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Healthy eating can fit in tight budgets

By Bonnie Coblentz
MSU Ag Communications

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- College students moving away from home for the first time are often amazed at how much it costs to eat every day, and high consumer prices can make it harder than ever to eat well on a budget.

College students can expect to spend as much as 30 percent of their budget on food, said Susan Cosgrove, Mississippi State University Extension Service family resource management area agent. Especially in tough financial times, college students should identify all sources of income, then stick with a monthly budget that covers all expenses.

“Limit the amount of junk food you purchase. Since restaurant portions are usually large enough for two, consider sharing a meal with a friend or bringing home leftovers for the next meal,” Cosgrove said.

Other tips for eating out include avoiding restaurants that have waiters, as these places often charge more, and avoiding expensive coffee shops and snack bars.

Many colleges require students living in residence halls to purchase meal plans. Students should consider their options carefully and select the one that best fits their individual budget. When cooking, use pasta, dried beans and rice as the base for entrees to stretch food dollars.

“Remember that the more preparation has gone into a food when you purchase it, the higher the price will be,” Cosgrove said. “Cooking from scratch will save money.”

While dried noodle soups may be a traditional staple for college students trying to eat cheap, that does not have to be the case all the time. Frozen and canned vegetables and fruits can be low-cost meal items, but be sure they are low in sodium and added sugar. Buy fresh foods in season for lower costs.

Other grocery shopping tips include making a list before going to the store and sticking to it to avoid impulse spending. Avoid shopping when hungry. Compare unit costs when buying items, and buy items that are cheaper per pound or ounce, unless the larger portion will spoil and have to be discarded. Items on shelves at eye level are usually more expensive than those on the top or bottom shelves. Look for bargains, including coupons, in-store sales and advertised specials. Store brands often are less expensive and similar in nutrition and flavor to national brands.

Brent Fountain, Extension human nutrition specialist, said students should be careful to make healthy food choices while on a budget. Many times junk food costs less than healthy food because it is made with cheaper ingredients.

“You would think that a product that has 25 ingredients would be more expensive than an item with just one ingredient, but that isn’t the case,” Fountain said. “An apple or 100 percent apple juice is going to be more expensive that a product containing just 10 percent apple juice, plus water, sugar and flavorings.”

Fountain urged students to make fruits and vegetables the cornerstone of healthy diets, even though they cost more than some other foods. Plan ahead and avoid last-minute food decisions and repeated poor dining choices. It is also important to avoid skipping meals.

“Schedules can be tight and it can be difficult to find time to eat, but when you go for long periods without eating, you typically eat more when you do eat,” Fountain said. “You also may choose snacks that are high in sugar and fat -- like candy bars and soft drinks -- that may satisfy you in the short term, but leave you hungrier later.”

Fountain suggested starting the day with a good breakfast that includes fruit and milk. Eat a moderate lunch with fruits and vegetables, and finish the day with a modest dinner that includes fruits, vegetables, a meat or meat alternative, and a whole-grain roll.

“It may sound difficult and time consuming, but if you plan the types of food you’ll eat and fill in the blanks each day, you will find you are eating healthier and avoiding foods that are not as healthy,” Fountain said. “There is no problem with eating the occasional fried chicken or hamburger and sides, but just make sure this is the exception and not the rule when it comes to meal planning.”

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Released: July 9, 2009
Contact: Dr. Brent Fountain, (662) 325-0849