How to eat well on a uni student budget
Having just finished my first year as a university student, and knowing that many of the readers (aka my beautiful friends) on this blog are uni students, today I would like to share with you a few tips I have for eating well on a tight (uni student) budget. Before I left for uni, Mum sat me down for a little chat and told me that I would have to make some concessions on my food in order to be able to afford to live independently as a uni student. Of course she was telling me this from a place of love and support, but I was determined to find a way to continue to eat beautiful, healthy and fresh food whilst not blowing my budget. I am often saddened to hear my peers use money as an excuse for eating crappy, cheap and easy food, because I know that with a little bit of planning and commitment a healthy diet can be achieved on a budget. It took a little bit of time and a lot of experimenting, but I have found a few fail-proof ways to save money and still have the best quality food available. Shop at the markets The farmer's markets are my favourite place to shop and often mean that I get great produce at a fraction of the regular price in supermarkets or even organic stores. I am very fortunate that there is actually a farmer's market at Melbourne Uni every Wednesday, which is where I got the majority of my fruit and veg from this year. When shopping at farmer's markets chat to the stall owners (aka the farmers) and get to know how they produce their food. Often farmers won't have organic certifications due to the cost and time involved in acquiring such a certificate, but their food will in fact be spray-free. Just ask them and they will tell you. Shopping at farmer's markets is also an easy way to eat seasonally, as only seasonal fruit and veg will be available. Plus, after a little while you can establish relationships with the farmers and these friendships can lead to little freebies being thrown into your shopping bags!
Another trick for cheap produce is to hit up the bigger markets (i.e. Queen Vic Markets) around closing time. At this time stall holders will slash their prices in order to get rid of as much produce as they can, so you can often get huge boxes of veggies for only a few dollars!
Learn to love ugly veggies
One of my favourite way to save money but still eat organic food is to find shops that do 'ugly veggie baskets/boxes'. When I was living in Brunswick my favourite organic store had an abundance of fruit and veg, although at full price some of the organic produce was admittedly quite expensive. However, I then discovered that they had a table near the back of the store where they would bundle up slightly disfigured, bruised or old produce and sell them for cheap. To give you an idea, once I got a basket with a capsicum, two onions, half a bunch of celery, two kiwifruits, some potatoes, and a few bananas (all 100% organic) for $3! The best part is finding a creative way to use up the random assortment of vegetables in your meals. Have a look around and see if you can find a store that does a similar thing. My new favourite organic store also freezes meat just before it reaches its best before date and reduces the price by 15%. This means I can purchase organic, grass-fed and finished and free range meats at much more affordable prices than one would normally expect.
Never throw food out
Without a doubt one of my absolute pet hates is food wastage, which means I will go to often extreme lengths to avoid having to throw food out. By planning your meals and learning how to use produce wisely, you can make the most of your food and avoid wasting money on food that ends up in the bin. Some ways I avoid food wastage includes: -Freezing old fruit and veg. If you have some sad looking bananas, some mushy avocados or berries, some wilted spinach or soft zucchinis, simply put them in zip-lock bags and chuck them in the freezer. They are great in smoothies and saves you having to use them straight away. -Use ALL of the food. When using celery, eat the leaves and all. They are just as nutritious and delicious as the regular thick green part. Leave the skin on veggies (potatoes, sweet potatoes, zucchinis, carrots, beetroot) when you cook them. Not only does this reduce the amount of scraps, but the skin often contains important nutrients and lots of fibre. Similarly, eat most fruit skin and all! -Plan ahead. Before you go shopping, look at what you have left in the cupboard and plan meals based on those ingredients. Create a meal plan for the next few days that includes eating leftover dinner for lunch the next day. If you do cook too much of a certain meal, simply freeze into meal-sized portions and then you have meals ready-to-go, which are super handy when you get home from a long day at uni only to realise you haven't got anything to eat. -Make your own soup/stock/bone broth. It is a great way to use up veggies and meat bones and is incredibly beneficial for your health. Whenever I roast a chicken, once I have eaten all the meat I throw the carcass into a big pot and then add chopped onion, carrots, celery, sea salt, pepper and some herbs of choice. Then I simmer it for a few hours until all the goodness from the chicken bones is in the stock. Next, I drain the bones and veggies out and pour the stock into glass jars, which I then freeze/refrigerate accordingly. The carcass then goes out, but I often put the cooked veggies back into the pot (with a little stock) and add some pumpkin and turn it into soup! If you want to try bone broth (miraculous for health), try this Bone Broth recipe.
Have good quality staples
There are certain foods that I will always have in my pantry, which I use on a regular basis. These foods are often best bought in bulk, if they store well, as it will reduce the overall cost. Some of my staples include coconut products - oil, flakes, milk, cream and flour, seeds and nuts, eggs, cinnamon, frozen organic berries, raw cacao, peanut butter and other super foods. With regard to nuts, I am fully aware that raw organic nuts are pricey, but seeds are generally much more affordable and just as nutritious. Try pumpkin and sunflower seeds as an alternative to trail mixes packed with expensive nuts. Don't forget to activate your seeds though, by soaking them in filtered water with a pinch of salt for 4-6 hours and then drying them in the sun. For baking I love using coconut products, for one because coconut flour is really affordable and you only need a really small amount. Similarly, shredded organic coconut is pretty cheap and good to use in cookies, bliss balls and other yummy treats. If you can tolerate dried fruit, then dates and sultanas are also good staples for a snack on the go.
