It’s been many years since I got my Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering degree, but I am now the mother of two college students, both of whom attend schools on the other side of the country from the parental home. One is on a dorm plan and the other has his own apartment.
My husband and I consider ourselves gastronomes (i.e. food snobs) and we have tended to stick toward home-cooked meals with a healthy balance of meat, vegetable and starch. While fast food is fast, I don’t like it, and it’s not going to help you study. I’m concerned not only with the freshness and purity of the ingredients, but also with the way it’s prepared. Fast food is only an occasional vice for us. Recently, I’ve even taken to making homemade pizza, which must have sent the local pizza place into a tailspin. As a result, my children know the difference between good food and the alternative.
When you’re in college, your choices might be limited by the amount of money you have to spend. College isn’t cheap. Still, there are ways around the problem of food and how to get enough of the kind that tastes good.
Here are some tips for college students when navigating the uncharted waters of thrifty nutrition away from home.
Dorm Food: Let’s face it, dormitory food, for the most part, is going to be bad. Think of your basic elementary or high school cafeteria, and multiply the worst it has to offer by a thousand. Sure, there are some colleges that pride themselves on glorious food service, but those are either culinary academies or in the case of four-year universities, few and far between. Instead of turning your nose up to the meal plan offerings and heading for the nearest McDonald’s, a little smart eating is in order.
- Choose green. You can’t go wrong with salad. Really, what can even the worst food service worker do to lettuce and tomatoes? Besides, salad components are a great source of vitamins. Choose spinach over head lettuce and tomatoes over celery. Go easy on the dressing, and make sure you get nuts, chopped egg and bacon when available, as these are excellent protein sources.
- Choose familiar. Nothing says home like familiar products. All cafeterias stock cereal, some do pre-packaged yogurt and juices. You can rest assured that Frosted Flakes and Dannon taste the same in the dorm cafeteria as it does back home.
- Choose the unfamiliar. Okay, so you’re used to mom’s home cooking and you miss it. I can hear the violins playing in the background. It’s time to grow up and get over it. Give entrees in the meal plan a try, even if it’s something you once thought of as disgusting and would never eat in a million years. If you don’t like it, you never have to revisit the dish again.
Frequent Diner Programs: If you must spend money to eat away from the dorm, either because you have your own place or because you just can’t take another bite of gray gravy or soggy, overcooked peas, consider joining your favorite restaurant’s frequent diner programs. You can even complete the registration online.
Some, like Del Taco, will periodically email coupons for free or reduced price fare. Others will send you coupons to use, or may give you a free appetizer or dessert on your birthday. Getting on a restaurant emailing list doesn’t just apply to the major players, either. If you have a favorite bistro or bar, ask if they have a web site or a frequent diner program. You’ll be surprised to learn that most do.
Coupons: Whether clipping them for the grocery store or for your local fast food restaurant, make use of coupons. It’s just like money! Would you throw away fifty cents here or a dollar there? Many grocery stores will offer days when they double or triple the face value of the coupon. In this economy, a lot of retailers and restaurants just want you to come through the door, and a coupon makes for a good enticement.
Consider buying (or asking mom and dad to buy) the local Entertainment book for your area. Entertainment books come out in November, and are filled with coupons for fast food, casual restaurants, even things to do like bowling, movies, or golf.
Warehouse Club Memberships: If one is nearby and your parents are already members, consider getting a warehouse club membership on their account. Some of the items may be just as expensive as a regular grocery store, but it’s possible to find some buys, especially when it comes to canned goods or frozen food.
Ramen is a good buy, as are those jumbo jars of peanut butter and jelly. As long as you have storage or access to refrigeration, these items have a long shelf life.
Receptions: Most colleges host receptions for various reasons. Either there is a distinguished visitor making a speech, a donor gathering, a poetry reading or some other function that ends up with a reception. Receptions mean reception “food” and it’s probably much better than what you can get at the dorm cafeteria.
Besides gorging on free chow, you can also network with teachers, administration benefactors and probably other hungry students. Music students will hold receptions after recitals, and as my son the piano major says, he doesn’t buy much food during recital season.
Farmer’s Markets or Roadside Stands: Take advantage of seasonal produce grown in your area. Find out where the nearest farmer’s market or roadside stand is. Before making your purchase, make sure that a similar purchase in the grocery store is more expensive.
The Kindness of Friends and Strangers: Finally, don’t forget about cultivating friendships with those who may be inclined to share a meal with you — gratis, of course. I can’t tell you how many free meals I mooched (I mean, shared) in college from family, advisors, and professors, not to mention gal pals and boyfriends. Many people feel sorry for financially strapped college students. Say “Sure! I’ve got time for dinner!” and then “Thank you very much!” when you’ve completed your meal.
When it comes to the kindness of family, don’t forget about your parents. After all, they’re the once who send the care packages!