Classes, clubs, sports, activities, exams. Everything about college life includes a price tag. That’s why college students are notoriously broke.

With all the hustle and bustle it can be very tempting to drop by the nearest fast food joint or pop into the cafeteria when you get hungry. Instead, think about making your own meals and snacks. With a little planning and thought, you can eat well without breaking the bank.

Here are some tips to keep you out of the fast-food trap, eating better, and holding on to a little of your money.

1) Think About Your Living Quarters

Before you get too carried away with purchasing food and appliances, you need to consider where you will be living. Will you be in a dorm on campus, an on-campus student apartment, or in an off-campus residence? Each housing choice comes with its own rules, its own benefits, and its own limitations.


Typically, a dorm room houses one to two students. They have the barest essentials for living. Most of them have a microwave and a refrigerator of some type. Most dorms have a common kitchen area that students are allowed to use during specified time frames.

Living in a dorm can place limitations on the kinds of food you can purchase and prepare. Sometimes it simply isn’t convenient to use the common kitchen area. Especially when you consider that hundreds of students share the space, so finding a time to prepare your meal could be difficult.

On-Campus Student Apartments

An on-campus apartment is a step up from a typical dorm. Usually, they are furnished and have full kitchens. Some even feature a separate eating area complete with a dining table.

On-campus apartments are generally maintained by the school or by a management company hired by the school. Since the school maintains the on-campus housing, they also make the rules regarding living in the apartment.

While access to the kitchen has more flexibility here, you will still likely have to coordinate with at least one roommate.

Off-Campus Residences

Most colleges have housing nearby that is designed with students in mind. While some schools maintain limited off-campus housing, generally speaking, these residences are either rented to the student for the year or purchased by the student’s family for their use.

Off-campus housing typically includes a full kitchen with unlimited access. Unless, of course, you choose to have a roommate. In that case, you will want to coordinate with them regarding kitchen privileges and responsibilities.

2) Consider Your Knowledge and Ability

consider Knowledge and Ability

If you’ve never so much as boiled an egg, you’re not going to suddenly be able to create a full meal without help. That isn’t to say you can’t learn, but don’t expect to sit your best friend down to a fried chicken dinner if you can barely boil water.

While it’s unlikely that you’ll be cooking a four-course meal, you’ll probably find it helpful to know a few kitchen basics.  Familiarizing yourself with terms such as julienne and sauté will help you to expand your culinary horizons, and it just might impress your friends.

If you are a true novice in the kitchen, you might consider purchasing a good cookbook. You can also find recipes and cooking techniques online. Cooking while watching a video illustrating the method step-by-step can be a fun way to experiment with new dishes.

3) Think About Your Food Preferences

Food Preferences

If you’re a picky eater, you’re probably not going to want to run out and buy brussels sprouts and asparagus to try on your first day. While trying new foods can be an adventure, it’s best to stick with what you know in the beginning.

The flip side of that coin is that if all you ever eat is chicken nuggets and french fries, you’ll miss out on a multitude of flavors and textures just waiting to be sampled and enjoyed.

4) Know Your Equipment

Maybe this seems like a no-brainer, but you’d probably be surprised at the number of people who make the mistake of purchasing foods designed to be cooked in the oven or on the stovetop thinking they can simply microwave them. Or vice versa.

Knowing your equipment is particularly important when you are in a dorm with severely limited capabilities. You might be surprised by how much you can actually cook in a microwave when you have the appropriate tools. And, we’re not just talking popcorn.

5) Understand the Rules

You might consider learning which items you can use to supplement the standard equipment in your room. Some schools will allow you to add items such as crockpots and toaster ovens while others forbid it.

Knowing the regulations for your particular housing arrangement will help you to make more appropriate food choices when you shop. It’ll also help you to keep a positive relationship with your landlord (or Resident Assistant).

6) Make a Menu

Think about the foods you eat. Create a menu incorporating those foods into your weekly routine. Your menu can be as simple or as elaborate as you want.

Having a menu helps you to save money by only purchasing those ingredients that are necessary for the week’s meals. Creating a menu can be as simple as making a list of foods you’d like to have and as complex as making a spreadsheet or calendar complete with dates, times and necessary ingredients.

7) Write a Grocery List AND Stick to It

Write a Grocery List AND Stick to It

Maybe the hardest part of purchasing your own food is sticking to your list. There are so many tempting choices available that you have to be very disciplined to only shop from your list.

While many people associate being a poor college student with eating nothing but Ramen, it’s possible to find inexpensive foods to have available that aren’t even close to the pre-packaged noodles.

Some foods to consider keeping on hand include:

  • Peanut butter
  • Bread
  • Eggs
  • Potatoes
  • Rice
  • Steamable Vegetables (frozen or fresh)
  • Popcorn
  • Pasta
  • Canned Meats and Fish
  • Fresh, in-season Fruits
  • Crackers

Final Thoughts

Eating well while in college doesn’t have to be stressful or expensive. You can manage to make your own meals and snacks even on a tight budget. Be practical yet creative when making your food choices.