Beyond Ramen: Eating Well on a Budget

It’s 5:30 p.m., and your experiment is dragging on. You don’t know when you’ll get home, but you do know you’ll be too exhausted to cook. But is takeout really the best option when you’re already on a super-tight budget?

If you want to hang on to your coins, here are some ways to prep healthier meal options so the next time you feel tempted to make the evening a pizza night, you’ll have plenty of other choices right at home.

Stock your kitchen

Having a few key staples on hand at all times means you can whip up a meal easily instead of paying for delivery. Make sure you have a balance of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, proteins, and healthy cooking oils for a nutrient-rich diet.

For convenience, you may want to pick up a rotisserie chicken that can be used in stews, soups, or salads, or pre-marinated tofu that you can wrap in a tortilla or sprinkle over salad. Get frozen veggies for all the nutrition of fresh without any of the fuss (they’re especially great for soups and stews). Canned beans also add fiber and protein to any dish.

Also keep a fresh supply of your favorite herbs, seasonings, and spices to ensure whatever you cook has a flavor you love.

Plan ahead

A little advance planning can help ensure you have a tasty meal ready to go any day of the week.

1. Gather recipes for meals you would like to make over the next week and purchase all the ingredients. If you can plan a month in advance, you can even purchase all the nonperishable ingredients at once.

Need recipe ideas? Try these:

2. Prepare or preseason your protein. You can prep and freeze ground meat or bean burgers for later cooking . Seasoned or marinated meat can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. You can also precook meats or beans for use whenever you need them.

3. Prechop your veggies and store in an airtight container.

4. Cook your grains, beans, and legumes; these can be refrigerated for a week or frozen until ready to use.

5. Mix up any sauces.

6. On the day you need a meal, pull out your prepared ingredients and start cooking!

Elevate your leftovers

Face it. Even if you place that pizza order now, it’s still going to be at least half an hour before you eat (longer if you have to debate pizza toppings with someone). Instead, rely on convenience foods and leftovers for a quick, healthy meal that you’ve already paid for.

Add a fried or soft-boiled egg, fresh spinach, precooked shrimp, or chopped rotisserie chicken to your ramen. Heat up jarred sauce with your favorite herbs, mushrooms, fresh garlic and onion, or protein to coat your spaghetti. Whip up a bread pizza using a baguette or Italian loaf and load your favorite toppings  on it.

Instead of just reheating your protein, turn it into an amazing homemade sandwich with some great homemade condiments. You can also put it on a piece of bread with a dab of pesto and a piece of cheese, then toast under the broiler (1–2 minutes) for a sandwich to rival your local fast food restaurant's. Or give your sandwich the grilled-cheese treatment—lightly coat the outside of your sandwich with butter or cooking spray, then cook over medium-low heat for 4 minutes on each side or until the outside is golden brown and the inside is warm.

Leftover proteins and veggies can get a delicious new life in a fresh salad, soup, or quesadilla. You can also toss them with store-bought sauce and cooked pasta.

Leftover rice is the basis for fried rice. Leftover bread is the basis for both sweet and savory varieties of French toast. Leftover mashed potatoes and breadcrumbs can also become croquettes tasty enough to become their own leftovers.  

Embrace the big batch

Even the busiest grad student gets a few hours off each week (if you don’t, that’s a separate article). Set 1–2 hours aside to cook a big batch of something yummy, separate into individual portions, and freeze. Frozen entrées can keep for months for heat-and-eat meals anytime.

Soups, stews, curries, chilis, baked casseroles, meatballs or meatless balls, burger patties, and legumes are all good candidates for the big-batch treatment. While your big batch is simmering or baking, take some time to prep snacks like nuts and fruits, or quick breakfasts like overnight oats with chia seeds or flaxseeds and fresh fruit, or do a yogurt parfait. 

In the morning, you can eat your hydrated oats cold or heat in the microwave and top with your favorite nuts, fruits, honey or agave, or spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom. You could even stir in some unsweetened cocoa powder or a few chocolate chips for a tasty, inexpensive breakfast that will keep you full until lunch.

Prefer your oats crunchy? You can also whip up sweet or savory versions of granola for a yummy, healthy breakfast or snack anytime.

End on a sweet note

Sometimes you’ve just got to have a sweet treat. You can get mixes from the store for just a couple of dollars, but if you have time you’re much better off putting in a little effort to create something that’s scrumptious and healthier.

Try every baker’s fever dream—the Depression Era Crazy Cake . This vegan wonder was developed in the 1920s when milk, eggs, and butter were out of reach for a lot of bakers. To make matters more confusing, you mix all the ingredients in an ungreased pan, and the mixture doesn’t stick! Replace some of the flour with whole wheat flour, reduce the amount of sugar or use a sugar substitute like agave or bananas, and you’re 10 minutes away from filling your apartment with the smell of chocolaty goodness!

If you have a little more time, brown butter sugar cookies are another easy treat. Browning the butter elevates the humble ingredients for a delicious, slightly nutty flavored sweet treat—without your having to wait for the butter to soften or the dough to chill. (You do have to wait for the cookies to cool before glazing them though!

Happy Cooking!