Good nutrition is essential to keeping the body and mind at peak performance — the latter being especially important for college students. But how can students eat nutritious foods while balancing their many expenses?
Whitney Ockey, health promotion manager at Salt Lake Community College’s Center for Health and Counseling (CHC), said maintaining good nutrition while in college is more doable than students may realize.
“It’s all about asking, ‘How can I change or add to [my] meal to make it more nutritious?’” Ockey said.
There are many ways students can improve their nutrition, but before making any changes, students need to first assess their starting point.
The healthier option
Eating healthier starts with determining where a person is succeeding and what needs improvement.
“‘Healthy’ is going to vary for everyone depending on where they’re at,” Ockey said. “Assess what is ‘healthy’ to you, and what kind of changes would you like to see.”
Someone who is already conscious of their nutrition might set a goal to eat non-GMO and organic foods. Someone who eats out regularly, however, might instead focus on making one meal at home every day. It’s all about setting realistic, simple goals, Ockey noted.
Students should then start looking at the foods they’re currently eating. Many college students resort to microwavable meals and the ever-popular Ramen cup, but Ockey said to note if foods are consistently coming from a box, can or bag. Processed foods take a toll on a person’s overall health, even if they’re advertised as a healthy option.
“A lot of food items may appear affordable, but they’re full of empty fat and sugar that aren’t necessarily keeping us full and focused,” Ockey said.
If the commute to a grocery store is longer than it would be to a fast-food restaurant, it can be tempting for students to opt for a less healthy meal. However, this does not save students money overall.
Fast foods are not “nutrient-dense,” as the amount of nutrients a person gains per calorie in these foods is low. The body gains less energy from digesting fast food and as a result, it requires more food sooner.
“While you may see a hamburger for a dollar as more affordable than a homemade sandwich, the benefits are not equal,” Ockey said. “[The burger] is not going to keep you full, so you’re going to be reaching for snacks and other things throughout the day.”
This means that students will end up spending more money on other foods to make up for the meal they had eaten prior. By budgeting a few dollars more toward groceries and homemade meals, students can save more money than if they had eaten from the “dollar menu.”
Planning to eat nutritious meals is one thing, but obtaining the ingredients is another.
While the cost of food is slowly starting to trend downward, 2022 saw an all-time high in price, according to the FAO Food Price Index. With food being as expensive as it is, how are college students meant to afford healthier food options?
One way to eat healthier while being frugal is through meal planning and preparation. Choosing the week’s meals ahead of time — as well as making larger, healthy meals that can last for multiple days — will give students better control over how they allocate their food budget.
“It’s important to be aware of where you’re going to access food and how,” said Ockey. “Writing down the meals you want to cook is going to help you create a grocery list.”
Along with knowing what foods are needed for the week, navigating the supermarket efficiently can help avoid breaking the bank.
“When you enter the grocery store, be aware of the way that it’s laid out,” Ockey said “The first area you walk into after you grab your cart is usually stuff they want you to buy, or they need out of the way.”
Ockey admits that sometimes this promotion will be a convenience but is most often a ploy for customers to end up with extra items in their cart.
Another strategy many grocery stores use is the layout of their food items. Healthier options will line the outside wall of the store, with processed foods taking up the bulk of the center. This is done to subtly guide shoppers to more expensive, unnecessary foods that they might add to their carts before reaching the healthy ingredients they need.
Ockey recommends walking the perimeter of the store to avoid extra purchases, as well as scouring the clearance aisle or wherever items are listed at a discounted price. Students can also keep an eye out for sales at local grocery stores to stock up on essentials, like milk, eggs, bread and cheese.
For students who still struggle to afford nutritional meals, SLCC locations across the Salt Lake valley offer plenty of resources to boost physical wellness.
A well-known resource available to all students is the Bruin Pantry, available at the South City, Taylorsville Redwood, Jordan and West Valley campuses. All locations, with differing hours, are open to any SLCC student. A OneCard or student number is the only requirement — no questions asked from staff — and students are free to fill up one grocery bag per day.
The Bruin Pantry is primarily dependent upon donations, so students may not always find the healthy produce that they’re looking for. Still, Ockey maintains that the pantry is an ideal place for Bruins on a tight budget to stock their fridges with free food.
“If you’re accessing the Bruin Pantry, and you’re getting your bread or rice covered, that’s more money in your pocket to go buy fresh fruits and vegetables that can sometimes be pricier,” said Ockey.
Running in tandem, SLCC’s four community gardens, although not run year-round, support the Bruin Pantry and the student body at large.
Another resource comes from the health promotion team within the Center for Health and Counseling.
Tiny Bites Tuesday, a bi-monthly cooking event promoting healthy eating and cooking, is held at the Taylorsville Redwood Campus. Attending students can learn nutritional tips and recipes while trying foods made from SLCC’s cookbook, “Bruin Bites.”
“For college students, this is when a lot of individuals start cooking and living on their own. They want healthy, affordable recipes, so we created a recipe book,” Ockey said. “We all have access to recipe books out there, but some of them are just too complex. They don’t take into consideration that broke college students are reading [the recipe] too.”
The Bruin Bites cookbook consists of breakfasts, main meals, snacks and sides that require very few ingredients and steps to make. Students can find vegan, vegetarian and allergy-safe options, too — all made with healthy, budget-friendly ingredients in mind.
A digital copy of the cookbook is available on the SLCC website, but students can grab physical books at any CHC location, limited to one per student. Chili lime popcorn, banana oatmeal pancakes and fajitas are some examples of the book’s 59 total recipes.
Even with the variety of meal ideas, many students that are new to cooking often get discouraged at the start. Whether time, skill or available ingredients act as a barrier to more nutritional eating, Ockey urged students not to give up.
“As you … start to cook new meals, you’re going to have ones you enjoy, and ones that miss the mark,” said Ockey. “Chock it up as a loss, don’t make it again, and make something else.”
It’s important to ease into a healthier lifestyle, Ockey added, since the overall objective should be to work toward what is healthy for each individual. Gradually easing into more nutritional eating will result in less financial strain and a greater likelihood that the change sticks.
At the beginning, the key to improving nutrition on a budget is by making small, simple changes to one’s eating habits.
“When you think of nutrition, a lot of times people think about diet restriction, or what you can remove from your diet. But that’s not always a sustainable option,” Ockey said. “You don’t have to stick to a diet to eat healthy. Think about what you’re eating, and just make one small change every day.”