With regard to eggs, I always buy free range and organic where possible. It is important to me to know that the beautiful hens that are laying the eggs that I eat get to roam around in the sunshine, and I am willing to pay extra for this peace of mind. Plus, free range eggs are infinitely more nutritious than those that come from stressed-out and sick caged chooks. Once again getting to know your local hen farmer is a great way to ensure that your eggs are coming from happy chooks, and often these farmers will have cartons of 'ugly' or 'seconds' eggs that are slightly smaller or disfigured, which they sell at cheaper prices. I used to get one carton per week of seconds eggs from Willow Zen at the farmer's market for $6 - perfect!
Shop in the sales bins
Like the ugly veggie baskets, organic stores often have sales bins where you can pick up awesome super foods, herbal teas, healthy chocolates and cosmetic products at a fraction of their regular price!
Make smart compromises
I am a big believer in the importance of eating organically, however I do acknowledge that organic food tends to cost more than its conventional counterparts. As such, I have learnt to make smart compromises when it comes to organic vs. regular produce. If you haven't heard of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen before, then check out this little infographic:
Essentially I strive to only eat products on the Dirty Dozen if they are organic, whereas I will purchase the regular version of the Clean Fifteen in order to stick within my budget. If you can't remember these then print off a little list and take it with you to the shops, or write it down in your phone. If you are confused about any other products, as a general rule things with thick skins that you generally remove before eating are pretty clean, whilst products that have thin, edible skins are a no-no unless organic.
Don't drink alcohol
One of the biggest money black holes for uni students (at least in my experience) is alcohol. It seems to be part and parcel of uni life, but if like many students you are going out every weekend or more than once a week then it quickly becomes a costly habit. Whilst I do have the occasional drink these days, one of the best things about being a non-drinker was that I never had to buy a drink - EVER! Instead I would simply ask for tap water at bars and restaurants, which they are legally obliged to provide you for free. Drinking only water on a night out might not seem all that exciting, but it can literally save you $100 or more in one night alone. Now multiply that by 52 weeks and you have got enough money to take yourself on a nice overseas trip at the end of your uni year. Worth it? I think so. And that is without even considering the incredible health benefits you would receive from avoiding the booze - you will glow with health and wellness just from eliminating alcohol. If you must drink, it is much cheaper to buy it from the bottle shop and have it at home before hand.
On that note, I know that for many people the thought of having to socialise whilst sober is terrifying. I do understand that alcohol can lower your inhibitions, make your more confident and allow you to have more fun. I believe that this really boils down to your self-worth and self-confidence, something that you can work on. As a non-drinker for many years, I had to learn how to be confident and have fun without alcohol. I wrote a very honest post about my experiences as a non-drinker last year. It wasn't always easy when my friends were all drunk and I was stone-cold sober, but it taught me a lot about true confidence and enjoyment. For one, I love dancing and I will dance at any time of the day or night, sober or under the influence. It saddens me that I have friends who only dance when very drunk. Nowadays when I do choose to drink it is not because I lack confidence or feel pressured or need it to have fun. I have fun regardless of whether I drink or not.
Shop around and know your area
I moved three times this year in Melbourne, and each time I made sure to find all of the organic stores and supermarkets within walking distance from my new home. By getting to know what is in your area you can compare prices, produce and the ethics of each store and decide where to shop. Or if you are like me, take yourself on food gathering adventures! To do this, strap on a backpack and lace up your sneakers and head to the nearest organic shops. At each shop have a look at what is on sale (ugly veggies, sales bins) and purchase accordingly. After a while you will get to know that meat and eggs is cheaper at store 1, whilst veggies are best at store 2 and super foods and raw treats are cheapest at store 3, and so on. Bulk food stores are also great for picking up things like large jars of home-ground peanut butter, nuts, seeds, grains, granolas etc.
Cook with friends/housemates
I am blessed with four amazing housemates and one of my favourite things to do is cook a beautiful meal with them. When we cook together we each contribute something to the meal, and that way the cost is reduced/split between us. We quite often do curries, so one person gets the meat, another gets coconut milk and curry paste and another takes care of the veggies. Or we do big roast veggie salads where we use any veggies that are lying about and need to be used up (yay for no food wastage!). If you don't live in a share house, grab some friends and organise to cook a meal together. It is one of the best ways to bond with people, it's a relaxing way to hang out and you don't need alcohol (double bonus).
Grow your own Having my own thriving veggie garden has always been a dream of mine, one which I am finally pursuing in my house in Melbourne. Growing your own veggies is of course a great way to ensure you have completely organic, fresh and gorgeous produce, all you need is a little space and some hints from gardener Google! Even on just a small windowsill you can grow some herbs and perhaps some picking lettuce. If you don't know where to start, consider what you want to grow, how much space you have and then head to your local hardware/garden store and ask the staff to assist you. There is nothing more rewarding than harvesting your own fresh produce!
Ultimately I believe this whole post boils down to what you value in your life. If you value your health and want to eat well, then you can find ways to make it happen, regardless of your budget. As many wise people have said before, the money you spend now on good food will save you thousands in doctors visits, hospital bills and prescription medications later. Choose to invest in your health. You will feel better, more vibrant and alive than ever before. And that, my friend, is priceless.
Keep healthy and happy,