People often think that you can’t eat healthy on a budget, or that eating healthy means spending 15$ on a watermelon at Whole Foods. Well, not necessarily. As you will see with my healthy grocery list, if you are a student on a tight budget or just trying to save money on groceries, it is possible to buy foods that are healthy and cheap at the same time. It’s also possible to make healthy college meals. I’ll show you how, here.
I spent a decade in college as a broke student. Yep. A decade. For most of that period, I was making poor eating choices: I was surviving on mostly pasta, bread, Coke, sausages, Tuna, and pizza. No vegetables, no fruits, barely any “live” food at all. Just processed junk. Guess I’m paying for it now.
Anyway. You don’t have to do a full 360, like I did, and go on a super strict, hard-to-maintain, paleo/keto-style anti-inflammatory diet. I only do this because I have to. But you can tweak your grocery list to make it healthier while saving money on groceries.
I know, I know… there’s a recession, prices have gone up, the end of the world is coming, etc., etc. But there are still foods that you can choose from, and that are cheap enough and healthy.
Keep in mind that I live in North America, in Canada, to be more precise. Therefore, this healthy grocery list will not work for everyone. Obviously, what is cheap for me here might not be cheap for you, say… in South America, or Europe? In Canada, although meat can be expensive, ground beef is super cheap whereas, in Belgium, where I spent a few months last year, only buy meat if you want to go bankrupt. I’m half joking… but only half joking.
Okay, enough with the blabla. Here’s my healthy grocery list, the one I used as a student on a budget, trying to eat healthy but cheap. I also added quick “recipe” ideas for each ingredient so you know what to do with them once you buy them 😉
(You can also get the printable version of this grocery list for free here).
Healthy grocery list for college students on a budget: what to buy?
Although “healthy foods” can mean different things for different people, and affordability varies depending on your location, I tried to put together here a list of foods that are generally considered healthy or in any case, that are healthier than processed foods or fast food, and relatively more affordable compared to other healthy options.
I wish someone had showed me a list like this back when I was starting university. I didn’t know much back then. This shopping list example, in my opinion, offers some of the best foods for college students, or anyone on a budget.
Brown Rice Cakes
Brown rice cakes make an awesome base for a wide array of cheap but healthy gluten-free snacks and are particularly useful for those days when you are super lazy.
Check the ingredient list before you buy them, though. Most rice cakes often contain a dozen ‘less cool’ ingredients like sugar (??). Um, okaaay. Go with rice cakes that contain only brown rice, and then make them a bit “sexier” at home.
Healthy snacks with rice cakes ideas:
Use the rice cake as a base and spread any of the following on top:
- With peanut butter and maple syrup/or honey;
- With tuna mixed with olive oil, salt, pepper, and spices of your choice;
- With hummus and tomatoes.
Onions and garlic
Onions and garlic are highly nutritious, packed with vitamins and minerals, and have been associated with numerous health benefits such as fighting inflammation, helping with high blood pressure, reducing cholesterol, etc.
But mostly, they (especially onions) are cheap, especially if you buy them in bulk.
Also, starting most dishes by sautéing onions and garlic in a pan first, makes you appear like you are an AMAZING cook even when you have no idea what you are doing in the kitchen. Works like a charm when you have friends over or for your first attempts at hosting dinner as a college student.
I love cabbage; too bad it doesn’t love me ☹ But honestly, even though it appears like the least sexy vegetable on the planet, it is so good and I urge you to add it to your healthy grocery list, especially if you are trying to save money.
Here in Quebec, where I live, cabbage is probably one of the cheapest (yet so healthy!) vegetables you can get. You get a lot of food for not that much money, and there are so many things you can do with cabbage!
Cabbage is also rich in vitamin C, fiber, and vitamin K. It may also improve heart health and decrease inflammation.
Simple and easy recipes with cabbage
Slice it thinly and then do anything you want with it.
- Fermented cabbage is like magic food and easy enough to make (I don’t have a post with my own recipe yet but I’ll link one here).
- Sautéed with basically anything: onions, garlic, sausage, mustard, carrots, potatoes, rice, chicken… Just throw anything in the pan with it (don’t forget to start with your onion and garlic!)
