A College Student’s Search For Smart, Healthy Meals on a Small Budget

We all want to prepare our meals faster, purchase our ingredients at cheaper prices, and make our meals healthier. And by “all,” I mean the uncommon college student who takes the time to cook his or her own healthy meals. But in the collegiate culinary world, the diet of the average college student consists of Top Ramen, Diet Coke and fast food.

If you don’t have a meal plan, it can be all too easy to fall into the habit of eating out more than you should. And even if you do have a meal plan, it’s very likely the foods in the cafeterias you think are at least semi-healthy are a lot more sinister than they appear.

What are the benefits of healthy eating? Why boil your vegetables at home when you can get them piled onto a Carne Asada Burger at Veggie Grill for a gut-punching $8.49? Why even consider the calorie count of your grande Café Mocha when it’s only a simple pick-me-up to get through Poli Sci 51A? It’s easier to just not think about it and hope that walking around campus all day is enough to wear it off.

But if you do have an interest in what you eat, you’d soon find out that one of those pick-me-ups is armed with 220 calories, 8 grams of fat and 31 grams of sugar, which turns into more fat if you don’t exercise it off. And that’s just with 2% milk and no whipped cream. If you choose to have the latter as well, chalk up an extra 110 calories here.

The truth is that we college folk are both busy and extremely lazy. The University Town Center is conveniently located right across the street from UCI, its food joint parlors luring unsuspecting students in with its siren’s song of Yogurtland and Cha for Tea. And the new Student Center Food Court only offers us more temptation to stray away from our diets.

A lot of us are willing to shell out six or seven bucks per meal every day because we don’t want to take the trouble to drive over tohe grocery store, spend an hour shopping for food, and then have to make our own meals on top of all that. Unfortunately, it’s a common misconception that cooking is a time- and effort-intensive activity, and that healthy cooking has to account for tofu.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Cooking your own healthy food can be as easy as browning some low-fat ground beef, boiling a pack of spaghetti and throwing it all in a bowl with a jar of pasta sauce. The entire process takes as little as 15 minutes, and usually yields enough for leftovers.

The way I see it, cooking your own grub empowers the average college student with three basic benefits: lower cost, health and peace of mind. The first two are understood easily enough, but what do I mean by the third?

The peace of mind offered by healthy cooking encompasses a vast range of attributes, most of them mental or emotional. Actively building something and being able to experience the fruits of your labor in the senses of sight, smell and taste offers a psychological therapy and sense of self-worth to the chef.

From the time you finish preparing that plate of whole grain rice, steamed stir-fry veggies and oven-cooked chicken breast to the moment you throw the crumb-ridden plate into the sink, you need not feel a single pang of guilt or need to excuse yourself.

Here’s a free tip to kick off the school year: Don’t like the taste of vegetables or anything else unsavory to your palette? Douse the offending entity with the appropriate spices, which have no nutritional content to speak of or worry about. For instance: garlic, black pepper, ginger, Cajun seasoning, curry and lemon pepper all work great to season almost any kind of vegetable.

For those of you with bigger “cajones,” pick up a bottle of hot sauce, I recommend Gringo Bandito – manufactured by Dexter Holland of The Offspring fame – and nuke the sucker. It may set your eyeballs aflame but it goes down tasty and your body won’t know the difference (nutritionally speaking). Don’t hold me responsible for any aftereffects you may experience.

If fast, cheap and healthy cooking is what you’re in the market for, then you’re reading the right column. Be sure to stick around; I’ll bring you new recipes, complete with nutritional info, and compare it to its expensive, unhealthy, restaurant-spawned cousin.