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Eating on a budget in the UK

Inside Jack Rabbits Kitchen in Derby, with a smiling shopkeeper and freshly baked bread

By Lisa Hansson, 2 September 2014

Tuition fees, accommodation fees, transport, books, clothes… managing your budget is often one of the hardest things about being a student! But what about food? We all know it’s important to eat well, but how do you look after your diet while looking out for your cash?

There’s a stereotype about students surviving on baked beans and instant noodles, but the truth is that to keep your mind sharp, you need to look after your body.

We asked Mel Wakeman, Senior Lecturer in Nutrition and Applied Physiology at Birmingham City University, for her advice. Mel says, ‘If students are to perform well academically, they need to feed those brain cells. This means real food – fruit and vegetables, wholegrain carbohydrates and some protein.’

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be complicated – you don’t need to spend hours cooking from scratch, or lots of money on fancy ingredients! Just a few simple habits will make a difference.

These are Mel’s 14 top tips for eating healthily on a budget:

1. Don’t be a food snob

There are many supermarkets in the UK that specialise in good food at very cheap prices, and it’s likely there will be one near your university or college. I really cannot taste the difference between the expensive brands and the cheaper brands that I’ve never heard of.

2. Pick your moment to go shopping

By going shopping an hour or so before the supermarket closes, especially before a bank holiday, prices on items such as meat, fish, fruit and veg are likely to be reduced. Supermarkets have a ‘reduced’ section where you’ll find food at a discount. Make it your first stop, but think about when you will eat it – ensure you consume food before the ‘use-by’ date as it could make you ill.

Inside the Goods Shed Restaurant and Farmers Market in Canterbury (Image ©VisitEngland)

3. Plan your meals

This may sound dull, but can make a real difference. Make a menu plan for the week and then write a shopping list. If you live in a shared house, could you plan meals together? This means you’re less likely to throw whatever looks tempting into your trolley – impulse shopping is expensive! Plus, you can ensure you eat a range of foods over the week, so get a balance of fish, lean meat, rice, pasta, potatoes, different vegetables, etc.

4. Don’t ever go shopping while you’re hungry

This is a BIG MISTAKE!  When you’re hungry, you’re less rational and much more impulsive – you’re more likely to buy junk food and eat half of it on the way home. Trust me, I know!

5. Stick to the rules – but be prepared to get creative

Once it’s part of your routine, you should find it easy to stick to a meal plan – but if the cupboard is looking bare by the end of the week, see it as a challenge to whip up something tasty without going shopping. You could even make it a competition with your housemates, to see who can make the best dish with the fewest ingredients!

6. Make time to cook!

The main reason students eat a lot of baked beans and pizza  is that they simply don’t make time to cook. Social and study commitments can make student life demanding, and it’s natural to feel uncertain in the kitchen. Why not ask someone who you know is a good cook to help you out? If you’re new to cooking, spend the next month trying a few basic recipes.

Or make it more fun by cooking with friends – you could plan a regular cooking night, where you get together to make a healthy main course and dessert.

7. Buy or borrow a student cookbook

Student cookbooks can be a great source of inspiration as they’re designed to help you save money, and avoid the boredom of eating the same thing all week! Look out for cheap second-hand books or share the cost with your housemates.

8. ‘Bulk’ it up!

Protein, especially meat, is expensive, so make your meals go further by adding more tasty and satisfying vegetables. Add different beans (chickpeas, kidney beans, cannellini, borlotti or haricot beans – canned beans are fine) or lentils, as these are high in protein and a great alternative to meat, even if you’re not a vegetarian.

Cooking with friends is the easiest way to make it more fun (Image ©James Glossop/British Council)

9. Cook in batches

When you’re cooking, particularly if it’s a ‘one-pot wonder’ (cooking the whole dish in the same pot or pan – a great, easy way to cook. Check out some of the BBC's one-pot recipes), make more than you need. Double the quantities, divide it into portions, and put some in the freezer. That way you’ll always have something to reheat when you’re hungry – and you’re less likely to buy a takeaway.

10. Get a slow cooker

Can you borrow a slow cooker, or find one to buy cheaply? Slow cooking is a great way to use cheap cuts of meat. Stewing or braising steak or oxtail, for example, is a very cheap way to make a mouthwatering meal. If you add vegetables, you’ll be surprised at how little can go a long way. Better still, you can put it on before your classes in the morning, and come home to a delicious dinner!

11. Be creative with leftovers

Most people throw away food they could have eaten – this is simply money down the drain. Think about how you could reuse leftover food to make a new dinner (see tip 5!), and keep an eye on use-by dates to avoid wasting food (and to avoid getting food poisoning).

Two great websites are BBC Good Food leftover recipes, and Love Food Hate Waste – check these out next time you’ve got lots of leftovers and no ideas! Remember that you don't need all the ingredients listed in a recipe – you can skip and substitute ingredients to use what you have.

12. Take a packed lunch

This can be a tricky one. Who has time to make lunch before rushing off to class in the mornings? My advice is to do it the night before – it’s worth it, as making sandwiches yourself can save a lot of money. Even better, bring your own cold drinks (water or juice in a reusable bottle), or a flask of tea or coffee. The average person in the UK drinks 3 cups of tea per day, and if you bought them all in your canteen or café, you’d be spending over £1,000 a year!

A healthy packed lunch. You might be able to borrow a plate and cutlery in your university canteen (Image ©VisitEngland)

13.  Get started with the basics

When you’re starting a new term at university or college, your first trip to the supermarket should start you off on the right foot. Aim to build up a cupboard full of basics – long-lasting items you can cook with for the rest of the year, or to rustle up a quick meal when you need it.

My recommended cupboard items:

   •  tea or coffee
   •  sugar
   •  long-life milk
   •  salt, pepper and spices
   •  jam, marmalade or honey
   •  cooking oil
   •  condiments such as ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce
   •  dried pasta, rice and noodles
   •  soup (canned or instant)
   •  baked beans
   •  canned tuna
   •  canned vegetables such as peas, sweetcorn, chickpeas and tomatoes
   •  biscuits or cereal

And things to keep in the fridge or freezer:

   •  butter or margarine
   •  cheese
   •  eggs
   •  bread
   •  potatoes
   •  frozen mixed vegetables
   •  frozen chicken breasts, fish or minced meat
   •  frozen pizza (you don’t have to cook EVERY night!)

Keep an eye on essentials when you're writing the weekly shopping list (Image ©James Glossop/British Council)

If you’re living on campus or in accommodation provided by your institution, check what kitchen items are supplied – you might need to bring your own plates, forks, knives, spoons, glasses and mugs. For cooking, these are the basics you are likely to need:

   •  Saucepans, a frying pan or wok
   •  Wooden spoons
   •  Sharp knife
   •  Can opener and bottle opener
   •  Washing-up liquid
   •  Sponge
   •  Whisk
   •  Cheese grater
   •  Vegetable peeler
   •  Plastic containers for leftovers.

14. Finally, look online for recipe ideas!

It can be fun browsing recipes and cooking tips. Try Beyond baked beans and BBC Food – the BBC also has a lot of healthy recipes that are easy and inexpensive. Or have a look at your own university or college website – many have student cooking pages and forums where you can share ideas with other students.

Read more:

   •  What time is dinner? A guide to food and eating in the UK
   •  20 things you need to bring to your UK university
   •  Scholarships and money: The essential guide

Planning your budget? For an idea of costs, check out the International Student Calculator. Remember that everyone is different, so the amount students spend on food per year varies widely.

Want to study in the UK? Click here to search for courses or search for scholarships.