The Starving College Student Diet

Okay so yesterday I recounted a bit of my life as a starving college nomad, but actually through lots of time and research I ate pretty well on a low budget. No Ramen or anything like that, just some basic, fast and easy meals. So I thought I would share some wisdom from my journeys into feeding myself on $20 a week. Note: this is sadly not a particularly Celiac/gluten-free friendly diet.

First, Trader Joe’s is your friend. I’m serious. A lot of the staples I purchased from Trader Joe’s because they were the best food and the least expensive compared to the typical grocery store. Some things I always kept in stock from Trader Joe’s:

  • Granola, vanilla yogurt, and frozen raspberries. I was able to get these mostly organic for a great price. I used them to make parfait for breakfast.
  • Pasta and pasta sauce. Pasta is $1/lb and pasta sauce is about $2 for a 26 oz. bottle.
  • Thai Green Curry sauce, rice, and tofu. I frequently substituted tofu for meat since it is far less expensive.
  • Canned black beans and corn. I used these to make Southwest Salad (lettuce, bell pepper, corn, black beans, tomato, cotija cheese, champagne dressing).
  • Garlic
  • Olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Trader Joe’s has these for 50% cheaper than literally anywhere else.

From the traditional grocery store, I bought bread, chicken stock, tomato juice, fajita packets, tortillas, lunch meat, cheese, condiments.

All fresh veggies were purchased from Henry’s/Sprouts. I think these stores are pretty limited to the southwest United States, but just imagine them as a Whole Foods without the gigantic price tags and pretentiousness. Usually this was lettuce, bell pepper, avocado, parsley, onion, tomatoes, basil, and butternut squash.

My basic dishes were:

  • Parfait
  • Pasta
  • Curry and rice
  • Tofu fajitas
  • Parsley stew (tomato juice, chicken stock, and parsley with sauteed onions and tofu) over rice
  • Southwest salad
  • Butternut squash soup
  • Caprese and/or bruschetta
  • Sandwiches

So for only $20 a week I was able to eat pretty well, and I never got tired of the food. To add flavor to any dish I would saute garlic and onion and sometimes bell pepper if it was appropriate. I shopped by bringing only a $20 bill to the store and keeping a mental total of everything I put in my basket.

Here’s a visual guide to my Trader Joe’s shopping:


Jump off the Ladder: Wrap Up

For those who weren’t aware, for the past 20 days I have given up eating at restaurants for the Tshirts & Twine Jump off the Ladder Challenge. I won’t lie, initially it was pretty rough. I definitely had intense sushi cravings, and there were nights when nothing in the fridge looked appealing and I wanted so badly to cruise down the hill and indulge in an Indian buffet. But I didn’t. I stuck with it, I brought lunch to work, and I scraped together meals with what I had at home. Initially, I knew I would probably save a little bit of money from cutting out restaurants, but I gained so much more from the experience that I never expected.

  1. I lost two pounds. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot but I am a very very small person. Two pounds is like 2% of my body weight. From a calorie and portion perspective, restaurant food and home cooked meals are not created equal. I was eating smaller portions of more wholesome food and without making any other lifestyle changes I overcame the weight plateau I’ve been at for months. 
  2. I paid off my credit card. Since I wasn’t adding a bunch of restaurant bills to my balance, and I wasn’t spending money on more expensive restaurant food, I was able to pay the full balance of my credit card. This a feat I had not achieved in nearly a year.
  3. Grocery shopping became less stressful. Rather than a big Costco run every month, then relying on restaurants to fill the gap until the next Costco run, we mixed up our shopping habits. Tristan and I had adventures at Sprouts, peacefully browsing the aisles for things we needed for certain recipes rather than trying to battle the herds at Costco while maneuvering an oversize shopping cart. Also we were spending like $400 a go at Costco since everything there is HUGE.
  4. I learned new recipes and taught Tristan my favorite recipes so we can cook as a team. I even started a blog to catalog and share the recipes I love.
  5. Eating in has now become a habit. Initially, I was reaching for pre-prepared meals and cans of soup as a substitute for restaurants when I didn’t feel like cooking. Slowly that adjusted to cooking simple meals, then more complex meals in large enough quantities to take leftovers for lunch. And when I look in the fridge, I no longer find what is in there unappealing. I can always find something good to eat. Rather than going out as my go-to reaction to lunch or dinner, I think about what’s in the fridge instead!

So at the end of this challenge, I plan on permanently reducing the nights spent eating out to a few times a month. It’s been so beneficial I couldn’t even imagine going back to 4-5 days a week that I was at before.

The Restaurant Trap

I have a sushi problem.

Really, I do. There’s this awesome little sushi place around the corner from my apartment. On Monday they have 40% off all sushi and Friday they have 30% off after 9pm and a live DJ. I have tried every single roll. I will drink an entire large hot sake by myself, and share with the waiters if they are having 2-for-1 sake specials. Once the idea pops into my head, I turn to Tristan with a twinkle in my eye and a high pitched moan of “suuuuuuushmeeee” (our made up word for “let’s get sushi RIGHT NOW”). We end up getting sushi for dinner once or twice a week.

But it’s not always sushi. Tristan and I eat out A LOT. Like, definitely more days than we cook dinner at home. After an 8 or 9 hour day at work, an hour and a half at the gym, and a shower, it’s easy to enter a mindset of eating out. At a restaurant the food comes in less time than it takes me to cook. I don’t have to do any dishes. And it tastes awesome. Meanwhile at home, a drawer full of vegetables delivered to us twice a month slowly wilts in our refrigerator.

But it comes at a cost. I was looking at my account that I use for budgeting and I was horrified. It has a feature where you can graph and trend your spending over time and this is what I saw for the past 12 months:


The orange one is how much I spent on food. I spent more on food than I did on my student loans and almost as much as I spent on rent. The actual number came out to around $6000 in 12 months. When did I let my eating habits get so out of control? So starting April 11, as part of the Jump Off the Ladder Challenge I am giving up restaurants.

Here are the reasons I’m giving it up:

  1. My restaurant spending is out of control. I’m racking up credit card debt, not on clothes or shoes or electronics, but on sushi and sake. 
  2. We get locally grown, in-season, organic vegetables delivered every other week. On top of some kick-ass salads, it gives me a starting point for meal planning, and makes me explore new recipes.
  3. I love to cook. I’m actually pretty good at it too.
  4. Cooking is relaxing for me. I like to put in my headphones and play the M83 Pandora station on my iPhone while I bliss out in the kitchen.
  5. Home cooked meals have half the calories of restaurant food.
  6. We have enough groceries to survive for like three months. There’s really no excuse.

Giving up restaurants will extend far beyond just saving the money. I can sharpen my cooking skills, play with new recipes, and get myself organized. I’m going to have to creatively plan meals with the food we have at home. Periodic progress updates (and recipes?) may follow!