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Becoming a competent eater: How students navigate food struggles on a college budget

September 26, 2023
Photo by Erica Bui | The State News

With expensive tuition, bills, inflation and food prices skyrocketing, many college students find themselves eating on a limited budget. It can be difficult to maintain a full and balanced diet under these circumstances.

For a number of students, college is the first time they're planning and making every meal, making navigating a food budget even harder. MSU nutrition program coordinator Anne Buffington said teaching the skill of eating to students is the nutrition program’s top priority.

“I always say food is a need; eating is a skill,” Buffington said. “And just like any other skill, that's something that has to be developed.”

Skilled eating allows an individual to be able to support themselves and their food needs, Buffington said. She said MSU's University Health and Wellbeing team prefers to focus on helping students become “competent eaters” as opposed to focusing too intensely on healthy versus unhealthy.

“A competent eater is someone who is flexible and reliable about feeding themselves,” Buffington said. “When we approach it from this kind of competent eating … perspective, it seems a lot more realistic. It really meets people where they're at.”

Buffington frequently hears that the lack of time and money causes students to struggle with food preparation. With such busy schedules, students often grab whatever food is available at the last minute, becoming increasingly expensive, she said.

The first step in managing a diet, Buffington said, is creating a structure around eating. This includes creating a specific and realistic budget for food, as well and knowing when, where and how you will be eating every day.

“It's almost this idea that we don't have to be surprised that we need food each day,” Buffington said. “Eating doesn't have to take very long if you plan for it, but if you don't, then it becomes this moment where you don't know what to do. It starts with (finding) regular intervals and then being able to decide how you're going to fill those and if you need to plan ahead.”

Planning ahead can include meal prepping, planning a week’s menu or even deciding in the morning what to eat that day, Buffington said. Dedicating a realistic budget to food is also an essential step in supporting your food needs.

“Sometimes that's where (people) try to save the most, and any money they spend on food makes them feel bad,” Buffington said. “I just try to remind people: food costs something, and … you do need to have a budget that you feel okay with spending.”

As the cost of food continues to rise, finding available money to dedicate to groceries can be difficult for college students. Buffington recommended shopping sales, using coupons, shopping seasonally, buying generic brand items and using the freezer to extend the life of food.

Buffington said whether it's a batch-cooked meal to save for later or groceries like bread or meat, the "freezer is your friend."

What should students buy and make?

Dietetics senior Wes Kim said some of his favorite budget-friendly meals are based around cheap base grains like rice, oats and pasta. Adding other ingredients to a cheaper base food can boost food variety, Kim said.

“Simplifying your meals and just making sure that you have a good balance between protein, carbs and fat — that's everything I could ask for," Kim said

For breakfast, Kim prepares overnight oats to make mornings easier. After buying plain oats in bulk, he adds dry ingredients like chia seeds, cinnamon and protein powder. To make a meal, he combines a scoop of the dry mix with milk or yogurt and fresh fruit to sit in the fridge overnight.

Kim recommends bananas as an affordable and nutritious fruit that can be added to meals like overnight oats.

“That's a great breakfast," Kim said. "It has lots of carbohydrates, whole grains, fiber especially which is really important and often not achieved in the American diet."

Food waste can cause a food budget to be underutilized, another common food struggle for students, Kim said. To overcome this, he recommends making smoothies or grain bowls with produce that is starting to go bad.

For a smoothie, Kim blends together fruits and leafy greens that have started to turn bad. Blending them, Kim said, is a good way to mask physical imperfections that may make the food undesirable.

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Kim also suggested using vegetables that may be going bad with an affordable grain, protein and spices to make a grain bowl.

“Spices are a true way to customize and add some variety regarding your flavors throughout your week in order to make your meals more exciting," Kim said. "That’s a really great way to cut any food costs and of course incorporate more vegetables, which we can all benefit from.”

Combating food insecurity

Students who are unable to afford a full diet can access the MSU Student Food Bank to supplement their food source. Students can access the food bank once a week for food and other household supplies.

MSU Student Food Bank Director Nicole Edmonds said food insecurity in college is more common than many people think, although many college students don’t have a full understanding of what food insecurity truly means.

“It's not necessarily that you just don't know where your next meal is coming from,” Edmonds said. “But it's variety, nutritional density, that kind of thing. And because college is so expensive, and it continues to become more expensive … many students are at the risk of becoming food insecure.”

Through their research, the food bank has seen an increase in students' need for its services as well as a correlation between food security and academic success, Edmonds said.

Students can get involved in fighting food insecurity and contributing to better food diets across campus. Edmonds said the food bank prefers monetary donations over food donations to purchase discounted bulk items through their wider food bank network.

Students who want to contribute to the food bank resource can contact Edmonds at foodbank@msu.edu

“There are a variety of ways (to help) if they just reach out," Edmonds said

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