- In a soup: start by putting onions in a hot pan with olive oil, then add the cabbage, and stir well; after a couple of minutes, add diced carrots, (leaks, potatoes if you want), salt, pepper, and after a few minutes, add enough water to cover everything. Let it simmer for 15-20 minutes. And Voilà!, a quick, tasty yet cheap, vegetable soup!
We produce apples here, in Canada so they can come really cheap, especially if you buy them in season and by the bag.
They are healthy and tasty, complement any breakfast, make for a quick snack, and can even be added to your lunch salad.
Healthy snack ideas with apples
- As a cheap and healthy snack, you can just grab an apple and eat it just like that. Don’t forget to wash them well!
- Or slice it and spread some peanut butter and honey/or male syrup on top;
- Caramelized apples on toast. Slice your apple, add them to your pan with a touch of butter, add a drop of honey or maple syrup, and eat them on toast with (or without) peanut butter.
- In salads: diced apples, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers (if they are not too expensive where you live), and a simple vinaigrette: olive oil, apple cider/red wine vinegar, and a touch of honey. Apples work well in a tuna salad as well (just add tuna to the previous recipe).
Rice is not only a versatile option for your meals, but it’s also filling and cheap. Brown rice is even more nutritious than white rice, which makes it, in my opinion, an essential part of any grocery list for someone who wants to eat healthy and not break the bank.
You might find that brown rice doesn’t taste as good as white rice, I get it. But it’s still good, you do get used to it and, I mean, it’s rice. What matters is what you eat it with.
Brown rice is a whole grain that has not had the bran and germ, its most nutritious parts, removed. The bran and germ provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making brown rice a much healthier than white rice while still being budget-friendly.
As a rule of thumb, it’s best to steer clear of “white”, heavily processed foods (such as white sugar, bread, flour, or rice!). (Side note: don’t go overboard either: not all foods that are white are bad).
Brown rice is also incredibly easy to prepare which, in my book, makes it a student-friendly food.
How to eat brown rice
- The lazy way. If you’re feeling lazy, honestly, I think it’s great eaten cold, with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper, and pretty much anything you have in your fridge or pantry on top: corn (canned), beans, chickpeas, tuna, deli meats, etc.
- Bown rice and beans, Caribbean-style. Sauté ½ cup of red beans in garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper, then add the rice. Simple, delish. Cheap but nutritious.
- Sautéd with any vegetables you want: works great with broccoli or zucchini.
(You can also get the printable version of this grocery list for free here).
Pulses, such as lentils, peas, and beans, are essentials of any student’s healthy grocery list. Hell, they are essentials of any grocery list, whether you are trying to save money on food or not.
They are an interesting choice both economically and nutritionally. Pulses provide protein and fiber but are also a significant source of vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, folate, and magnesium.
Where I live, one 540ml/19 oz can of beans costs around (CAD) $2 and makes enough food for at least 2-4 meals (when eaten with something else, like rice for example).
Now, I’m not a fan of chickpeas but I love hummus and homemade hummus is cheap enough and delicious.
How to eat pulses
- Make hummus (homemade is the cheapest). Eat with: whole bread, carrot, or any vegetable you want. I even eat it with rice (yumm!);
- Make rice and beans (as described in the “brown rice” section);
- Add pulses to your salads or most sautéed dishes.
- Make chili! It’s easy and filling, and you get a lot of food for your money. See, the “ground bee”’ section below.
Where I live, peanuts are the cheapest nuts you can get (at around $0.89/100gr), they beat by far cashews ($3.89/100gr) or pistachios ($5.40/100gr).
Both raw and roasted peanuts are a great addition to your healthy but inexpensive diet, and each has its benefits and drawbacks. In general, peanuts should be eaten in moderation.
Peanut butter is also and by far, cheaper than most nut butter. But again, always pay attention to what you buy and read the ingredient list.
It’s best to go with peanut butter made of only roasted peanuts, versus that popular brand we all know that contains Soybean oil, Sugars, Corn Maltodextrin, Hydrogenated vegetable oil, Salt, etc.
How to eat peanuts and/or/peanut butter for a healthy snack
- As is. A handful of peanuts. Yum!
- Peanut butter with fruits (and a touch of honey or maple syrup): bananas, apples, pears, etc.
- Peanut butter in milkshakes: have you tried the basic but so yummy almond milk + banana + peanut butter shake?
