Meals for Broke Students Who Are Sick of Pizza Rolls

I like food. I’m also a grad student living on her own for the first time since undergrad who isn’t used to supplying her own meals and knowing what things cost. So I’m trying to devise new meals that are cheap and easy, but still relatively nutritious.

As I mentioned last week, I’m just starting my Ph.D. and still adjusting to a whole lot of things. On top of workload and learning how to live harmoniously with my roommate, I’m still figuring out how to feed myself.

Yes, that’s ridiculous. I know. But I was staying with my parents. I added things I wanted onto their Fresh Direct order and cooked with vegetables from their CSA. Basically, if I was eating at home, it was on their dime. Now it’s all me.

This is a battle for everyone the first time they live like an adult. I don’t have the time, space or money to cook elaborate meals, plus it’s hard to justify that kind of thing for one person, but I also can only take so many of the three-cheese Totino’s pizza rolls and 5 for $5 Annie’s mac and cheese (I like cheese, can you tell?).

I devised something interesting this week. I had a bag of Israeli couscous (that’s the larger grain – and admittedly this was a generous donation from my mother), so I cooked that, then fried up a can of black beans (cheap!) and some pine nuts (left over from a past recipe) with sriracha sauce, then I tossed all of that together in a bowl with some oil and salt. It was a tasty and filling vegetarian lunch that also kept really well. To jazz it up a little when I reheated the leftovers, I stir-fried a little tofu to add in. For non-vegans, a little parmesan cheese is a nice touch, too. If you can’t get the couscous, this would probably work as well with rice or a smaller pasta like orzo.

Really, pasta is a good cheap meal base. Just a plate with some butter and cheese, plus maybe the cheap protein source of your choice, can go a long way. If you want to get a little fancy, you can make it into a casserole with sauce, cheese (are you seeing a pattern here?) and any other vegetable or protein you want.

Since we want some semblance of nutrition, we should probably talk about veggies. This is a tricky one for me – not only am I used to cooking huge amounts, I’m also kind of a produce snob. I’m adjusting to learning to buy just a couple of things at once so they don’t go bad, and not always having to get the purest and most organically self-righteous vegetable plucked directly from the womb of Mother Earth herself. But getting a single squash, which I then cut up and saute or bake, is enough. If I buy six of them, like I did when I was staying with and often cooking for my family, they’ll be a bag of rotten liquid in my fridge before I get to cooking. But if you’re buying vegetables, a stir fry can be a great fast meal. Whatever produce you have, chop it and toss it in a pan. Add some soy sauce or other flavor. Throw in some tofu or, if you eat it, cut up meat for protein. Voila! Serve it over rice or pasta.

The best way to roast a vegetable, in my book, is extremely easy. Take said veggie (I’ve done this with yellow squash, zucchini, asparagus, string beans, and brussels sprouts), cut it up if necessary, then spread it in a single layer on a greased cookie sheet. Drizzle some olive oil over the top. Take a lemon, cut off several slices and lay them over the veggies. If you want an extra punch, take a few cloves of garlic and place them on the pan. Sprinkle some salt on it. Bake it until they’re a little crispy.

Don’t underestimate the quesadilla. Tortillas are fairly cheap, and you can take some shredded cheese and whatever other things you want in there (beans, veggies, proteins), then fry it up. If you have salsa or sour cream, dip it in that.

For snacks, I’m a big fan of apples and peanut butter, or I buy pita chips in bulk bags. Hummus is really easy to make. A jar of tahini can be a little pricey at once, but you use so little of it that over time it’s actually quite inexpensive. And the other ingredients – chick peas, lemon juice, olive oil – are either cheap or more than likely something that you’ve already got. And it goes great with carrot sticks or pita chips from the giant bulk bag. Or, let’s be honest, on a spoon.

Breakfast can be tricky. If you eat them, eggs and bacon (soy or meat) can be expensive, especially if you’re a snob like me who wants her eggs to be from happy, free-roaming chickens instead of the ones living in deplorable conditions. So I don’t buy them that often, considering both the price and the fact that I an skeptical to the claim that the “cage free” ones my grocery store carries are actually that. But they’re a nice occasional treat and source of morning protein. I do like to get a big thing of oatmeal fairly cheap, then add in nuts and a little maple syrup. If there’s a good fruit in season, that can go on top as well. Another idea is to take a bowl of Greek yogurt (or whatever yogurt you can afford) and add in nuts, dried fruit and either honey or maple syrup.

The blog Budget Bytes has a lot of good recipes, and lays out the approximate cost of each. Anyone else have any tips or recipes for the poor, time-crunched student who is tired of frozen meals and macaroni?

By [E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.

10 replies on “Meals for Broke Students Who Are Sick of Pizza Rolls”

Here’s some tips that always helped me.

1) If you’re broke, worrying about organic/free-range/etc. food is not a good idea. Studies have shown that the organic veggies do not necessarily have more nutrients. Of course, you may want to buy organic to reduce exposure to pesticides (the health effects of which have not been thoroughly studied). In that case, I’d suggest that you avoid the “dirtier” produce  while not worrying too much about the “cleaner” ones ( You should also thoroughly wash produce (possibly w/ a vinegar solution and/or brush). But don’t waste your money on those veggie washes & don’t use soap:

2) Avoid processed and prepped food as much as possible. Any sort of prepping increases the cost. Don’t buy pre-chopped broccoli; the head is going to be much cheaper (Tip: the “stalk” is very edible once peeled). In fact, cutting your own fruit and veggies is generally a good idea. Avoid minute rice; a portion of rice takes ~30 mins to cook and is really cheap. Buy a big tub of yoghurt/cottage cheese and portion your own (throw in some fruit, too). If you have a slow cooker, cooking your own beans makes for super-cheap meals. Soak overnight, throw in the slow cooker and cook in the morning, then it’s ready for dinner. The big one: cut up your own lettuce.

