If you’re heading off to college or university, the chances are you’re living away from home for the first time. It’s now up to you to make sure you don’t waste away.
And what’s worse, you’re expected to do it with only a fiver, a two-ring hob and a toaster. If up till now you’ve avoided the kitchen on a matter of principle, here are a few tips on how you can avoid the hunger pangs and eat healthily on the tightest of budgets.
How to make your ringgit go further
Plan your budget – Work out how much you’re going to spend on food each week and stick to it. Otherwise, you could be eating like a king at the start of term and recycling your teabags by the end.
Get back to basics – Processed food is a pricey option because you’re paying for the processing. It’s much cheaper and often more nutritious to buy basic ingredients and make your own meals.
Compare prices – Remember to shop around. Find out whether your local greengrocer or market stall is better value than the supermarket. And you’ll often save a few cents by buying a supermarket’s own products, rather than the big brands.
Don’t be seduced by special offers – Getting 20 cents off, three for the price of two, or 15% extra is great if it’s something useful. But don’t fill the cupboards with Battenberg cake just because it’s on special offer!
Cook batches – It can be expensive buying a different set of ingredients for every meal, so it’s a good idea to cook up a batch of food. After cooking, cool the food quickly (within one to two hours), then freeze in serving-sized portions. Make sure you reheat the food until it’s steaming hot all the way through.
Watch your waste – If you buy food that goes off quickly, plan your meals so it all gets eaten or frozen for future use.
You should eat lots of starchy carbohydrates as part of a healthy balanced diet. So, try to base each meal on a starchy food, such as these below. The good news is that these foods are often very good value, if you shop wisely.
Porridge oats – This is a really filling meal to start the day. If you don’t like porridge made the traditional way with water and salt, try making it with milk and honey. And you can add some fresh or dried fruit for variety.
Bread – Bread is a good source of starchy carbohydrates. Choose whole meal bread rather than white, because it’s more nutritious and more filling.
Potatoes – Heard the expression ‘cheap as chips’? Well, there’s some truth in it. Baked potatoes are great value and very versatile. You can have cost-effective fillings like cheese, tinned tuna, and baked beans. You can also boil, roast, mash, sautee or fry them. But remember you’ll generally pay more for baby new potatoes, especially if they’re pre-bagged and washed rather than loose.
Rice – Another good source of starchy carbohydrates is rice. It goes really well with dishes like curry and chilli. You can also use it to make risotto or add it to salads. Make sure you store cooked rice in the fridge and reheat it until it’s steaming hot all the way through.
Pasta – It’s generally cheaper to buy pasta in bulk. It’s filling, low in fat (provided you don’t smother it in creamy sauce) and very easy to cook. Experiment with making your own sauces with tomatoes and veg, chicken and fish, rather than buying ready-made pasta sauces, which can be quite expensive.
We should all be eating at least five portions of fruit and veg each day. The good news is they still count whether they are fresh, frozen, tinned, dried or juiced (but juice only counts as one portion a day, however much you drink).
Avoid overcooking vegetables, because most of the vitamins end up in the cooking water. It’s better to cook them for a short time in as little water as possible.
If you have the freezer space, try buying frozen veg. These are economical, because you can take just what you need out of the freezer and then there isn’t any waste.
Tinned tomatoes – These can form the base of all sorts of sauces, are low in fat and count towards your daily portions of fruit and veg.
Carrots – Carrots are one of the cheapest veg around when bought loose, but you’ll pay a premium for packs of baby carrots. Add them to soups or casseroles, or snack on them raw.
Onions – These are usually really cheap and are useful to add flavour to pretty much any dish. Red onions tend to be pricier though so it’s better to stick with white.
Frozen peas – All you need is a pan of water to cook these from frozen in a few minutes. Adding a few spoonfuls to a meal is an easy way to boost your fruit and veg quota. Serve them as a side dish or put them in rice and pasta dishes.
Apples – Of course, the cost of apples differs according to the variety and the time of year, but some are really cheap. A medium-sized apple counts as one portion and makes a healthy snack.
Fruit juice – Concentrated fruit juice, which you will usually find in the soft drinks aisle, tends to be much better value than the varieties sold in the chilled section.
Baked beans – Beans on toast is a classic student dish and it’s actually a very healthy option, especially if you use wholemeal bread, low-fat spread and beans without added sugar and salt.
Chicken – Chicken is great for cooking and for freezing. So, if you’ve got a freezer, you could chop it up (removing the skin to lower the fat content) and then freeze it in small amounts. Always defrost and cook chicken thoroughly, and make sure it’s steaming hot all the way through with no pinkness left.
Pulses – Dried beans and lentils are a cheap source of protein and other nutrients for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. Always follow the instructions about soaking and cooking on the label.
Eggs – Eggs are easy to cook and versatile. Try scrambled egg on toast, make an omelette with leftover veg, or chop up hard-boiled egg to add to sandwiches or salads.
Canned fish – Mackerel and sardines are good sources of protein and omega 3 fatty acids. And since canned fish keeps for ages, it makes a great standby meal, served with a bit of toast or mixed into pasta.
Milk – It’s full of calcium and vitamins, so a glass of milk is a healthy drink at any time of day. Choose semi-skimmed or skimmed milk for a lower fat option.
Crimes against hygiene
Some people think that having piles of dirty washing up in the sink and eating foods of dubious safety is an essential part of the student experience. But if you don’t think a bout of food poisoning is going to enhance the term, here are a few of the safety corners you really can’t afford to cut:
Leftover takeaways – It’s not the best start to the day, but eating a bit of leftover pizza or curry for breakfast won’t hurt, as long as it’s been kept in the fridge. But you mustn’t eat it if it’s been left out at room temperature overnight. In the right conditions, one bacterium could multiply to thousands of millions in twelve hours. Remember to cool leftovers within one to two hours and then put them in the fridge. If you reheat them, make sure they are steaming hot all the way through.
‘Use by’ dates – ‘Use by’ means exactly that. There really isn’t any leeway – once the ‘Use by’ date has been and gone, you just can’t be sure the food is safe to eat. If you chance it, it could make you ill. ‘Best before’ dates are used on foods that take longer to go off. Once this date has passed the food might not have such a good taste or texture, but it’s unlikely to make you ill.
Mouldy food – Once you spot some furry growth on food, don’t be tempted to cut that bit off and eat what’s left. Moulds and other fungi produce invisible toxins, which can make their way into the rest of the food and make you ill. So, if a food has gone mouldy it’s safest to bin it.
Food on the floor – Floors aren’t clean, so any food that’s dropped on the floor – even it makes contact for just a fraction of a second could be covered in dirt and germs when you pick it up. So, if your toast lands buttered side down it belongs in the bin.