever they took out cereal ~ which was really for a snack, not eaten in a bowl very often) in the fridge. Neither one drank much soda, but the bottled water, etc. sat on the air conditioner in the summer and by the window in the winter!!
    Just think outside the box … whatever you could cook at home, you can probably cook in the microwave or on hot plate!!
    Good luck!

  5. krupa says

    I was always told the dorms and meal plans were the best value. Since so many people told me that I never questioned it. Towards the end of my freshmen year a friend asked me to move into an apartment with her and the idea was very appealing but I was worried about money. So I did all the math and I found that it was actually cheaper to live in an apartment with a sacrifice or two. My roommate and I didn’t get cable because it just cost too much and most of the shows we watched were online. We also had to make time to cook our meals since we no longer had meal plans. We even found a place right near campus so we could still walk to classes.

    The only thing that I found to be a challenge was budgeting my refund check at the beginning of the semester for rent and bills. My dad helped with that by having me open a money market checking account. I was only allowed three transactions a month so I couldn’t really go blow money on other things cause I would be charged for the transactions.

    I would do the math because you will be surprised how much of a rip off meal plans and dorms are.

    But enough of that soap box, here are a few tips:

    We had a salad place that was amazing but the salad dressing options were definitely not healthy so I made my own. Target has these salad dressing bottles/mixers. The have the recipes printed on the side so its very easy to use!

    I lived in a small dorm (about 20 girls) and we were all pretty close. At least one of us would be going home every weekend. So we started this thing where whoever went home would bring a home cooked meal back for the floor. We would all just pitch in like $5 each to give to the person. Obviously this only worked for us because a majority of us were from around the area.

    One last thing is It is the off campus dining network. I have never used it. That is the only one I can think of right now but there are other options like it out there. I believe the way they work is you buy a meal plan for off campus dining. I would check what restaurants are participating around your campus and if some of them have healthy options it may be something you want to look into.

    I hope this helps!

  6. says

    My first thought was crockpot. Luckily, I lived either in an apartment or the sorority house so I had the ability to cook or had a hot meal twice a day. I would crockpot every couple of days and buy some nice storage containers for the fridge if I were in school today. I love the mug trick! I will be trying it myself when I’m in a rush. One thing we did, was that our friends who lived locally would invite a group home for a family dinner every once in a while. It was great to feel loved on :)

  7. Joe says

    Veggies aren’t too bad when steamed in the microwave, add a bit of garlic and red pepper flakes for a flavor boost.

    I agree that eggs are a good product to use on a budget. You can make them any way and hard boil them for a nutrious snack.

    Baked potatoes are also easy when cooked in the microwave, corn on the cob is another easy food to cook in your microwave.

  8. says

    I’m currently in college, and although I recently moved to an apartment with a full-size kitchen, I spent the first two years with the same set up: mini fridge and microwave. I relied a lot on the dining hall, but ate all of my breakfasts in the room. Cereal – try the store brands for a lower price, fresh fruit – produce junction lets you buy in bulk for less, non-instant oatmeal (it’s still fast, I promise!) – all of these are easy to keep in and prepare without a full kitchen. You can even swipe fruit from most dining halls for breakfast or a snack the next day.

    I also would take a mac n cheese box (I liked Annie’s, rather than Kraft, which has a much more appealing ingredient list) and add fresh vegetables. I would also keep pita and hummus in the fridge, which is another great snack/light meal that doesn’t need much prep. Peanut butter, trail mix (I liked to make my own with some nuts, cereal, dried fruit and sometimes some dark chocolate m&ms), and even non-hydrogenated popcorn are all good dorm-friendly options for snacks that won’t break the bank. I’ve also heard that you can make scrambled eggs in the microwave, though I haven’t tried that myself. If you go home for any length of time, you can also swipe some meals to bring back with you – leftovers would frequently make an appearance in my dorm fridge to be microwaved for a less processed, non-dining hall option.

    Just some ideas!

  9. says

    Add some veggies to your Top Ramen (even if it is just frozen peas & carrots) and swirl an egg toward the very end to add some protein (I like the taste of it too, I think it makes the soup way better)!
    If all you have is a toaster you can lay a piece of bread across the top of the toaster and lay a Kraft singles on it. Set it on medium, turn it and let it heat up again until the cheese melts for a nice warm snack.