3) Watch your liquid foods. You’re better off, nutrition- and cost- wise, eating an apple instead of drinking some apple juice. If you really want juice, get a pitcher (from the local thrift) and use the frozen juice from concentrate– it tastes virtually the same as bottled. Cutting out soda is one of the easiest ways to save money (and calories). Buy coffee and/or tea and make your own instead of hitting up Starbucks. (I love my pour-over coffee thing.) If you’re pressed for time, the programmable makers are fairly inexpensive. Cut back on the alcohol! Yes, enjoy booze myself. But it’s mostly empty calories (except for maybe wine). Not boozing might be hard, but don’t be that person living off ramen and beer. Don’t buy bottled water (this can be said for nearly every city in the U.S., not sure about other countries). Get yourself a reusable bottle for water. The one exception to the liquid foods might be milk.

4) Inexpensive protein sources. Dairy, egg, and soy (tofu & tempeh) are very inexpensive sources of protein and are very quick to make. If you buy chicken, don’t buy the boneless. Not only is it cheaper, the bones also add more flavor to the meat. It does take more time to cook a bone-in piece of meat, but it doesn’t necessarily take more prep time.*

5) Microwave can still be your friend, even when you are avoiding the prepped/ processed frozen foods. For example, you can make a “baked” potato in the microwave: . You can steam almost any kind of veggie by adding a couple tbsp of water to the bowl, covering, and zapping (then just add butter/oil + seasonings to taste). This works for fresh or frozen veg.

6) Produce: buy in season. If you have one in your area, check out your local farmer’s market & compare prices to your local grocer.

7) Plan your weekly menus in advance and stick to it. I will also plan to have left-overs for 2 meals or so. This helps you avoid impulse buying as well. Be mindful- don’t let your food go to waste.

*Cheap and easy (but not necessarily super fast), one pot meal: Chicken and Rice. Season 4 chicken thighs or legs with salt & pepper. Brown chicken on both sides (can skip this step). Set aside. Add 1 c rice, 1 1/2 c water or stock, salt/pepper/basil/etc., 1/2 chopped onion, 1/2 chopped bell pepper to pot (& optional bit of white wine, beer, lemon, or vinegar) to pot. Place chicken back on top of water/rice mixture. Bring to a boil and then lower heat to simmer for 45 minutes. Makes 2-4 servings.

Yeah, I’m becoming OK with my produce not being organic, but I still want my eggs and dairy to be from humanely-raised animals. Not for my own health, but for ethical reasons.

I still have to get to my farmers market. Weirdly, the one in my neighborhood that’s walking distance is only on Wednesdays. I did buy some frozen veggies, though, so that I have something that won’t go bad before I get to eating it.

Fortunately, my tap water tastes decent. I have a Brita, but I’m not bothering to replace the filter so it’s just to keep some water cold. My parents got me a Keurig, so I got a reusable cup to cut back on waste and cost.


My go-to lacto-ovo protein source for mornings is cottage cheese.  A container of that and a bag of frozen fruit = breakfast for a week.  I’ll add an English muffin if I’m really hungry.

A quick, tasty go-to lunch or dinner for me recently has been a can of tuna packed in oil, mixed with a can of white beans, with a splash of vinegar and mustard.  Mix together and add dried basil.  Served over cucumbers or have on a pita.  Not vegetarian, I admit, but quick and tasty!  I’ve been trying to come up with a veg* substitue for the tuna, and I’m open to suggestions if anyone has them.

You are veg*, but for those who like meat, or veg* sausage, brown up some italian sausage, throw in a can of white beans and a ton of torn kale, salt it, red pepper it, and then pour some broth (chicken or veggie) over the top, cover it and BAM.  Delicious, sort of soupy, really filling meal.  For days.  If you’ve got some day old bread hanging out on your counter, it gets even MORE delicious.

This can also go in the brinner article but egg sandwiches! As a vegetarian I find eggs to be a cheap source of protein. I am lucky because I can shop at Trader Joes and a co-op and can find 1 dozen eggs that are of the kind variety for less than $4. Buy a loaf of bread-$3 roughly if it’s the healthy kind. You can buy the big sourdough loaf for less than 3 and 1 piece cut in half is for a full size sandwich. A packet of cheese $3-4 and you have 12 meals. I have a garden and I add a slice of tomato to the sandwich for nutritional value. If you stick to yogurt or cereal in the morning that can be cheap if you buy the big thing of yogurt. For dinner pasta is cheap. So are a lot of vegetable soups. You can make a big batch of veggie soup with an onion, celery, carrots, garlic, leeks, and white beans and seasoning/broth and it’s tasty.

I feel compelled to tell my brokeass student/horrible food story:

The mister and I were living off next to nothing the first year we were married and we had one of those sandwich maker things — not like a fancy panini press, but like your basic $10 thing on sale from Walmart. We would buy a bottle of the cheapest BBQ sauce ($1), the cheapest loaf of bread ($1 at the bread outlet down the road), and the cheapest bag of tortilla chips ($1).  We would put tortilla chipss and BBQ sauce in between two slices of bread and put it in the sandwich grill thing. The BBQ-soggy chips tasted vaguely meat-like. This would be lunch for a week.

Lesson: Don’t be like us.

If you eat rice regularly, invest in a rice cooker (the decent models are $20-30 new). Seriously. It’s zero effort and makes perfect rice. Also, throw in some frozen veggies or canned beans and you have a good, filling meal.

My rice cooker and my electric kettle got me through college, including three summers without regular access to cafeteria food. It’s worth hunting, checking goodwill, or as a gift. Seriously.

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