One of the earliest lessons that I learned as a grad student was that purchasing lunch everyday is unsustainable on a student budget. Looking back, it was common to spend $30-40 per week on lunch and snacks on campus; costs which were easily avoidable. We won’t delve into the cost of food/budgeting given that Dustin will be discussing budget strategies next week (spoiler alert). Rather, today’s post will highlight some strategies and ideas for time and cost effective meals to take with you on the go.
Recently, I resolved that eating canned sardines would be a quick, cheap ($1.25/can), and nutritionally dense (16 g of protein, high in vitamin D) approach to school lunch. However, while the price is right, I hate the smell of sardines, my labmates hate the smell of sardines, and I really hate the taste of sardines. Given that I am far from the authority on meal planning, I have employed the help of Andrea Brennan, who is a registered dietitian and PhD candidate in exercise physiology to provide some meal planning insight from her extensive experience providing nutritional counselling for graduate students. (Spoiler alert: Sardines are not included in Andrea’s recommendations).
The following are some cost- and time-effective meal strategies provided by Andrea and I have included a couple of my own suggestions as well. We would love to hear from YOU! Certainly our readers have their own tips, tricks, hacks, favourite recipes, etc., so please comment below and share your insights
Breakfast should emphasize protein and fibre. Protein and fibre both take longer for our bodies to digest, thus keeping us fuller for longer. Breakfast examples that are budget- and time-friendly:
- Breakfast Smoothie: Smoothies are a great breakfast option and are easily customizable. The basic building blocks of a smoothie typically include fruit (berries, mango, orange, etc.), a protein source (protein powder, hemp seeds, etc.), and a liquid (milk, yogurt, juice, water). Adding matcha green tea is a clever way to add a caffeine buzz to your breakfast.
- Pro-Tip à To save money from expensive protein powders, try adding soft tofu (it doesn’t sound appealing, but it has virtually no taste). Tofu is high in protein and inexpensive. You could also add Greek yogurt as a great protein source. Note: Plain yogurt is often less expensive than flavoured and larger tubs give you better bang for your buck versus individual containers.
- Overnight Oats: Oats are inexpensive and nutritious. They are high in both protein and fibre, which are both important for keeping you satisfied in the morning. Try out this recipe and don’t be afraid to deviate.
- If you want to extend your wake-up call as much as possible, try making breakfast cookies in advance and freeze them. You can grab them on the way out the door, saving you an extra 20 minutes in the morning. Click here for a great recipe
Jeremy’s breakfast recommendation:
- Power Salad: 3 soft-boiled eggs, spinach and/or kale, beans (black, kidney, or lentils), avocado, and an extra-virgin olive oil based dressing (I personally use olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and Sriracha sauce).
- This meal will require considerably more prep time than Andrea’s options; however, everyone that has tried this breakfast rave about how long they stay full for.
- Pro-tip: to cut down prep time boil all of your eggs for the week and store in the fridge. Pre-wash your spinach and beans while your eggs are boiling.
Grab and Go Snacks
To save yourself money from purchasing foods on campus, it’s helpful to bring along portable snacks that are high in protein and/or fibre to help keep you satiated over the course of the day. Some examples include:
- Homemade trail mix: Include nuts, whole grain cereals, a small amount of chocolate (because if not, what’s the point?), seeds, etc. Keep portion sizes small (1/3 cup to ½ cup).
- Nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans): Nuts are a great source of protein and healthy fats, but are high in calories so it’s important to pre-portion ¼ cup to 1/3 cup servings ahead of time.
- Yogurt and granola
- Hard-boiled egg
- Veggies/pita and hummus
- Apple and peanut/almond butter
- Cottage cheese and fruit
Beans pack a serious punch in the protein and fibre department. Incorporating beans into your snack foods will provide a much-needed afternoon energy boost. My favourite snack is a broccoli and bean salad that I’ve adapted from Allrecipes.com.
Using this base, I add:
- 1 can of mixed beans
- Chopped carrots, green pepper, red onion, and kale
- Frank’s Red Hot sauce to the dressing and remove parmesan cheese
WARNING: the combo of garlic, red onions, and Dijon mustard make for some wicked halitosis. I advise bringing a breath freshener along with this snack!
To keep your energy levels sustained throughout the day, it’s important to have nutrient dense meals and snacks. This means having a balance of all of the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fats) and a variety of vitamins and minerals. An easy way to achieve this when planning your meals is to imagine half of your meal composed of vegetables, a quarter of the meal composed of a lean protein (e.g. chicken, turkey, tofu, etc.) and the last quarter of your meal a whole grain carbohydrate (e.g. quinoa, brown rice, whole grain bread products, etc.).
Vegetarian options can offer a time-friendly and budget conscious alternative to meat products. Beans, chickpeas, tofu, lentils, quinoa, and eggs are high in protein, fibre (for some) and very inexpensive compared to meat products. They are also much quicker to prepare. You can substitute these examples for the meat component in many common dishes, such as fajitas (use black beans), stir fry (use tofu), and salads (add chickpeas).
Time Saving Strategies:
- Make “planned extras”. For example, if you’re cooking a chicken breast, cook multiples at the same time and use them for meals throughout the week.
- Big Batch It: Use weekends to prepare big batches of foods that can be refrigerated/frozen for later (e.g. soups, stews, chili, casseroles, muffins)
- Use convenience foods to your advantage, such as pre-washed lettuce, frozen vegetables/fruits, canned legumes)
My Menu Planner – This is an excellent resource. You can put in information specific to yourself (including budget conscious and on-the-go), and the program will generate a week’s menu plan with great ideas for meal suggestions.
Again, we’d love to hear about YOUR favourite meals for school, time- and money-saving hacks, and lessons learned from eating on a budget. Also, if you have any questions for Andrea, please comment below!