Nourishment for High School Graduates: Eating When Time, Space, and Money are Limited

Nourishment for High School Graduates: Eating When Time, Space, and Money are Limited

Welcome to the fifth installment of the Nourishment for High School Graduates series. In the first post, I laid out several of the challenges that young adults face when first leaving home and how these challenges affect nutrition. In the second post, I talked about planning balanced, satisfying meals using some basic patterns. In the third post, I talked about planning balanced, satisfying snacks to help you get between meals and perform at your best all day (or night) long. And in the last post, I talked about how you can make the most of the inexpensive and convenient foods that most of you are likely to eat by nutritionally enhancing your meals with things like vegetables and spices. In today’s post, I’ll talk about how to eat well even though time, space, and money are limited.

Eating on a time-and-space-and-money-Budget:

 When it comes to time, space, and money, you’re not going to have much of any of those. I know I didn’t back in my college days. I worked less than part time, went to school full-time, tried to keep up a social life, and shared one regular-sized or small kitchen with two to five other young women! Overall, this meant that I couldn’t afford to eat pre-prepared food all of the time, but I also didn’t have space to store a lot of inexpensive ingredients for making my own food, nor did I have the time to cook everything from scratch. (And, let’s be real, I wasn’t exactly a trained chef coming straight out of high school although I could manage kitchen basics quite well.)

When I had time, I loved to cook a meal and even share it with friends. I made my dollars stretch as well as I could, but when I look back on those first few years I have to shudder a bit. My diet wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t optimal either. And since I didn’t always take the time to pack good food to school and work with me, I would often end up hitting the vending machines since I could (sort of) afford them and they were nearby. Their healthiest option: toaster pastries. I don’t think my children really understand why I still dislike buying toaster pastries so much. I probably ate my weight in those things. (And yes, I saw the irony considering that I was studying nutrition. I simply didn’t have my act together enough to give myself better options.)

The goal of this post is to help you do better than I did. I’ve learned a lot since then so I can help you. You are going to have to be smart when you shop to be sure that you aren’t wasting your money and that you end up with food you will actually want to eat.

TIME:

No matter how busy you thought you were in high school, you’re probably going to be a lot busier now. Jobs, school, socializing, community, whatever it is, it will keep you busy. If you didn’t learn good time management skills in high school, I would highly recommend using whatever resources are available to you to learn these as early as possible. Many of the obstacles of a small budget, kitchen, and busy schedule can be overcome with good time management alone. And if I’m honest, this is the main reason I kept returning to that vending machine near the office that I worked in.

The following tips aren’t time management tips. I would recommend consulting an expert for those. Rather these are food-related time-saving tips to help minimize the amount of time you have to spend thinking about, shopping for, and preparing food.

  • Some convenience items are worth buying, such as spaghetti sauce and pre-chopped frozen vegetables. Experiment a bit and see what it is you are willing to do for yourself rather than buy read-made and only buy the things that are actually worth it to you.

  • Try cooking once or twice a week. Portion up food into small containers or bags for the rest of the week (you may need to freeze some to keep it safe to eat for a whole week). Make sure you get it put away promptly!

  • Use a slow cooker. Put a chicken breast and some salsa in a small slow cooker on the counter top in the morning before you leave. When you come home, shred it up and use it in burritos, tacos, soups, or whatever you like. There are thousands of easy recipes you can do in very little time and with very simple ingredients that help ensure that you have a meal ready or mostly-ready when you get home (this will save you money too!) I recommend a 1.5 or 2.5 quart-sized slow cooker.

  • When you get home from shopping, go ahead and chop up vegetables right away and then put them away. This can save a lot of time when you’re packing food for the day or cooking meals. And of course you don’t want them to go bad, so make sure you store them properly. A lot of vegetables like to be stored in some water (just be sure to change it out every couple of days). Others, like salads, benefit from having a paper towel in their container. And if you usually do the same thing with a specific vegetable (such as sauteeing onions), you can even pre-cook it and store it that way instead of raw.

  • Pack your lunch and snacks the night before. That way you can grab them right before you head out even if you’ve slept in. No difficult decisions to make in the morning about what to pack and no need to hit the vending machine or a restaurant.
  • Create a routine for your meals. If you know that Monday night means pasta and Tuesday means tacos, this makes it easier to shop and cook. Indecision is a big time drain.

SPACE:

Did I mention that I had to share a regular-sized kitchen with five other girls? That meant that I got to use 1/6 of of the cupboards, 1/6 of the refrigerator, and 1/6 of the tiny above-the-fridge freezer. Over-shopping just wasn’t an option. To stay within those tight bounds means making priorities in what you buy and passing up large items that just won’t fit. It also means that you need to pay attention to what you already have so that you’re using it and it’s not just wasting space.

  • Only buy what you can eat before it goes bad. There’s no point throwing out a third of a gallon of milk every week. Just buy a half-gallon instead. It’ll end up costing about the same amount of money, possibly even less. And, BONUS, fewer sniff tests!

  • Avoid impulse buys, especially big ones. Have a list so that you only bring home what you have room to store and will actually eat.

