College students sometimes get a bad reputation for being freebie whores. USC might be half-jokingly referred to as the University of Spoiled Children, but that does not mean that students don’t have their scrimping moments, especially after storming through a big blowout sale at The Grove.
The free samples at Yogurtland are nice, but visiting too often draws unwanted recognition from employees. Chasing after events that offer free food can be fun for a while, but is ultimately too time-consuming, and you might be forced to listen to boring speeches while getting your slice of pizza. So what is a broke college student to do?
The first logical thing is to pin down where most of your money is going. Unsurprisingly, college students spends a majority of their money on food. After all, studying and partying is hard work, and it requires calories.
But calories can be cheap, tasty and nutritious, which means Del Taco’s 39-cent taco is not included. Here are just a few ways to cut corners in the kitchen — without feeling deprived.
Eat beans — Not canned, Mostly vegetarian.
Your muscles won’t atrophy from a few meatless meals. Going vegetarian at least two to three days a week can significantly help your budget, while leaving you energized from the vast array of nutrients in protein-rich food such as beans and legumes.
Tofu might be hard to swallow for a proud carnivore, but beans are found in all the familiar comfort dishes, including chili, burritos and enchiladas, so they’re familiar territory. With liberal seasonings and spices, beans can be delicious and savory enough to make a satisfying meal.
Canned beans might seem economical compared to chicken breast, but it’s still a far cry from cooking your own dried beans. A 15-ounce can of beans costs about $1.50. A pound of dried beans costs roughly the same, yet it makes about 10 more serving.
Most dried-bean packages include stovetop cooking directions, but if you’ve got a rice cooker, just soak and cook the beans as you would rice.
But don’t go overboard, and remember to soak well — beans can be hard on the digestive tract, giving off too many unsavory fumes and leaving you friendless for the day.
Stretch out that rotisserie chicken.
This might seem contradictory to the point above, but buying a whole rotisserie chicken can be surprisingly economical. Superior Grocers sells a good-sized, whole-roasted chicken in the prepared foods section for just $4.99.
Dig in primal-style while it’s still hot and pick out the leftover meat for sandwiches, wraps and stews for the rest of the week, so that you can pack your own lunch or fix it in a snap instead of paying $6 for a salad. Meanwhile, save the bones to make your own chicken stock, which will make at least seven times more than a can of Swanson’s broth.
Make your own instant coffee.
Some students leap out of bed at 6 a.m. every day, run several miles and then bounce off to school — but they’re a small minority.
Most likely, you’re one of those bleary-eyed Trojans trudging to class with a venti coffee in hand or queuing up at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. As the day warms up, you might pop by again for a shaken tea latte.
Just two cups of franchise coffee a day and your habit is already raking up more than $200 per month — more than a week of groceries.
Students savvy enough to own their own coffee brewers still find dissatisfaction with their home-made coffee. Somehow, the taste just doesn’t measure up to a strong-brewed cup at Starbucks, or you don’t have time to make coffee in the morning. Starbucks VIA coffee fixes up a good cup in a pinch, but it is still pricey.
Make your own coffee concentrate that’s ready for hot-brewed or iced coffee in seconds. Take a pound of medium ground coffee and pour 10 cups of cold water over. Leave it to soak overnight, then strain it in the morning and you’ve got your instant caffeine fix that tastes as smooth and dark as those brewed fresh at coffee shops.
To make hot coffee, just add hot water to taste. For a cold glass, add ice, water and milk or half-and-half. Why not dress it up with a drop of vanilla, almond or coconut extract? Some chocolate syrup and a dusting of cinnamon powder and you’ve got a cup of gourmet coffee creation for less than a buck.
Stock up on oatmeal
Oatmeal is one of those pantry items that will last as long as a McDonald’s Happy Meal, so buy in bulk. Not only is it extremely cheap at about $2.50 for a 42-ounce canister of rolled oatmeal, it is fast, easy and deliciously versatile.
Skip the instant pre-flavored oatmeal packets. Making oatmeal from scratch takes no more than 10 minutes and a blank canvas allows wider range of choices and creativity.
As a rule of thumb, you need twice the amount of liquid as oatmeal, but that liquid can be water, milk, juice or broth. A pinch of salt, and you’ve got an open canvas to create whatever you’re in the mood for.
For a sweet route, try it cooked in milk, with a splash of vanilla extract, cinnamon and fruits, such as mashed banana or apples. Sprinkle with some brown sugar and fun toppings such as nuts, peanut butter, nutella, coconut flakes or chocolate chips.
If you crave a more substantial dinner, cook the oatmeal in broth or water and mix in some baby spinach, a drizzle of soy sauce or sesame oil, and top it with a runny egg, perhaps even with a slice or two of ripe avocado. Bacon bits can’t hurt either.
Just because we’re college students doesn’t mean we have to spend all of our money on a good meal. With a bit of ingenuity, a delicious and cheap meal is easy to make.
Sophia Lee is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “That’s What She Ate,” runs Mondays.