We’re all familiar with the student stereotype. We are kebab-eating, binge-drinking, exercise-avoiding slobs, right? It’s a big misconception that students don’t care what they consume. Yes, it’s true that there are some who live off takeaways, microwave meals or beans on toast night after night. But the truth is, most of us want to feel happy and healthy, and there’s no doubt that our diet dictates how we feel as we go about our daily routine. It’s fair to say that the person whose idea of a balanced diet is experimenting with a new type of cheese for their pasta is not going to wake up feeling fresh and ready to tackle the day. Nor is the person who’s had a heavy weekend going to rock up to sports training on Monday feeling fabulous if they’re not properly fed. We need to nourish our bodies and feed our brains as best we can, to energise and stimulate us, and protect us from the various lurgies that uni throws our way.

After first year, the initial euphoria of realising that we don’t have to eat catered halls food every night is quickly engulfed by panic as we realise that we don’t actually know how to cook a proper meal. Every student is aware of the importance of proper nutrition. Some of us don’t care, but most of us do, and we just don’t know exactly how to go about cooking healthy, wholesome meals on a tight budget. The trouble is, many of us assume that healthy ingredients are expensive and more effort to prepare, and often this just isn’t the case.

I’m not trying to persuade you that sugar is the devil, or to give up fizzy drinks, or to never touch a fry-up again. Most people are aware of what’s healthy and what’s not, and treats and indulgences are great in moderation. What really helps is making the little changes to your diet – introducing a little variation, experimenting with new grains or vegetables and swapping shop-bought produce for homemade alternatives. Here are a few tips on how to make your student meals that little bit healthier and you that little bit happier.

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Various pulses

Swap cheap meat for pulses. Meat is the most expensive part of a meal, and sometimes if your budget is too tight you might have to cut it out. Most of the big supermarkets usually do a 3 for £10 deal on chicken, pork and salmon, but if this is still too pricey, it’s best to avoid cheap meat like value burgers or bacon altogether and look for your protein elsewhere. Lentils, kidney beans and chickpeas are fantastic sources of protein and fibre, and as well as tasting delicious they have the added bonus of being super cheap (a tin of Lidl chickpeas is 40p). Green/puy lentils taste great when packed with mint and herbs, and red lentils go perfectly in stews and curries – my housemate makes an amazing garlicky daal with red lentils. Chickpeas are perfect in rice salads at lunchtime, as well as in Moroccan style dinner dishes, and they really bulk out any meal as well as giving it a great texture.

Choose more exciting carbohydrates than pasta and rice. Pasta and rice are so easy to cook, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly and stodgy white carbs can often make you bloat and feel sleepy. To keep energy levels up, swap white pasta and rice for wholemeal pasta and brown or wild rice, or, for something new, try wholemeal couscous, giant couscous, bulgar wheat, pearl barley or quinoa. The latter few are slightly harder to get hold of (I go to Matta’s on Bold Street or Tesco superstore), but they are worth searching for because they are high in fibre, iron and taste really, really good. Quinoa and bulgar wheat take the same amount of time to cook as pasta and rice, and go with all the same dishes. 

Couscous, lentil and chickpea salad with cranberries

Couscous, lentil and chickpea salad

Make big meals in bulk. Making a big spaghetti bolognese or chilli on a Sunday night is a really great way of preparing for the week ahead and saving money on meals. You can keep it in tuppaware in the fridge or freezer, and eat it as and when you want it, with different carbohydrates and sides. I buy my mince from Lidl or Aldi as they do great quality lean beef mince which is very inexpensive. I also chop mushrooms up very small and add them to bulk out the dish, they add a lovely nutty flavour. Adding a tiny bit of BBQ sauce and putting your bolognese in the oven on low heat for an hour are also great ways of making sure it’s bursting with flavour.

Don’t be afraid to use frozen veg and fruit. Some people argue that freezing vegetables reduces their nutritional value, but this is actually completely false. Frozen vegetables such as sweetcorn, peas, sliced peppers and spinach and fruit like blueberries and raspberries are all fantastic. Aside from being cheaper to buy, frozen fruit and veg is great because you don’t have to worry about it going off, and you can always have something healthy at home. Fresh produce is delicious, but planning meals can be tricky with a student lifestyle and so this way you don’t have to worry about use-by dates.

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Frozen peas are a healthy student staple

Make your own sauces. Shop-bought pasta or curry sauces are really convenient, but they’re often packed with sugar, salt or additives and they don’t taste nearly as nice as homemade alternatives. Passata (tomato puree) and chopped tomatoes can be bought infused with herbs and garlic (Asda do really great cartons of these for 50p), and these provide a great base for lots of sauces. Add anything you like – onions, veg, stock, wine, pulses, meat – it will taste twice as nice and be much better for you.