  • Organize your space in the cupboards, refrigerator and freezer so that you can maximize it and also so that you can see what you have. There’s nothing worse than finding nasty, expired food that you paid for but never ate. And while you’re organizing, make sure you label all your stuff with your name!

  • Regularly take a look through your food to see what you have and make sure that you use it rather than going out and buying more of what you already have and possibly having to throw food away. Do this when you’re making your list. If you still have a half pound of spaghetti, there’s no need to buy more until next week. If there’s a lonely, forgotten zucchini, make sure you throw it in your next dinner so it doesn’t go bad.

  • Only buy food that you will actually eat. I don’t care if cake mix was on sale for fifty cents. If you aren’t going to bake a cake and eat it, it’s not worth the space! Likewise, it doesn’t matter how healthy something is if you won’t actually eat it. Yes, I encourage you to try new things and experiment. (During my freshman year I discovered that bell peppers and grapefruit were delicious even though I wouldn’t touch them as a kid.) But once you’ve learned that you can’t get through that whole thing of celery, stop buying it or split it with someone else…more on that in the next section.

MONEY:

A lot of what we’ve already covered will save you money. Just having a plan and avoiding wasting food by only purchasing what you can and will eat will save you a lot of money. And that’s important because you don’t want to be short on money for rent, gas, your cell phone, or textbooks because you spent it all on eating out. But being budget-conscious is hard when you’re so busy and have so little space. My suggestions here are based on what I have found to be most practical given all of those constraints.

You will notice that I don’t talk much about coupons. This is because I, personally, do not find them to be worth my time. Most of them are for products that I don’t use. Generally, in order to really save money, you have to put in quite a bit of time. Furthermore, you may need space to store extra products that you had to buy in order to use the coupons. Of course if you see a coupon for something that you routinely purchase, go ahead and clip/print that baby! Just remember to actually use it.

  • Watch for sales on foods that you regularly eat. Most other sales you can probably pass up unless the food will take the place of something else that you regularly eat (like getting pork instead of chicken). But when something that you frequently buy comes on sale, buy what you have space to store. $1 off a box of your favorite cereal adds up over time.

  • Eat fruits and vegetables in-season. In general, you’ll know that it’s in season because it will go on sale and cost less. Citrus fruit goes on sale in the winter, melons in the summer. When you buy out of season it’s more expensive, less nutritious, and a LOT less tasty.

  • If you and your roommates have similar tastes, you might try out buying food in bulk together to save money. Or, as in my previous example, split regular-sized items that you know you can’t finish on your own. (I would suggest splitting it up immediately into equal portions and labeling them so that there are no disagreements about whose is whose.) My sister was able to take this a step further. In her house, the 5 or 6 or them would rotate cooking dinner so that each person cooked for the whole house once a week. This can be a great way to save money and time while having some good home-cooked meals. But do be careful and make sure that expectations are clearly set out in the beginning. If anyone feels taken-advantage-of or like they got a raw deal, relationships can tank quickly. That can making living together very difficult.

  • Learn to cook! If you don’t have many skills now, try to build them. In general, the better your cooking skills, the less you can spend on food. For instance, there’s no need to buy expensive “healthy” pancake mix when you have whole wheat flour, milk, eggs, etc. and you know what to do with them! And you don’t have to be a gourmet cook to make your own meals nourishing and satisfying. Start with the basics.

  • If you don’t learn to cook a lot, at least learn to use simple, inexpensive ingredients like eggs, flour, and beans. The possibilities are nearly endless. This will help simplify your grocery shopping and streamline your food storage.

  • Buy generic versions of foods. They’re often made by the same company and are simply packaged differently, and they usually cost quite a bit less. The exception to this is if there are sales or coupons that make a brand-name product cheaper or if you need a specific brand due to food allergy concerns.
  • Check clearance shelves and manager’s specials in grocery stores. Often things that are still perfectly safe to eat but are coming up on their expiration date will be sold for a deep discount. But only buy it if you are going to eat it! Money spent on food you won’t eat is wasted money whether the items were cheap or not.
  • For proteins, remember that meat is expensive. Look for cuts on sale, but don’t limit yourself to meat. Eat cheese, yogurt, and especially beans and lentils. The cheapest way to go is to cook dried beans, lentils, and split peas in a slow cooker, but canned beans are also quite inexpensive and convenient to boot.

  • For whole grains, look for store brands and sales. Just beware of “wheat” masquerading as whole grain. Check the ingredients list to be sure that whole wheat or whole grains are the first ingredient. Whole wheat bread freezes very well so if you have the space you can always freeze what you can’t go through quickly.

  • For dairy products, make sure you can finish it within a week of the sell-by date. Buy cheese in blocks and grate and slice it yourself. Watch for sales. Pack yogurt cups and string cheese with you for satisfying snacks throughout the day. Just be sure to take along an ice pack or eat them within about 2-4 hours, depending on the temperature.

What about you? What are your best tips for saving time, space, and money when it comes to food? Post your suggestions in the comments.

OTHER POSTS FROM THE NOURISHMENT FOR HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATES SERIES:

The Challenges to Good Health and Nutrition

Meal Planning

Snacking for Health and Productivity

Upgrading Your Cheap and Easy Meals

Basics of Vegetarian Nutrition



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