When you’re operating on a grad student budget, reigning in expenses is critical. After rent, food probably takes the second largest chunk of your monthly income. And when your time is just as scarce as your pennies, you may end up eating fast food more than you, your wallet, or your stomach would prefer.
At the UL Lafayette Graduate School, we’re advocates for eating well — which you can do on a grad student budget! These are our tips for eating cheap while in grad school.
Plan meals based on the sales
Every grocery store puts out a weekly ad. It may come in the mail or show up in your inbox. Either way, don’t trash it!
Look through the ad for your grocery store of choice and note which ingredients are on sale. Use those to do a little creative meal planning. Are canned tomatoes and eggs on sale? Great — grab an onion and some spices and make a batch of shakshuka (try this New York Times recipe with or without the feta). Are ground beef and sour cream on sale? Sounds like the beginnings of stroganoff.
After a few weeks, you’ll have created a mental list of easy, large meals you can whip up when you see a particular ingredient on sale. In our experience, shopping the sales can save you 20-30 percent on your grocery bill every week.
You might be saying, “But this sounds like it’s going to take a lot of time.” Yes, it takes a little time up front, but spending one hour on Saturday or Sunday doing your planning and purchasing translates into 30 minutes or an hour saved every other day of the week. You already know what you’re going to eat, you have the ingredients, and you can cook a quick meal before returning to your desk or your lab.
A quick note: this only works if you buy only what you need for that week’s recipes! Don’t buy every item that’s on sale. Then you’re not really saving money.
Bonus tip: download the store’s app
If you frequent a grocery store, like the Albertsons near campus, download that store’s app. Some stores have a rewards program built into the app, which will help you save money in the future on groceries and gas, plus there are often additional sales available only to shoppers who have the app.
Split bulk items with friends
Can’t see yourself spending $8 on two pounds of quinoa? Who needs two pounds of quinoa, anyway?
Go halfsies with a friend. Go shopping at Costco or Sam’s Club and take a friend with similar tastes. Bonus: you can eat your weight in samples every Saturday!
Follow budget bloggers for inspiration
If you’re stuck in a food rut, check out some budget food bloggers.
Budget Bytes is great for transforming ho-hum ingredients into exciting variations on tacos, one-skillet meals, and more. Check out the site’s section on quick recipes for weeknights.
And if you’re looking for someone to do the meal planning for you, check out 4 Hats and Frugal. She grocery shops weekly for her family of five with a $64 budget — and she shares her tricks.
Buy produce when it’s in season
Don’t buy strawberries in December. They’ll cost you $6 for three berries, they will have traveled 8,000 miles, and they won’t even taste good. Shop produce when it’s in season! It’s cheaper and it’ll taste better. Check out this seasonal food guide for reference.
For example, you can get a pineapple for $1 in July. For that price, you can buy two, cut up both, and freeze half for another day (smoothies, anyone?).
Create a rotation of always-cheap, always-easy meals
You’re going to find that some foods are always cheap: Beans, eggs, pasta, canned vegetables. Use those staples in your rotation, and you’ll be able to create a meal with little money and very little effort.
Enter Our #ULGradEats Contest!
To start your cheap meals recipe box, the Graduate School is holding a contest! Send us your favorite cheap recipes—and we have a few prizes up our sleeves for our favorite entries. Visit our Facebook page for more information and to enter!
More recipe ideas from our Grad School community:
- Assistant Dean Philip DeMahy's Cajun Tofaffle
- Dean Mary Farmer-Kaiser's Chicken with Summer Vegetable Sauté
- Carla Ortega's Spaghetti Squash