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How to Eat Healthy and Save Money in College

Freedom! You’re finally out on your own and headed to college.

You get to make your own choices about how late to stay up, what to wear and what to eat. For many young adults this means a steady diet of pizza, french fries, ice cream and energy drinks.

You know you want to set up healthy habits but it’s not easy. You’ve got a lot of new things on your plate, which means less time to exercise and prepare meals.

Plus, you’ve probably been bombarded with conflicting nutritional advice most of your life.

How can you set up a healthy eating plan?

Many doctors agree that the healthiest way of eating is to decrease processed foods and increase whole foods.(1) A whole-food, plant-based approach is one way to accomplish those goals.

Plus, eating natural, whole foods can be less expensive than eating meat if you plan accordingly.

Why Eat Whole-Food, Plant-Based?

Eating a whole-food, plant-based diet — or WFPB — is one way of ensuring you are getting a wide variety of high-quality nutrients without having to measure or track what you’re eating.

Plus there are some evidence-based benefits of eating this way.

It’s great for…

  • Your body Vegetables, fruits and beans are naturally low in calories and high in fiber. They fill you up so you feel satisfied but not uncomfortable.

  • Disease prevention. Multiple studies have shown that a whole-food plant-based diet can actually reverse signs of heart disease.(2)

  • The planet. It takes 460 gallons of water to produce just one hamburger compared to 13 gallons for one orange.(3)

What Is a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet?

Whole-food, plant-based nutrition consists of four food groups: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and plant-based protein.

The easiest way to approach this is to keep this photo in mind when planning meals or hitting the dining hall.

Photo from:

Here is a quick rundown of what to eat and what to avoid on a whole-food plant-based diet.

Fruit and Vegetables

Vegetables and fruit are packed with vitamins and nutrients! Their high-fiber content is good for your gut health, too. You want to eat 3 - 5 servings of vegetables per day and 2 servings of fruit.

Serving sizes:

  • 1 medium piece of fruit

  • ½ cup chopped fresh fruit or berries

  • ½ cup frozen or canned fruit

  • ¼ cup dried fruit

  • 1 cup raw leafy vegetable

  • ½ cup fresh, frozen or canned vegetables

Shopping Pro Tip: Buy what’s in season! They will be less expensive and taste a lot better.

Seasonal fruits and vegetables will usually be towards the front of the produce section.

Plant-Based Proteins

Plant-based proteins include legumes, tofu, tempeh, nuts & seeds.

You want to eat about 1 cup a day of legumes like black beans, chickpeas, cannellini beans, pinto beans, etc. You can add tofu or tempeh in your protein rotation to shake things up.

Nuts & seeds are high in oil, so you want to limit these to about 1 small handful a day.

Whole Grains

Whole grains include brown rice, oatmeal, whole grain pasta or bread. Quinoa is technically a seed but is usually grouped in this section.

There are several less known whole grains that you can find in the rice aisle of your grocery store such as bulgur, millet, amaranth, whole barley and buckwheat.

You want to aim for 4-5 servings of whole grains per day.

Serving sizes:

  • ½ cup cooked whole grain or whole grain pasta

  • 1 slice of whole grain bread

Shopping Pro Tip: How can you tell if you are buying the right bread or pasta?

  • Check the ingredient list. It should say the word “whole” before the grain.

  • Check the front of the package. It should say “100 percent” whole grain.

  • While you are transitioning to whole grains, start with a pasta that is a blend of whole wheat and refined flours. These are softer than 100% whole grain pasta but still healthier than white pasta.

Animal Products: To Eat or Not Eat?

You might not be ready to jump full in and totally give up all animal products. It’s ok to take a gradual approach. Start out by replacing milk with a non-dairy option. Eat plant-based protein for most of your meals and include meat or eggs occasionally. Highly processed foods like cheese or sausage should be avoided.

