Yes, this is something I have dealt with and it IS doable. There are tons of variables for this particular situation and I will try to give options for a variety of circumstances. I write college in the title because I think this is the most common type of person searching for this information, but I hope I can help anyone operating on a budget.
1. Use what is given to you — campus dining
You probably have access to on campus dining in some capacity. This may be complete shit or it might be pretty good. Either way, take advantage of this as much as possible. My experience is that while sometimes there are tasty choices available, finding a meal with a decent protein content is rather difficult. I do not necessarily blame the schools, protein-containing foods (aka meats) are just more expensive. Many schools are now providing nutrition information for campus dining establishments and if yours doesn’t you should push and prod them for information. Either way, you should be able to come up with decent estimates for what you’re taking in from there. If you’re counting calories, my suggestion is to just keep your estimate consistent.
Eat whatever wholesome foods are afforded to you in this context. My school had a nice selection of fruits and vegetables. We even had a “to go” program that allowed me to do some stocking up. You should have red lights flashing in your head when you see a meat-based meal…eat it. Whether you’re going to use it or not, most colleges are going to make you buy a meal plan. You may as well maximize your value and keep money in your pocket. This isn’t free license to load up on the pizza every day, though.
2. Real food is cheap
Fruits and vegetables, yes. Think about how little some of these basic foods cost. A weeks worth of bananas would be less than a couple bucks, more than a week of apples for a five-spot, 2.5 pounds of oatmeal for three dollars, etc. These are low cost foods and you have to make the most of them, especially since you know deep down that they are good for you. More importantly for a student, anyone can prepare these foods. Maybe grab some cinnamon or something of the like to make your oatmeal taste better, I usually do that and add sucralose (a big bag of generic is fairly cheap and lasts forever). Based on your personal tastes and selection, you can kind of take it from here. The gist of this is to stock up on these whole foods that need little preserving and little preparation.
If you have any access to conventional kitchenware, like a common room oven, you’ve hit the jackpot. If you’re like me, you have probably bought some pre-cooked chicken or other meat (frozen or refrigerated) and paid an arm and a leg for it. However, this allowed you to microwave it as an easy prep that kept you from leaving your room. And if you can’t access an oven, you may have to consider this as an option. Most campuses I’ve been to, however, have at least limited common access to a kitchen. Buy regular, refrigerated, uncooked chicken breast (or another meat if you’re feeling cheeky) as this is the cheapest “preparation” due to its unpreparedness. Acquire a pan that many ovens actually have inside them already and broil that chicken. Broil more than you can eat at once, you can refrigerate it and reheat for future meals! This is cheaper than buying pre-cooked and you’re not dealing with preservatives or whatever else may be dumbing down the quality of those pre-cooked options.
3. “Shortcut” options
Some people actually have a hard time getting enough calories. Others, even with considerable effort, struggle to meet the protein demands of a proper resistance training diet. Of course there are some that just have a hard time feeling satiated or at least satisfying the sweet tooth. I have options for everyone.
Calorie dense foods that won’t make you feel too guilty
-Don’t buy “weight gainers” in this situation unless you really just despise eating food
-Whole milk/chocolate milk (in moderation)
These are just some that come to mind that aren’t devoid of nutritional value but can pack a calorie punch without making you feel overfull. Many will find that these are good to eat just because they’re yummy.
Whole foods are preferred, there’s no way around it. Don’t use the following option as a primary protein source, only use it to help you AFTER you’ve maximized your protein intake via food. Do not make the new dieter/trainee’s mistake of consuming protein powder as your main dietary source of protein. Yes, protein powder is my suggestion here. My experience is that buying online will allow you the best selection and by far the best selection of flavors that you might even look forward to drinking, but that can be up to you. There will be another post one day describing some of the better tasting protein products. The source of protein in this case doesn’t matter much, can be whey, egg, casein, soy, a blend of all of them. Just don’t get something with a ton of added sugar or fats, you don’t need that unless perhaps you fall into the above category and hate eating peanut butter.
Low-cal, no-cal options for satiation
The old school way is to slam a good deal of water upon the first twinge of hunger. This is in fact rather effective due to the weight in your stomach and the waiting game before eating can often make you reconsider your initial impulse to stuff your face. There are other options though.
For something solid(ish), you can go after some sugar-free yogurt. A cup of this stuff is 5-15 calories, so you’d have to eat a lot for it to be an issue. Don’t spoil it by putting whip cream on there, though. This is very cheap also.
Diet soda. If you’re an alarmist about artificial sweeteners, you can ignore this and wait for some posts on this very subject coming through my pipeline. If you’re sensible, you should think about having some diet soda. I strongly advise against the needless abuse of stimulants when you could be saving your tolerance for selective ergogenic use, so my weapon of choice is diet root beer. There are some other options though. Flavoring systems have drastically improved and even if you don’t care for it at first, you get used to it rather quickly. I now find “regular” soda to be kind of yucky. These drinks are zero cal, taste good, and you can drink quite a bit of it and never know the difference. A big liter of something like this is very inexpensive and if you buy a store’s generic, it can be very cheap in cans as well.
4. No variety? No problem! Seasonings save the day
One of the easiest things you can do to save some cash is not bend over backwards trying to have different foods everyday. To this day it is rare that I do not eat some chicken, oatmeal, an apple, and a banana every single day. I typically will have at least 1 serving of protein powder in skim milk as well. The rest of your nutritional needs can be varied as well with some of those other low-cost options or your campus dining (if applicable).
To keep your meats less boring, you should start experimenting with seasonings, marinades, rubs, etc. My favorite preparation of any meat is with lemon juice and pepper, sometimes even lemon pepper. If you’re watching sodium (which is unnecessary unless you have high blood pressure), Mrs. Dash has a decent lemon pepper available. Lemon juice also has zero calories. I also love Lawry’s seasoning salt as well as Steak n Shake’s house seasoning.
Other options include a variety of marinades, just be mindful of the fact that most of these have some caloric value. BBQ naked chicken can be awesome. You can also check out Walden Farms products, they have an entire line of things that are zero calorie like BBQ sauce, pancake syrup, etc. I haven’t tried all of their stuff though, so don’t hold me accountable if you don’t like something. There is also a “fat burning” hot sauce out there called Thermogenesauce, might be worth a look if you want a no-cal option that has some good fat burning ingredients as well.
You can do it
You may find my suggestions not entirely useful or you may end up with a completely different routine in the same situation. That’s great. The end goal here is to let you know that just because you have budget restrictions, you need not end or hurt your quest to change your physique. Eating out and buying a variety of expensive foods is great, but you can do it on a budget as well. Don’t let your circumstances stand in the way of your gains!