  10. says

    When I lived in the dorms, I had a 14 meal a week meal plan (which also included “flex” dollars which I almost always spent on coffee). Anyway, this meant that I had to be creative with 1 meal a day and snacks. Breakfast was usual a cup of yogurt and a piece of fruit snagged from the dinning hall. I would often get a “take out” lunch from the dinning hall as well which often meant that I could get elements of a meal and make something entirely new out of it myself. Chili could be paired with a microwaved baked potato… an english muffin could be paired with an egg cooked in the microwave (1 minute on high per egg! really simple!), etc, etc. Just be creative! Also, remember to eat when you are hungry – and not just when there is free pizza! I managed to actually LOSE WEIGHT my first year because I finally had the ability to control my own eating schedule and habits instead of eating at predetermined times.

  11. MKS says

    In college I learned this yummy trick: Cover a tortilla with foil, both sides. IRON it till it is slightly warm. Put a slice of cheese on the tortilla and fold it in half. Iron on both sides until the cheese is melted. I guess you could add a little chicken, but you want to avoid stuff oozing out of the tortilla. YUM!

  12. Abbygail says

    I would look into Crock-pot meals. They have little ones that are perfect for 1 or 2 servings. Almost anything can be made in a crockpot- chicken for tacos, ground beef, roasts, casseroles, soup. You may have the rest of the floor jealous from the smells coming from your room though.

  13. Suzanne says

    WRAPS!! PB&J, veggies, chicken, deli cuts….the possibilies are endless! Best of all, they can be pre-made, store nicely and are portable!

  14. Lori says

    For a side dish, I would suggest Birds’ Eye frozen brown rice. It comes in those bags you just stick in the microwave and it steams in the bag. No dirty dishes! Good luck!

  15. Kathryn says

    I remember popcorn being a mainstay, but to keep it lower in calories I used a hot air popper.
    I have to agree with above posters if you live in a dorm, usually the meal plan it the cheapest option. I only opted for lunches 7 days a week and dinner 6 nights – on Friday’s they did not serve anyone, but usually went out or ordered pizza in.

    Remembered by mini-fridge had a freezer that was only about big enough for an ice cube tray so I know most frozen foods are out. As space is an issue also, dry things that you can rehydrate are a good investment – mashed potatoes, gravy, soups, packaged noodles and rice, oatmeal. Other items that are cheap and easy with just a microwave are baked potatoes, pasta with a jarred sauce, individual sized canned vegetables. If you have a blender, Smoothies can be made with dry milk, water, yogurt, oats, honey and ice cubes.

  16. says

    I love the tips with the iron… I didn’t even have one at college so I guess I was out on that but I brought at toaster oven and didn’t have a hot plate. There are a ton that you can get for $10 or $20 bucks. I used my meal plan from the dining hall to eat most meals and usually took something out when I left. I would take a cup or milk with a top and use it to mix muffins to make so that I would have breakfast for the next day. I had a set of the metal “disposable” pans that fit into the toaster oven and I frequently took ingredients from the dining hall to make my own creations (for a late night snack or because dinner was disgusting). I would grab a bagel or english muffin on the way out to later make into a sanwich with leftover food from breakfast so that I didn’t have to go back for dinner. Our dining hall policy was that you could do take out or eat in but sometimes you could get away with doing both so the take out tray was filled with different things but you were always allowed to bring out a cup of two of different items. A cup is a great thing to fill with anything like chicken from dinner, bacon from breakfast or anything to use later. Creativity was the answer for me. When I got out of college, I really missed the ability to take food from the dining hall to make other meals since I didn’t have the money to eat anything but pancakes the first year out. I wish I knew about couponing back then!!!

  17. sheila says

    At 43 years of age, some of these made me laugh at the creativeness (iron quesodilla), oh how I remember those days and even the first several months of my marriage. We creted all kinds of things with spam, 33cent bag of fries that never turned brown and chili, potted meat (you can’t pay me enough to eat that now), but the best bang for your buck is a rice cooker and bulk bins-quinoa, rice, millet, grits and etc….can be cooked in it fast, for very little space-use canned broth, fresh or frozen veggies or even single cans (cost more though), have some simple spices on hand-garlic, onion powder, red per.flakes, ital. seasoning, and cumin-you have yourslef set up for italian polenta (grits, ital. spice, cheese) mexican rice, tom.sauce, rice. cumin, taco bell sauce packets, millet and chick.broth with onion powder and garlic and frozen greens–all healthy grains and EASY! Hang in there!

  18. says

    I saw that a reader mentioned my blog/book in a comment. Thanks to her! Anyway, I suggest a rice cooker, with which you can make one-pot healthy meals without violating your dorm’s safety regulations. I also suggest frozen chopped onions and peppers to cut down on time and mess. More ideas on my blog(s).

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