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Affordable, Quick and Healthy Meals to Help Students Perform in University

Illustration of Working From Home

For many students, being at university is the first time in their lives that they must take care of themselves. This includes budgeting for their own expenses and cooking for themselves. For some, this can be quite challenging, especially when also trying to follow a healthy, nutritious diet.

With budget constraints to be mindful of and classes, exams, and social events filling their calendars, both time and money get in the way of students’ diets. But with careful planning, sensible decision-making, and the implementation of a few useful hacks, it is possible to take care of your nutritional needs while studying.

Why it’s vital for students to follow a healthy diet

Following a healthy diet and ensuring that their bodies are getting the nutrients they require to function optimally is vital for students’ mental and physical wellbeing. Of course, their wellbeing also impacts their academic performance.

By including all the necessary nutrients in their diets, students can provide their bodies with the fuel needed for enhanced cognitive function, concentration, and memory retention. So, when eating well, students will be able to focus better during their classes and study sessions. This will benefit their academic performance in the end.

Another important factor about following a healthy diet is that it supplies a steady supply of energy to the body, which means students will be alert and engaged throughout a full day of classes. Whereas energy crashes due to not eating correctly can sabotage learning and productivity.

Besides the academic benefits, a healthy diet also keeps students in good physical shape. It can reduce their risk of developing chronic diseases and boost their immune systems. A healthy body impacts a healthy mind, so a student that eats well is more likely to stress less and thrive emotionally.

In essence, cultivating healthy eating habits in university not only sets a student up for a rewarding academic journey, but also lays the groundwork for health and vitality throughout their adult life.

Why students often struggle

In South Africa, financial constraints are the biggest reason why students struggle to follow a nutritional diet. The number of students enrolled at South African universities is far below other middle-income developing countries, simply because the costs of attending university exceeds the means of most of them. Students must make a tiny budget stretch to pay for rent, tuition, and utilities, and then use the little remaining balance for food.

Besides finances, the transition from school to university is more intricate than it seems. Students must suddenly balance their newfound freedom with feelings of being away from home, while also trying to manage the excitements and academic pressures of attending university. Often feeling stressed and struggling to balance their tasks, time, and finances could affect their appetite and lead to a range of other health implications.

A study conducted by the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development at the University of the Free State found that the consumption of vegetables, fruit, and protein among students is minimal. This could lead to deficiencies in vitamins such as vitamin A, C, K, and others, which are concentrated in fruits and vegetables. These vitamins serve important functions when it comes to eye health, immunity, and brain health, so they're essential each day. Students may also suffer from a protein deficiency. This can impact a vast range of bodily functions since our muscles, skin, hair, bones and blood are largely made of protein.

They also found that students consume large amounts of saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, sweetened carbonated beverages, and food that lacks polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and fibres. This is worrisome as the consumption of refined carbohydrates should be limited. They have a high glycaemic index, which causes quick spikes in our blood sugar and insulin levels. Eventually, this could increase the risk of becoming insulin resistant. When the body is insulin resistant, cells don’t respond properly to insulin anymore. To cope, the body produces more insulin, often producing too much. This increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Refined carbohydrates can be divided into sugars and refined grains. The main culprits are white flour, white bread, white rice, pastries, sodas, snacks, pasta, sweets, and breakfast cereals. These carbohydrates are considered as ‘empty calories’ because their fibre, vitamins and nutrients have been removed.

Many students lack nutritional knowledge so they struggle to make smart dietary choices and prepare healthy meals for themselves. Ultimately, these dietary habits, along with the sedentary lives of students, could lead to diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

How to eat healthy on a student budget

First and foremost, create a shopping list and stick to it! Making a list allows for planning the ingredients you need and limits the amount of impulse buys made while shopping.

Keep it basic!

One way to keep a diet healthy and within budget is to stick to the basics. So, make sure you include fruits, vegetables, meat (red meat and poultry), and healthy oils. Not only are these items more nutritious, but often more affordable too.

Here are a few quick, healthy and student-friendly recipes to inspire the first grocery haul: Minute Steaks with Creamy Mushroom Sauce, Quick Bean and Lentil Bunny Chow, Parmesan Crusted Roasted Vegetables, and Summer Rice Tuna Salad.

Make Smart Swaps

When shopping, compare different food items and purchase the healthier option. For example, in the bread aisle, opt for a wholewheat or low-GI bread, and go for the wholewheat pasta and brown rice too. With more consumers opting for healthier food, food companies have expanded their product ranges and adjust their prices accordingly.

Shop in bulk

Buying in bulk is always more affordable. So, keep an eye out for bulk deals, especially on staple items that you can also store for long, like long-life milk, oils, tinned goods, rice, pasta, cereals, frozen foods, and so forth.

Stretch meals

There are several ways to use filler products to stretch your meals so you get even more value out of them. When preparing mince dishes, for example, you can use beans, lentils, or soy to expand the volume and nutritional benefit of your meal.

To stretch this Smoky Mince and Mac recipe, you can add different kinds of beans to your mince and sauce mixture.

Stock up on frozen foods

Students who have the storage capacity should stock up on frozen foods. These items include vegetables, fruits and certain kinds of meats which are often more affordable than their fresh counterparts. Frozen foods still offer great nutritional value so there’s no reason not to buy them.

These Veggie Fritters are a good example of what you can make with frozen corn. It can also be the perfect on-the-go breakfast for those mornings filled with lectures.

Snack away

Snacking is not only a great way to keep your brain fuelled, but it will also prevent you from overindulging at the end of the day. Pack a few healthy snacks like fruits, biltong, and nuts in your bag to prevent you from buying chips, sweets, and other unhealthy snacking alternatives when you become peckish.

These Protein Packed Energy Bites are great for snacking! They’re low in calories yet high in protein and fibre, so will keep you going during a busy day.

Go for brain foods

When it’s crunch time and your studies require a little extra from you, it’s important to stock up on brain foods to enhance your mental performance. Foods that are known for improving brain health and may help you study better, include fish, berries, citrus, avocados, eggs, nuts, cocoa and dark chocolate, beets, and red, green, or orange vegetables.

Fish can be expensive, but there are more affordable options to suit your student budget. Try this Hake and Chips recipe, for example.

Shop around from different vendors

All food items are priced differently at different stores, so shopping around and comparing prices can help you work better with your budget. Nowadays, it’s easier than ever before as you can compare prices and shop online, so do your homework beforehand.

By planning carefully and making conscious decisions when shopping, it is possible to follow a healthy, nutritious diet on a student budget. It’s all about making informed decisions and prioritising healthy choices.


Is it important for students to follow a healthy diet?

Yes. Following a healthy diet and ensuring that their bodies are getting the nutrients they need to function optimally is vital for students’ mental and physical wellbeing, and impacts their academic performance.

Why do many students struggle to eat healthy?

The main reason is financial constraints. Then there’s also the pressure of transitioning from being at home to taking care of themselves, along with time management issues, and a lack of knowledge about healthy nutrition.

Can you eat healthy on a student budget?

Yes. With careful planning and conscious decisions, it is possible to follow a healthy, nutritious diet on a student budget.

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