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Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at kdshives.com and on Twitter @KDShives.
There is no escaping the need to eat. Graduate student stipends are notoriously tight though, leaving room for the question, “How do I eat well on a student stipend?”
Have no fear, there is no need to live off of ramen (unless you love it, then by all means go right ahead). As an admitted foodie, I was worried that I would have to revert to my undergrad ways of ramen and bulk off-brand lucky charms after two years working in a paying job and eating vegetables. Once I adjusted to a new city, different food availability, and a new food budget in graduate school I realized that as students we can afford to eat healthy, filling food that tastes good—something I realized AFTER I gained 10 pounds eating numerous pilfered, bland seminar bagels over the course of a semester. All it takes is a willingness to shop in new ways, learn some basic cooking skills, and spend some time in the kitchen. Most importantly, I learned that there are two main actions you can take to get the best food on a student budget: buy smarter and cook at home.
Buy Smarter: First and foremost, make sure you get the most for your food dollars by getting the best prices on what you want to eat, whatever those items may be. This can be done in several ways:
Buy in bulk: Memberships to big bulk stores like Sam’s Club and Costco can help make routine items that you buy (cheese, bacon, and dry goods like rice, beans, oatmeal, soda, etc.) more cost effective than buying smaller quantities. Even if you don’t have a membership, it’s likely that you know someone who does and would be willing to make the trip with you. This can be an extra bonus, as it gives you someone to split the larger items with in case you don’t really need two 32 ounce jars of Nutella in your house at the same time.
This tip can apply to regular supermarkets as well. Look to see if there is a bulk section where you already shop. Certain items like oatmeal, flour, and beans can be significantly cheaper when you buy them in bulk by the pound. It may not come in the packaging that you’re familiar with, but chances are the bulk items are just a good as those in attractive boxes.
Buy what’s available: Outside of the big box stores, it can be a little trickier finding price breaks on fresh produce, which is both tasty and a significant part of a healthy diet. One approach to getting the most out of your produce dollar is by buying what is in season, especially what is in your area. When you buy produce that is in season it is usually both the cheapest and the best quality (both in flavor and nutrient content) of the year. As Liz Homan mentioned in her previous article, you can get pretty tired of squash by November, but then it’s thankfully gone for another 9 months. This goes for a lot of different fresh items from asparagus to zucchini, and usually when something is in season it is far cheaper than buying at a different time of year. Flying blueberries from Argentina in the middle of January is not cheap.
Check out local food markets: This includes venues like farmer’s markets, CSAs, and food co-ops. What you’ll find might be more variable than the supermarket but can be significantly cheaper than regular markets. Sometimes you might get a discount for buying multiple items, so don’t be afraid to ask the vendors.
Don’t forget to make the most of sales and discounts: Check the ads from local grocery stores or sign up for the rewards program at your local supermarkets. Some rewards programs will even tailor coupons to what you purchase at the store, making them even more useful since you’re not sifting through coupons for all the items you don’t eat.
Cook at home: It’s no secret that eating out is expensive and that money spent daily on prepared food quickly adds up. For the first few months of grad school I bought most of my meals on campus, until I realized that my pastry/lunch habit of $5-10 a day added up to well over $100 a month (without coffee!). At this point I knew it was time to figure out a better way to get lunches, and preparing them at home was the answer, which meant only one thing: cooking.
Learning to cook if you haven’t already is a great opportunity to have some fun, de-stress, and take control of your diet. Once you have all the basic cooking tools you need (hint: it’s not much more than an 8” chef’s knife, a cutting board, a pot, and a pan—basically what Anthony Bourdain recommends in Kitchen Confidential—you might be surprised how quickly you can make an inexpensive, delicious meal. If you’re really starting from scratch here, check out smittenkitchen.com or epicurious.com for some quick and easy recipes.
Personally, I love the Sunday night big meal, whether it be a soup, a casserole, or even a roasted chicken. Investing a bit more time in cooking and cleanup on Sunday night sets up multiple lunches during the week with very little effort on my part. This way, I can have a fresh meal and multiple lunches for the week ahead. This saves me the time and money of having to buy food on campus and has helped my food dollars go a lot further.
Cooking is too time intensive you say? Treat cooking like the Russian Nesting Doll technique for time management. While that casserole is baking make it a goal to read a journal article or write that draft. Just be sure to set a timer so you don’t overcook the meal!
Are there any other techniques that you have learned to stretch your student stipend when it comes to grocery dollars? Please share in the comments section below!
(Image by Flickr user epSos.ed, used under Creative Commons license)