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The State News, Michigan State University

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

By Vivian Barrett,


With expensive tuition and bills and inflation affecting food prices, 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 have had to plan and make every meal, which can make navigating a food budget even harder. MSU Lead Dietician 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 means that the individual is able to support themselves and their food needs, Buffington said. She said the University Health and Well-Being team prefers to focus on helping students become "competent eaters" as opposed to focusing too intensely on foods as healthy or 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 ."

The most common food struggles Buffington said she hears about are a lack of time and money. With such busy schedules, students often find themselves grabbing whatever food is available at the last minute, which can become increasingly expensive, she said .

The first step in managing your diet, Buffington said, is creating a structure around eating. This includes creating a specific and realistic budget for food as well as 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 mean a variety of things including meal prepping, planning a week's menu or even just deciding in the morning what you are going to eat for 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 … that you do need to have a budget that you feel okay with spending and it has to be realistic ."

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 you buy and make?

Dietetics senior Wes Kim said some of his favorite budget-friendly meals are based primarily around cheap 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 enjoys prepping overnight oats to make quickly in the morning. 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 recommended bananas as a fruit that is affordable and nutritious and can be added to meals like overnight oats .

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

Another common food struggle for students is food waste, which can cause a food budget to be underutilized, Kim said. To overcome this, he recommended 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 .

Kim also suggested using vegetables that may be going bad along with an affordable grain and a protein to make a grain bowl, as well as adding spice to any meal .

"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 Food Bank to supplement their food source. Students can access the food bank once a week for food and other household supplies .

Food Bank Director Nicole Edmonds said food insecurity in college is more common than many people think. She said many college students don't have a full understanding of what food insecurity 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 student need for its services as well as a correlation between food security and academic success, Edmonds said .

In fighting food insecurity and contributing to better food diets across campus, students can get involved. Edmonds said the bank prefers monetary donations over food donations as they have access to discounted bulk items through their connection with the 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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