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Strategies to ward off hunger in college

6 ways to avoid becoming the stereotypical starving student.

By Karen Datko Dec 16, 2009 12:01PM

This post comes from Linsey Knerl at partner blog Wise Bread.


Back in 1996, I was a partial-scholarship private-college student with the “gold” meal plan. Despite having access to food almost anytime I wanted, I often went hungry. Why? I was a horrible planner, a bit bad with my time, and I really had no knowledge of food savings strategies.

Here are six things I finally learned about how to get more from your very limited college food budget.


Know how much your meal plan (really) costs. Unless you were my good friend “Hacker” -- with a full-ride scholarship and grants coming out of his pajama drawer -- most of us private-college kids had a $20,000-plus-a-year college loan to look forward to. This didn’t cover the meal plan (which ranged in cost from $1,000 to a few thousand dollars). Assuming you could get a Stafford loan or some private funding to pay for your café dollars, this was still a fairly pricey investment. At the 3.5% to 5% interest rate that many of us paid on those loans over a period of 10 to 30 years, that’s a pretty hefty lunch tab.


Why am I stressing this? While many of my friends opted to ditch Taco Night at the caf to grab a bucket of chicken from the nearest fast-food place, they didn’t realize that those uneaten tacos would some day have to be paid for, and at a nice little interest accumulation, as well. You thought buying burgers on a credit card was stupid; passed-over tuna casserole on a government loan is even more ridiculous, if you ask me.

Pretend the vending machine doesn’t exist. Even after taking a heavy workload both semesters of my freshman year, I still managed to work 15 to 20 hours a week at a local day care center. That money was hard-earned, but easily spent. The biggest consumption of my funds came from that evil vending machine that greeted me on the way in (and out) of my dorm lobby several times a day. Crunchy Cheetos, Peanut M&Ms, and a bag of unpopped popcorn were my weakness, and at 60 cents a pop (which was high then, believe me), my cash was hard to hold on to.


Had I any financial sense at the time, I would have begged a ride from a buddy and gone to the nearest dollar store. The mega-packs of all those junky delights were about $2 for six, making easy savings if I was willing to plan for it.


Remember that vending purchases don’t come with receipts, show up on your credit card statement, or get written in your check register -- making them evil for your budget. It’s best to stay way, completely. And I won’t even tell you how my diet suffered from the easy access of those nutritionally worthless foods.


Make friends with the food service workers. I’m not suggesting that you pretend to buddy up to anyone, in hopes of scoring free food. What I am saying is that it pays to know the people who work at the school cafeteria, because many of them are fellow college students.


In my case, I was great friends with a few of the evening workers, and this was a huge benefit. I could easily find out if they were a little lean on the sirloin steaks that night (giving me the edge to get in line early and grab one before they were all gone), how awful the chicken parmesan really was, and whether the ice cream machine would be working that evening.


(It all may seem trivial to you, but when college kids are literally sprinting between classes and hoping to get the biggest bang for their cafeteria buck, these are important tips to eating better and filling up fast.)


Cook with a group. The cleanest place in my dorm room lobby was the kitchen. It was hardly ever used, except for when the weekly Dungeons & Dragons group got together. While I won’t pretend to know what they were doing (I’m not a fan), I did know one thing: They made an awesome meal when they met. Whether it be a pot of chili, a couple pans of lasagna, or some Mexican dish that made the entire dorm building drool, these kids could cook -- and they did so on a budget.


While it was impractical for me to plunk down dollars on a couple of pounds of ground beef, three cans of chili beans, two cans of tomatoes, a fresh onion, and spices, it was not inconceivable for six students to do so as part of a group effort. There was no need to store the food (as they bought it fresh right before the meeting), and there were never any leftovers to deal with. These kids figured out the joy of combining resources and doing something as a group, and they ate way better than I ever did.


Shop sales for the holidays. My hungriest days were when the cafeteria shut down for the holidays. With more than 85% of the campus vacated for the season, I was usually at school, by myself, eating from that evil vending machine. With no mini fridge to take advantage of, I honestly believed that Ramen noodles and warm Dr. Pepper were my destiny. I had no idea of the sales that preceded each holiday season, and how it was possible to take advantage in preparation for the hungry days.


While it was impractical to view ads online in 1996, now there is no excuse for a wired student not to be able to see the weekly grocery specials at the local store. Even if you don’t coupon, the weeks leading up to the holidays offer many staple items, often at 50% savings, that a hungry kid could warm up in the microwave -- or even sauté, broil, or bake in the abandoned dorm kitchen.


If you budget (and you really should), put aside a little extra grocery money for the pre-holiday sales. You’ll be glad you did.


Work at a food business. This is the last alternative for many, but it really worked for me. Getting employment at a restaurant, diner or bakery is a reasonable way for many college students to fortify the food budget (and not just in earnings), and many food businesses are truly college student-friendly.


While it is true that many of the chain and fast-food restaurants won’t offer you free meals (and 50% off a meal laden in calories and fat is a waste of even 50% of your money), there are healthy menu options at many establishments that are worth buying at a discount.


The best way to work the employee benefit system in your favor, however, is to work for a mom and pop café or restaurant and work hard to earn their respect. Many of the places I worked for in college were more than happy to let us have one meal off the menu at the end of our busy shift, and these were often the best meals I ever had. (Lobster bisque, lemon ravioli, fresh pesto angel hair, and cheese soufflé made the college cuisine look like frozen dinners.) This was also a great introduction to the hospitality business, which, for some, can be a worthwhile career path after college.


There's no reason to go hungry at college, provided you plan a little and get over your need to feel comfortable all the time. Stretch yourself to try something new, and by all means, learn to budget. It'll be the most valuable thing you learn in college -- I promise (and at far less than what you'll pay per credit hour for that American government course).


Related reading at Wise Bread:

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