We Asked A Nutritionist How To Eat Healthy On A Budget

A balanced diet is pretty affordable if you leave out the goji berries.

Some uni traditions are worth honouring. Mortarboards, O-week, fudging the reference dates at the end of your essay – all proud and weighty rites of passage.

But if there’s one academic custom you shouldn’t subscribe to, it’s that of the starving student. Subsisting on a diet of rice cakes, jello shots and adrenaline might seem fine at the time, but it’s not sustainable, and can lead to some tricky health problems down the road.

To find out how you can tick more of your nutritional boxes without having to text your parents for money, we spoke to Leanne Elliston, Dietitian and Program Manager at Nutrition Australia.

Go Big On Greens

We hate to sound like your mum, but you really should eat more veggies. Inexpensive and bursting with nutrients, vegetables are high-value foods that could also save you on medical expenses.

“We know that people who have a diet high in vegetables are less likely to end up with chronic diseases and are likely to have a healthier weight,” says Elliston. “And vegetables do not cost much money. A bag of carrots costs two dollars a kilo or something.

“Even tinned vegetables or frozen vegetables are still good for you, and they can be really cheap. In-season vegetables are usually pretty cheap as well.”

Netflix And Dill

If you’re looking for a painless way to up your veggie intake, try subbing them in for snacks.

“Chopping up capsicum, celery or carrots and having them with hummus or beetroot dip, that’s a great snack, and that’s no more expensive than buying a packet of crisps.”

Ditch The Fast Food

It’s easy to find yourself shelling out a few bucks for abundantly available junk food, but according to Elliston, it’s “not at all” good value.

“I think it’s expensive,” she says. “I would say junk food gives us instant satisfaction, I think it tastes great, I think people can easily get addicted to it, because it’s high in sugar and salt and fat, which are addictive qualities in food.”

Not only is it addictive, it’s also just so much more convenient if you’re not comfortable in the kitchen. “If you haven’t learned basic cooking skills, then just eating in general can be expensive, because you’re having to buy things that are already prepared for you.”

Upgrade Your Base

If you’re not a whiz in the kitchen, Elliston says to make it easy for yourself by simply enhancing those things that you eat already.

“Look at those base foods that you’re already eating a lot of – it could be noodles, or pasta, or rice – and think about how you can enhance that, how you can add some nutritional value.”

Start off with a healthy source of protein, such as lean mean or canned legumes. “Combine that with some vegetables, like some garlic, onion, and celery in a pan, and cook up the meat with that. Then add some flavour like an Asian sauce, and then add some more vegetables to that, and with some rice on the side, you’ve got yourself a fairly simple, healthy meal that hasn’t cost a lot of money.”

You can take a similar approach to one of the starving student standbys – two minute noodles. “They’re a great base. You can add some tuna, or some tinned corn and some frozen peas or frozen vegetables, and sprinkle a bit of cheese on there, and suddenly, you’re nutritionally enhancing what is otherwise a pretty pathetic dish into something that’s actually really healthy for you.”

Stick To The Basics

Despite the fad diets and “superfoods” being bandied about at the moment, the research is pretty clear on what the majority of us need to stay healthy. And that’s a balanced diet of vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, meat (and/or meat alternatives), and dairy.

And the best part is, these don’t have to come from the organic section.

“Eating healthy is not expensive,” says Elliston. “I haven’t mentioned goji berries, or kale, or coconut oil. They’re not necessary, you don’t have to be eating those to be superior or healthier in some way. I don’t eat that stuff.”

Take-Aways (The Non-Greasy Kind)

Living on a student budget is tough. Make it a bit easier for yourself by cooking at home, upping your veggies, enhancing your bases, and not being afraid of tinned or frozen produce.

Oh, and don’t listen to anything Gwyneth Paltrow says.

Joel Svensson is a Canberra-based writer originally from Melbourne. He’s written more latté-fuelled stories about first-world problems than he cares to admit, and can be found coping with misleading hashtags at @le0jay.

(Lead image: The Office/NBC)