Tips to eat healthy at home on a student budget

How to become a home-cooking masterchef
Registered dietitians and PhD candidates Virginia Chan and Helen Yumeng Shi take us through their top tips for cooking healthy food at home, getting the best value for your groceries and making sure your food is safe and tasty.

Making nutritious choices

“Eating well not only has benefits for your physical health but it impacts other areas of your life, like your academic performance,” says Virginia. “For example, research has shown people who eat breakfast do better academically than those who skip breakfast.”

If you’re not sure what foods are good for you, Virginia and Helen say it’s best to keep it simple and use the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating as a guide.

Ideally, for each main meal you should aim to fill your plate:

  • Half with colourful vegetables
  • A quarter with grain foods (mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties)
  • A quarter with protein sources (such as lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans).

“Low GI foods like wholegrains release their energy over a longer period of time, which gives you sustained energy to go about your activities throughout the day,” says Virginia.

Where to shop

If you’re not sure where to buy groceries, major supermarkets are a great place to start for all of your staples. Don’t be afraid to branch out to markets and community gardens, especially if you’re on the hunt for a bargain.

 “A lot of products in Aldi are cheaper than Woolworths and Coles,” says Helen. As well as the main supermarkets like Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA, check out alternatives such as OzHarvest Market and the Food Co-op.

"OzHarvest Market runs on the principle of “Take what you need, pay if you can” so you can pay as little as $0 or as much as you want. Keep in mind that every dollar you spend equals two meals served to vulnerable women, children and men across Australia, so give what you can."

Make a list (and follow it!)

If you’re looking to tighten the reins on your budget, a little meal prep can save you from spending big on last-minute takeaway orders.

“Try to write up a meal plan for one or two weeks. Stick to your shopping list when you go shopping. Try to avoid wastage,” says Helen.  

How to make the most of your shop:

  • Buy in season fruits and vegetables – they’ll be cheaper and marked as product of Australia. As well as being inexpensive, they’re often more nutritious and flavoursome than produce that’s been stored for a long time.
  • If you’re worried produce may perish before you use them, tinned, canned and frozen vegetables are a nutritious, convenient and inexpensive way to buy vegetables.
  • Avoid impulse purchases like chips and chocolates, which are often positioned near the checkouts – take your shopping list and refer back to it as you shop.

Be sure to check what you already have in your fridge and pantry to avoid unnecessary purchases. If you plan to buy in bulk, make sure you have plenty of storage space available.

Cook once, eat twice

While it can be tempting to order food when you have assessments to complete and are feeling short on time, it may not be the best option for your health or your wallet.

“You’ll know exactly what you put it in your meals, a lot of restaurants add a lot of salt, sugar and fat,” says Helen.

There are a few time-saving strategies you can use to get the most out of your cooking:

  • Use frozen or tinned foods, which are already prepped and diced ready to be thrown straight into your pan.
  • Cook meals in bulk to eat over several days.
  • Use quality reusable containers to freeze leftovers – next time you’re busy, you’ll have a home-cooked meal ready.

“If you have a busy period coming up, cooking something that can last you for a few days will give you time,” Helen. Cooking can also be a relaxing way to take a short break away from your screen.

Stay clear of the danger zone

Knowing how to prepare your food safely will help you avoid getting sick. Perishables and cooked foods must spend as little time as possible between 4 and 60 degrees. This is known as the danger zone, where bacteria multiplies rapidly.

Store your food properly – make sure pantry goods are sealed to prevent pests, perishables are stored in the fridge and frozen foods are kept below zero degrees.

  • Check the date on foods – if it’s a use by date, it may be unsafe and should be used or thrown out past this date. If it’s a best before, it will most likely be okay, but may have lost quality.
  • Always wash your hands, knife and chopping board after you’ve finished preparing anything raw, especially meet and seafood, and keep raw food separate from food that’s already been cooked.
  • Always cover food to prevent contamination from bacteria.
  • Food can safely be stored in the fridge for 3 to 4 days – if you plan to keep it any longer, it can be stored in the freezer for several months.
  •  When re-heating, make sure your food is heated thoroughly past 60 degrees to kill any bacteria.

Hone your skills

Often people avoid cooking as they don’t feel like they have enough cooking skills. You’ll only get better with practice! To help you get started, download the cooking on a budget guide (PDF, 1.5mb) and try some of the simple recipes prepared by Virginia and Helen. 

Take your skills even further with a free 'Vegan curries on a budget' workshop on 7 May – register now on Eventbrite. 

This article was adapted from a student workshop hosted by the STAR Team and sponsored by Allianz Global Assistance.

Last updated: 19 April 2021

29 April 2020