- Peanut butter spread: on toast, on rice cakes, on baked sweet potatoes (see “sweet potato” section), etc.
At around $1.69/lb, sweet potatoes are more expensive than regular Russet potatoes (sweet potatoes are not potatoes, btw). But they are still cheap enough, very filling, versatile, and boast many health benefits.
According to WebMD, just one sweet potato gives you 400% of the vitamin A you need each day. They are good for your eyes and your immune system, help control blood sugar, and can lower bad cholesterol
Baking or roasting sweet potatoes will, however, increase their glycemic index and cause your blood sugar to spike. So, eat them in moderation.
Quick and easy sweet potato snack or recipe
- The best, simplest dessert ever: peel a sweet potato, slice it thinly (almost like chips but a bit thicker), place them on a baking pan covered with parchment paper, then bake at 325˚C for about 15 minutes. Then flip them, and bake for another 10-15 minutes. The key here is to watch them constantly and use your eyes and nose as indicators: they will burn very quickly. When ready, this makes the yummiest chips/dessert ever. For a more decadent dessert, add some maple syrup or a square of dark chocolate on top of each slice and let it melt.
- Oven-baked veggies: dice one sweet potato and mix it with zucchini, broccoli, and mushrooms in an oven dish. Add some olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper and throw in the oven for 25 minutes.
I LOVE potatoes. I think they are the best food on the planet. Who doesn’t love, fries or mashed potatoes? Yummmm!
Potatoes should become a staple of your cheap but healthy grocery list. Every self-respecting and broke student should have potatoes at home; anyone trying to save money, for that matter.
By the bag, I can find potatoes for as little as $0,28/lb. That’s like a full (10 lbs) bag of potatoes for under $3.
Beyond their economical aspect,potatoes are also a healthy choice. They contain antioxidants, supply beneficial vitamins and minerals, and may also benefit your digestive system.
Easiest recipe with potatoes
- I personally eat them one way, the simplest way to eat potatoes: I cut them in cubes, boil them, let them cool, then eat them with a drizzle of olive (or sunflower) oil, salt, and pepper. You can also add pretty much anything to this, like other cooked vegetables, tuna, ground beef, a salad, etc.
- Mashed potatoes are also easy and delicious, I just don’t eat milk or butter. Besides, milk and butter are too expensive here in Quebec so I don’t include them in my cheap grocery list.
I used to live on canned whole-kernel corn as a student. It’s cheap enough and yet healthy. However, it can quickly raise your blood sugar so you should not eat too much of it.
Still, whole corn is rich in fiber and contains vitamin C, B vitamins, magnesium, and potassium. But always check the list of ingredients when you buy packed or processed food. Processed corn products are not as nutritious as the original thing.
How to eat canned corn
I’m lazy so I simply add it to hot or cold dishes such as salads, chilis (for color), tuna salads, etc. It’s also good to eat just like that, with a basic dressing (olive oil + vinegar).
Where I live, ground beef is probably the cheapest meat you can get, at around $5.79/lb (compared to around $9.49/lb for chicken breast, or $17.99/lb for salmon).
Beyond the fact that it’s a relatively inexpensive option, beef is a great addition to your healthy, but cheap, grocery list. It’s rich in protein, provides essential vitamins and minerals, iron, zinc, etc., and it tastes great! Plus, when it comes to ground beef, sky is the limit, in terms of cooking possibilities.
And for someone like me who doesn’t like to cook and has 0 inspiration: I never get tired of ground beef (cooked with onion and garlic, remember?), with pretty much anything.
Related post: How Learning How To Cook Improved My Mental Health.
Quick and easy recipe ideas with ground beef
- The base: I always start with a large pan, olive oil, and a chopped onion. Cook until caramelized (that’s how I like it). Then I add garlic, and after a minute or two, I add the ground beef, salt, pepper, and perhaps some oregano if I feel like it. Cook well.
- Ground beef as a snack, with rice cakes and hummus, or with red/yellow/orange peppers, sliced with hummus, with sweet potato “chips”, etc.
- Ground beef with rice + beans or vegetables (broccoli, zucchinis, etc.). Cold, with rice and tomatoes.
