How to be thrifty and eat healthy

HEALTHY eating isn’t impossible or expensive. As Carene Chong writes, it’s simply a matter of shopping well, cooking smart and avoiding junk.  

Photo: Yu Cheng Chong

If your apartment is littered with takeaway menus and your refrigerator is empty except for a lone can of soft drink or two, you’re not alone.

The international student life isn’t so glamorous when you have a dinner dilemma and no parentals to cook for you. It always ends the same, that inevitable call to the pizza shop, extra pounds on the scale and less and less money in your bank account.

But there is another way. Eating at home has a bit of bad rap among international students. We all think it’s more expensive and time consuming, but with some careful planning and smart shopping, preparing your meals at home can be cheap and easy.  Not to mention, much healthier.

So here are a few pointers to get you started on your path to a healthier lifestyle and bank balance.

Step 1: Cut the junk and start eating right

It might seem glaringly obvious, but as RMIT’s head of food sciences Professor Neil Mann points out, some people are complacent about the damage junk food is doing to their bodies.

“Most people understand the damage, but surprisingly a lot of students just don’t heed the warnings,” he says.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends a huge portion of our diet should consist of carbohydrates like wholegrain, rice and pasta, as well as generous servings of vegetables and fruits followed by smaller servings of meat and dairy. And of course, fresh is always best. In other words, the less processed food, the better.

Need an example to drive that  point home?

“Compare an apple to an apple pie,” Prof Mann says.

“An apple is tremendously healthy with low energy and lots of vitamins and minerals. An apple pie, on the other hand, has ten times more energy but is also high in fat and sugar without any of the nutrition the body needs.”

Queen Victoria Market is located on the corner of Victoria and Elizabeth streets. Photo: Jonathan Lin via Flickr

Step 2: Skip the supermarkets and make more trips to the local market

“People need to really think about where they buy their food as the prices some smaller stores charge for food are astronomical,” Professor Mann says.

“If they go to markets like Queen Victoria market and pick up their vegetables and fruit from there, they will save a lot of money.”

To use the apple analogy again, you can buy a kilo of granny smith apples from the Queen Victoria market for $2. At the major supermarket, the same bag, will cost you $3.97

To make a super saving, University of Melbourne’s food and nutrition expert Professor Kerin O’Dea advises students to be strategic about the time they visit.

“Fresh fruits and vegetables go very cheaply later on a Saturday at the Queen Victoria Market. In the hour before the market closes store holders want to sell off any remaining produce,” she says.

“That also applies to meat and fish, so early afternoons are the best time to visit.”

But if bargain hunting crowds and loud sellers puts you off, try shopping at supermarkets with lower prices like Aldi on Franklin St. And while you’re there, avoid the temptation to buy junk altogether.

“I say when shopping at the supermarket, stick to the outside aisles because the inside aisles are the ones that have all the junk food,” Professor O’Dea says.

Frozen vegetables are as nutritious as fresh vegetables. Photo: Steven Depolo via Flickr

Step 3: Forget organic and go fresh or frozen

“A lot of people are campaigning very strongly for organic food, mostly for environmental reasons, but there is really no evidence that organic is better,” Professor O’Dea says.

“What you really want is good quality and fresh products.”

While fresh is ideal, you can save quite a bit by stocking up on frozen foods, which are every bit as nutritious as their fresh counterparts, contrary to popular belief.

“People shouldn’t have a problem with frozen vegetables as the nutritional difference between fresh and frozen vegetables is marginal,” Professor Mann says.

Not to mention, frozen fruits and vegetables last for ages and are extremely versatile, so you can make meal after meal with them.

Cook simple and in bulk to save on food costs. Photo: Rene Schwietzke

Step 4: Share, plan ahead and cook simple

If you are currently living alone in a cramped apartment, start looking for a housemate to share a bigger house, bills and food with.

“It is always more cost effective to feed a group of people than if you were to cook and eat on your own,” Professor O’Dea says.

Understandably, a lack of time and patience are the excuses most students use when justifying why they can’t adopt a healthier lifestyle. But there’s certainly no need to go Masterchef and whip up meals worthy of Michelin stars.

Accredited dietician and Dieticians Association of Australia spokesperson Milena Katz is all for simple, cheap and effective cooking.

“If students know how to cook, they should cook in large volumes, separate the food into portions and freeze them,” she says.

“That way they won’t have to cook all the time and be able to save some money at the same time.”

But if you dislike the idea of having the same food for days in a row, then some prior planning is needed.

“Having a menu planner is very important so you know what to have for each day of the week,” Ms Katz says.

“That way you don’t go into a state of panic and resort to junk food when unprepared.”

The best way to do it is to decide what you’re going to have for lunch and dinner for the week, write down all the ingredients you need and then do one big shopping trip on the weekend. If you have time, you might want to cook some things on the weekend when you’re less busy with university or assignments.

Still don’t know where or how to start? Stick to what you and mum knows best.

“I think Asian students, in many ways, have an advantage over their Australian counterparts in that they understand the Asian style of cooking which uses whole foods and is based around healthy cooking methods like stir-frying,” Professor Mann says.

“So they should continue making their noodle dishes and stir-fries just how their mother cooked for them over the years.”

Looking for some quick, easy and healthy recipes? A good place to start if you’re a kitchen novice is the Better Health website. The recipes on this site have been especially designed by dieticians to ensure you keep a healthy body and mind while you study.

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