If you are ready to give up all or most animal products, you should take a B12 supplement. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products. All vegetarians and vegans run a risk of a B12 deficiency which can cause anemia, nerve damage, neurocognitive changes or even paralysis in the long run.(4)

You can buy B12 in grocery stores or online. Check with your doctor for a specific dosage for your situation.

6 Tips To Help You Eat Healthy Without Breaking the Bank

Knowing what to eat is only half the battle. The other half is developing ways to overcome potential obstacles. As a college student, you have a lot to juggle. Between classes, studying, work and friends, it can be a challenge to also eat right.

Let me show you how eating WFPB is easier than you think.

  • Put a rainbow on your plate.

Headed to the dining hall between classes or study sessions? Keeping in mind the distribution shown in the photo above, add as many colors as you can find to your plate.

This is the easiest way to get a good distribution of nutrients is to get a great variety of colors in one meal. Red tomatoes, yellow bell peppers, green spinach, red cabbage, blueberries -- You get the idea.

  • Always carry snacks.

It’s inevitable that you are going to have moments where you just don’t have time to stop for a meal. Plan ahead by throwing a couple of healthy snacks in your backpack and avoid coughing up $1.50 for a candy bar from the nearest vending machine!

Some ideas that travel well:

  • Apple slices and peanut butter

  • Oranges

  • Baby carrots

  • Roasted seaweed snacks

  • Sabra hummus & pretzel packs

  • Popcorn

  • Granola bars

  • Dried Fruit

  • Almonds, cashew or pistachios

  • Chia squeezes

  • Level up your salad.

The typical iceberg lettuce side salad that you get in restaurants won’t cut it while eating WFPB.

Here are four easy steps to build a salad that will fill you up but won’t make you feel sluggish later.

  1. Use a dinner plate for your salad. Add 2 - 3 fistfuls of greens. Spinach, kale, romaine, spring green mix all have more nutritional value than iceberg lettuce.

  2. Layer on unlimited raw or cooked veggies. It’s always a good idea to add a cancer-fighting cruciferous vegetable to every salad like cabbage, red cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, brussel sprouts or radishes.

  3. Add legumes of your choice. Chickpeas, black beans, mung beans, lentils, cannellini beans are all excellent in salads.

  4. Many salad dressings contain lots of unnecessary oils. Oil is sneaky because it is high in calories but it doesn’t fill you up, so you may end up eating way too much of it. Swap these out for other types of dressings like salsa, hummus, sliced avocados and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Or try making a big batch of oil-free dressing at the beginning of the week.

  • Consider meal prep.

If you have access to a kitchen, try cooking a large batch of whole grains and beans once a week. You can change up the meals by adding different vegetables and sauces.

You will also want to chop up a bunch of veggies during your meal prep time. That way you can snack on raw veggies throughout the week or cook them up and throw them into a balance bowl or a salad.

You’ll find that you can create a delicious, healthy meal for even less money than a fast food meal.

  • Make your reusable water bottle your friend.

Don’t undo your good work of eating high-quality nutrients by drinking empty calories. You’ll want to drink plenty of water throughout the day.

Drinking water in a refillable bottle will save money each time you don’t reach for a soft drink or a pricey energy drink.

  • Find budget-friendly options.

Whole grains, potatoes and beans are some of the least expensive options in the supermarket. Buy in bulk and you’ll have food for a couple of weeks.

Frozen fruits and vegetables are another good budget option.


Eating plant-based doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Keep the picture of the plate in your mind and try to get a variety of foods over the course of a week. By eating whole-food, plant-based most of the time, you will be powering your body with the best nutrients on the planet.

If you have any questions or feel that you would benefit from a personalized plan, contact us at Baltimore Lifestyle and Culinary Medicine.

Getting expert advice is a great investment to set you up for a lifetime of good health.


  1. Whole Fruits and Fruit Fiber Emerging Health Effects

  2. The Water Content of Things

  3. Plant-based diets and cardiovascular health

  4. Why Every Vegan and Vegetarian Needs Vitamin B12

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