Planning Balanced Meals on a Budget



Tips for eating/shopping on a budget:

Cooking at home can save you time and money and is usually a better nutrition buy as well. You may think you don’t have the time or the skills to cook for yourself, but really it doesn’t have to be complicated and with a little pre- planning you can make it work. Here are some helpful tips to get you started:

  • Buy and cook more fresh foods. Make nutritious and economical choices bycooking at home more often with fresh items or compliment a convenience item with fresh sides.  Perhaps start with one or two meals prepared at home, if eating out often, and gradually build on this as time allows. Don’t buy fresh for the whole week as the food may spoil by the time you get to it.  Buy fresh for only the first day or two of the week and then use frozen or canned options.
  • Ask about discounts.Your local grocer may have student discounts or a loyalty / discount card.
  • Use coupons to help you save money.Remember coupons only help if they are for things you would usually buy. It helps to still price compare to get the best deals.
  • Consider store brands—they usually cost less.These products have a special label or store name. Price compare with brand names to get the best deal.
  • Convenience usually costs more.Be aware that you can save money if you don’t mind a little more work. Examples: buy whole chicken and cut into pieces; shred or grate your own cheese; make your own yogurt smoothie; and consider rice in bulk instead of instant rice mixes.
  • Look at unit prices.These are usually posted on the shelf under the product label showing how much the item costs per ounce, per pound, etc. Compare unit prices of brands or different sizes for the best value.
  • Try to buy in bulk. Only buy a size you can use before it expires. If you buy meat in bulk, decide what you need to use that day and freeze the rest in portion-sized packages. 
  • Focus on economical fruits and vegetables in season. Produce such as bananas, apples, oranges, cabbage, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, dark-green leafy vegetables, green peppers, and regular carrots are usually less expensive especially when in season.  (see produce guide on the following page)
  • Consider frozen vegetables and fruit. A common misconception is that frozen fruit and vegetables are not healthy, however they are usually frozen at their peak ripeness when most nutrient-dense. Therefore,  frozen versions are good alternatives for students on a budget, especially during winter months when fresh produce is limited or more expensive. Some canned versions may be budget friendly as well, however, canned vegetables are generally higher in sodium so opt for the no or low sodium options more often. Tip:  rinsing canned veggies helps remove some of the sodium.
  • Reduce food waste.For less food waste, buy or cook only what you need, freeze leftovers.
  • Don’t shop while hungry / Resist temptations at the check-out.Snack foods and candy are conveniently located near the cash register for impulse buying. 
  • Share meals with roommates. This can be both a budget and time saver. Pool resources with roommates and consider meal planning and buying some items in bulk. You can save time by rotating a shopping/cooking schedule. Plan your meals and create shopping lists together.

Tips for meal planning: (Make it fun with themes or rotate meal planning menus)

Tips for creating a shopping list:

  • Be sure to check what you already have on hand.
  • Use your meal plan to create your list. 
  • Don’t forget to add in pantry staples that need replenishing.


Shopping Resources:

  • Organize your list by store
  • Organize your list by sections (produce, frozen foods, canned goods, etc...)
  • Consider downloading a shopping list app so you will never forget your list.

Whole FoodsAmazon Prime member awards, online ordering and free delivery, recipes online.

However, even with these awards this can still be a pricier option than other stores.

Durham Food Coop: members receive discounts, Co-op Basics- shopping items at consistent everyday low cost, $5 weekly lunch special, Meatless Mondays, $3 dinners on Thursdays.

Harris Teeter: VIC member card savings,Student discount 5% off lowest price, Fuel points savings.

Food Lion: MVP member card savings.

Costco or Sam’s Club (for bulk items), Trader Joe’s (Chapel Hill), Aldi, Li Ming’s Global Mart, Compare Foods. Check websites or sign up for weekly special emails.


Farmers’ Markets:
Durham, Carrboro, Duke University Hospital, Raleigh; dates may vary

Seasonal produce guide: 
Check with your local grocer or farmers’ market for seasonal produce in your area


Sharpening your cooking skills, if you haven’t already, is a great opportunity to have some fun, de-stress, and take control of your diet and budget! Once you have all the basic cooking tools, you may be surprised how easily you can make an inexpensive, nutritious meal. Preparing a big meal on Sunday, such as a soup, casserole, or a roasted chicken, can help create multiple lunches or dinners for busy weekdays. Preparing meals in batches for leftovers can save you the time and money of having to buy food on campus, and can help stretch your food budget.

Basic Kitchen Tool Checklist:

  • Skillet (8-10”), cutting boards (1 for raw meat and one for cheese, veggies and breads), chef’s knife, pots 4 quart and 8 quart, large spoon, measuring spoons, measuring cups, sheet pan, peeler and a mesh sieve (you can use it as a colander or strainer). These are the basics, you may choose to add to your collection once you get cooking.

Tips for Cooking and Freezing Larger Batches: 

  • Plan items that are easy to freeze such as quick breads, muffins, soups, casseroles or marinated meats
  • Have on hand freezable containers of varying sizes such as freezer bags, containers for 4 servings or single serving size containers for grab-and-go lunches
  • You can freeze batches of cooked rice for quick stir-fry meals
  • Be sure to label your container with item name and cook/freeze date
  • USDA information on freezing foods and food safety
  • For information on food storage and freshness, download the FoodKeeper app

Resources for Recipes on a Budget:

The What’s Cooking? USDA Mixing Bowl is an interactive tool to help with healthy meal planning, cooking, and grocery shopping. The site features a searchable database of healthy recipes, options to save recipes to a cookbook, print recipe cards, and share recipes via social media.

For a printer-friendly version, click here. 

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