- Make chili! THE staple meal for any broke person. I don’t pretend to be a cook, so my version of chili consists of adding to my cooked ground beef (see step 1/The base), then I add diced zucchini (that I cook with the beef for a minute or two), then diced carrots (cook for a minute or two), diced mushrooms, then I add (1) large can of red or black kidney beans + large can of diced tomatoes (very cheap!) + one can of water. Salt, pepper, and laurel leaves. Let it simmer for about 20-30 minutes. In the last 5-10 minutes, I add diced peppers for color but that’s optional as peppers are expensive! Eat with rice or veggies. This meal is filling, you have enough for a few days, it’s healthy and perhaps the cheapest meal on this list.
Bananas are some of the most inexpensive fruits you can buy. This is how many bananas I got for under $5 (and I had already eaten 3 of them before taking that picture!).
Bananas are a staple of any healthy grocery list, especially if you want to save money on groceries. Plus, they make you feel fuller so… well, you eat less!
Bananas are rich in fiber and antioxidants. They may improve digestion, may support heart health, and are a great source of potassium.
I’m blessed to have access to very good bananas here in Canada. In France, where I lived briefly, they came from elsewhere I was not a fan.
Good vegetable oils are not cheap, but even if you are trying to reduce your spending on groceries, it’s probably not the best idea to avoid purchasing them altogether. Your body needs fat to function.
However, even good vegetable oils should be consumed in moderation. They should always be cold-pressed and make sure you choose the right oil for cooking (not all oils are safe for cooking at high temperatures).
I personally use olive oil, sunflower oil, camelina oil, and more recently, coconut oil. I mostly eat them cold, adding a drizzle to pretty much everything I eat, or to my vegetable juice in the morning.
Squash is relatively inexpensive, especially in season, very filling, versatile, and a great addition to your healthy grocery list.
My problem with squash is that, because of my joint pain and wrist issues, I find them very hard (if not impossible) to cut. I could not enjoy them for a very long time until I found a very nice grocer who kindly agreed to cut them in half for me.
Squash are highly nutritious, said to be good for eye health, enhance skin health, and even help reduce the risk of depression!
The easiest way to prepare squash
I tend to cut them in half and put them in the oven just like that, in a baking pan covered with parchment paper. Sometimes, I add an onion, a clove of garlic, and a sweet potato in the oven as well. Then when it’s all cooked, I scrape the inside of the squash directly into my Vitamix, add the other ingredients, some unsweetened almond milk or water, and blend! There you have it: great soup! Or baby food, depending on how you see it.
Although I no longer eat that, oats and oatmeal used to be a staple of my cheap but healthy breakfast routine: not only is it filling, I love the taste, and oatmeal on cold winter mornings is oh, so comforting.
Oats are incredibly nutritious, rich in fiber, an important source of vitamins, and they can lower your cholesterol!
Make oatmeal, or add some oats to your cereals or milkshake.
Spices (in bulk)
Salt, pepper, rosemary, thyme, laurel leaves, oregano, etc. Spices don’t have to be expensive. If you buy them in bulk (by this I mean you go to a bulk market where you can buy exactly what you need without having to pay for packaging or fancy bottles).
They also make any simple dish a lot more attractive and tastier. Just because you are trying to save money on groceries or eating simply does not mean that your food should be bland.
Also, spices are good for your health: according to this article, there is evidence that spices and herbs possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antitumorigenic, anticarcinogenic, glucose and cholesterol-lowering properties, AND they affect your mood and cognition!
Do you have to eat organic to eat healthy?
Although it may be preferable to eat organic, the main concern with organic food is cost. I personally only buy organic when it comes to fruits and vegetables where I eat the skin (like zucchini, apples, etc.), or if the organic option is almost as cheap as the “regular” one (in my case, carrots).
There are of course exceptions. For example, I don’t buy organic peppers. Peppers are EXPENSIVE (where I live) and if I were to buy organic ones on top of that, I’d have to sell an arm. Since I basically only eat vegetables, meat, and fish on the Wahls protocol, my diet is expensive enough as it is.
I try to be mindful; I wash and scrub my vegetables well before eating or cooking them, but I don’t lose my mind over going organic or grass-fed either.
I prefer to pick my battles and improve bit by bit.
Did my poor college sudent grocery list inspire you? As a student, someone living on a budget or just someone trying to save money, what else is a staple of your healthy grocery list?