How and why to keep a balanced diet on a student budget
Updated: May 20
Welcome to our Youth Talk Blog, a new section dedicated to youth experience with mental health and wellbeing, with weekly blog posts from diverse young people’s perspectives. This will be a positive, fun and resourceful space, showcasing young people thriving and connecting with healthful activities, resources and support. This post has been written by our Community Education intern, Anne, a 21-year-old psychology student. We hope to see you around!
As a university student, I understand that income is limited and therefore, budgeting can be hard. Managing healthy eating, whilst managing schoolwork, social life, and other stressors that accompany living on our own, without parental support, can be overwhelming. Given this, it is valuable to learn how one can eat healthy foods on a student budget.
Consuming healthy foods can be a source of stress for many, since it is commonly assumed that eating healthy may be more expensive and time consuming as compared to conveniently grabbing pizza on the way home. In my first year of Uni, I mainly relied on microwavable mac and cheese and ramen noodles. At the time, this seemed like a cost-effective and convenient strategy to handle my budgeting problems. However, over time, this took a toll on my physical health and mental wellbeing. The consistent reliance on fast foods such as pizzas, caused my energy levels to decrease, my self-confidence to diminish, and other physical and psychological effects that took a toll on me. This was when I knew that I needed to start choosing healthy eating. Self-discipline was really hard for me, but with continuous practice, it improved my physical and emotional wellbeing.
At first, learning these skills was far from smooth sailing. Having the ability to turn down foods that may taste good but may not be beneficial for our long-term wellbeing is not something that can be done overnight, and that is okay. It is good to accept that this is a process, and to continue to gradually take small steps towards improving our diet as no major developments happen overnight.
One useful way to ensure that I had enough money to eat well was through meal planning. Since there is such a wide array of food options, it is important to focus on making choices which will be beneficial in the long run, including a good variety of seasonal ingredients (these are often cheaper than out of season ingredients), a diverse menu and meal prepping (read more about it further down).
Another way to ensure money to eat well is strictly setting aside a certain portion of your income for grocery shopping. Creating a separate account for food budget in the bank account, and having a certain set amount in it per week can be a way of feeling more confident about food expenses. This sum of money can be considered off limits to other activities throughout the week. This gives you the opportunity to make sure that there will be enough for the essentials.
Once this money has been put away, it may also beneficial to create a grocery list prior to shopping. This way, picking out random items can be avoided as they may slowly add up, turning into a big expense. Writing down your essential food items is a key part of grocery shopping because we all know how hard it is to resist overbuying on a hungry stomach. I know this may seem tedious, but once the habit of getting the same (or similar) food items is developed, it will become a quick and easy part of your routine.
As I started to improve my health and developed a stronger sense of discipline, I noticed myself fearing consumption of foods that are not commonly considered healthy. My mind was consumed by the idea that cheat meals could revert my progress completely, which I realised, is not the case. While it is valuable to focus on healthy eating, it is also important to note that food is not our enemy, and that no food should be categorised as good or bad. Enjoying a juicy burger, or crispy fries once in a while is still healthy and this shows that it is still possible to be eating healthy while also indulging in a cheat meal every now and then.
Some other common ways to eat healthy on a student budget include:
Meal prepping: This refers to preparing meals for the whole week or for every few days. This is a common choice by university students as it helps track the money being spent on food on a weekly basis. Moreover, it is also time efficient as some students prefer to commit to an evening of meal prepping, and not having to bother with cooking until the end of the week, given the busy schedule of university.
Trying to incorporate fruit and vegetables, wherever possible. For instance, adding a side of salad (wherein this is an option), rather than a side of chips, while getting a meal combo.
Buying food items in bulk from wholesale markets is also a good option as these are cheaper in comparison to buying them separately from a supermarket. This can be extremely useful while sharing food resources with flatmates.
Moreover, for cheat days, making use of student discounts and coupons that may be available through university is a good way to save money. Often, restaurants have students deals wherein food is available for a reduced price.
Studies show that eating a healthy diet to benefit our gut is critical for mental health, and can positively intervene with anxiety, depression, and ADHD to reduce symptoms. Particularly beneficial is eating fish, nuts, beans, fruits, vegetables, probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt, and limiting packaged or processed foods or foods high in sugar. For more information on what kind of foods can be incorporated into a balanced diet and its benefits to your physical and mental health and wellbeing, visit:
Healthy eating | Ministry of Health NZ https://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/healthy-living/food-activity-and-sleep/healthy-eating
Healthy eating, active living | HealthEd https://www.healthed.govt.nz/resource/healthy-eating-active-living
Healthy food helps your heart and mental health | NZ Heart Foundation https://www.heartfoundation.org.nz/about-us/news/blogs/healthy-food-can-help-your-heart-and-mental-health
A Guide for Maintaining Health and Wellbeing | NZ Government Health and Safety Lead https://www.healthandsafety.govt.nz/assets/Documents/A_Guide_for_Maintaining_Health_and_Wellbeing.pdf