You’ve graduated from college and are headed out on your own. Really on your own, with no meal plan as your food safety net, perhaps no roommate to share the burden of purchasing and preparing food—and if you’ve got a job, it’s likely you won’t be getting regular infusions of cash from the bank of Mom and Dad, either. Congratulations are in order for sure, but it’s also time to test your mettle. One thing you might not have given any thought to yet (and that’s okay), is how to best feed yourself something that is actually nutritious, and not just quick and tasty (looking at you, instant ramen noodles). Now is a good time to learn a few basics so you can eat like the newly minted adult you are.
Now, I know that practically everything seems daunting in the early stages of your new adult life—we’ve all been there. My first job after graduate school paid very little and I was a Midwesterner living in Manhattan, so I feel your pain and know that frugality is probably still the name of the food budget game—and that’s okay. Eating healthfully really does not require a big bank account. Truly. Here are some suggestions and strategies for nourishing yourself more like a grown up, while keeping your food budget under control.
Stock a smart pantry.
Granted, you may not have a pantry at all, or barely any cupboards, but whatever you can find to serve as food storage can serve as your “pantry” (I used a 3-drawer plastic stacking bin on wheels for a year and it worked pretty well) needs to be thoughtfully stocked. Making the best use of your pantry will help you save money and provide you with some easy meals at your fingertips. Without pantry staples and a few fresh ingredients in the fridge, you will inevitably end up getting take-out or pizza…again. What to keep on your pantry shelf depends on your preferences of course, but some basics to consider include:
- Canned beans (black beans, small white beans and garbanzo beans are good staples)
- Potatoes, onions, garlic
- Microwavable pouches of unseasoned grains like rice and quinoa are nice, but regular dry grains are fine (and cheaper, though they take longer to cook)
- Canned tuna/chopped clams/salmon
- Reduced-sodium broth/bouillon cubes or paste
- Canned diced tomatoes/tomato sauce/marinara sauce
- Nut butter
- Whole grain bread/tortillas
- Whole grain pasta
- Reduced-sodium soup (good for those nights when you’re not feeling well!)
- Basic spices/seasonings/oils and condiments
Don’t sweat the whole “meal prep” thing, but do bring your lunch to work.
If you have time and inclination to spend your Sunday filling a week’s worth of containers with lunches for the week, more power to you. If not, don’t worry—leftovers make perfectly acceptable lunches. Not only will you save money, cooking at home usually results in more healthful food than a meal from a takeout place or eating at a restaurant. I typically plan to make a little extra food when I cook, specifically so that there are leftovers for lunch the next day or two. What works well for this concept? Things you make in the slow cooker such as chili or shredded chicken breast or pork loin (use the meat in wraps, on top of salads, stirred into soup or tossed with quinoa or barley and some leftover veggies). Casseroles, grain-based salads and pasta-based dishes are also good contenders. The point here is not to sweat the lunch thing; bring what you have and augment it with a piece of fruit or whatever fresh veggie you have on hand (maybe it’s a little green salad, maybe it’s just some baby carrots or pepper strips). Done.
Get in the habit of cooking at home.
It’s tempting to go out to dinner with friends or coworkers after work, but your waistline and your bank account will both thank you if you don’t do it on the regular. Maybe limit yourself to one or two meals away from home per week, and cook for yourself the other times (here are some tips to make a home-cooking habit easier). Nobody is saying your meals have to be fancy or take a long time to prepare—just heating up leftovers and reworking them to make a bowl-based meal, or making a simple sandwich will work. You can even make cooking with your friends at your homes something that is fun and social—and the potluck aspect can make it economical entertainment too.
Plan your week’s food around sale items.
Using the store’s weekly flyer is a great way to plan what you’ll be cooking each week. To really save money, you can’t simply think about what you feel like eating: you really need to see what’s on sale and then plan around those items. Of course, there is always a wide selection of items on special sale, so the trick is to choose those that would make a healthful base recipe. For example, when whole chicken is on sale I always get one, because one night you can simply roast the chicken (it doesn’t even have to be a “roasting” chicken—you can roast any whole chicken), then a day or two later you can pull the meat off and make chicken sandwich or salad, and if you really want to get all the good out of that chicken, you can even boil the bones down and make your own chicken broth. Be strategic when you shop: think value and health. Just because something is on sale doesn’t mean it’s a good value for you. For example, large packages of meat are frequently cheaper than smaller ones, but that’s only practical if you have a freezer big enough to store it all (by the way, if you do, be sure to break down the big package into smaller ones—freezer bags make it easy—so you don’t have to cook all the meat at once).
Variety is key.
It can be easy to fall into a food rut where you end up eating the same foods each week. That’s not awesome for you nutritionally because you’ll likely be missing out on the wide range of nutrients needed for good health. To combat this, aim to eat from at least 3 food groups at each meal. You have 4 basic groups to choose from: protein, grain/starch, fruit/veg, dairy/dairy alternate. If you do this, you’re more likely to end up with a nicely balanced plate, which leads to a nicely balanced day of eating. If this is hard to do right off the bat, make it a goal to do it for one meal per day, then once you’ve got that down, increase to two meals per day that are well-balanced. If you get your plate in shape, you’ve made great strides toward making healthy eating a habit.