Cheap Recipe Ideas: How To Cook Healthy Meals On A Student Budget

Yes, it is possible.

We get it, it’s not easy to find recipes that are not only healthy, but also quick to make and cheap while you’re on a student budget - but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

For the thousands of students beginning university, it can be pretty hard to tear away from your mum’s home-cooked lasagne and succumb to weeks of ready meals and pizza.

But there is hope. “The most important thing to remember when learning to cook as a student is not to panic when you see a recipe for the first time,” says Rachel Phipps, chef and author of Student Eats. “If you can follow a basic set of instructions you can follow a recipe!”

Luke Pedley, 22, who studies at the University of Sheffield, says he has been able to eat healthy food on the cheap throughout uni by making small tweaks such as buying frozen vegetables instead of fresh and own brand or basic ranges in supermarkets. “I definitely find it manageable,” he says. “My favourite thing to cook is a lamb tagine which I found on BBC Good Food - it’s packed full of ‘the good stuff’, tastes great and is freezable.” He adds that freezable food is a “must”, because it cuts the temptation to eat rubbish.

Lamb tagine with chickpeas, apricots and pomegranate seeds.
Lamb tagine with chickpeas, apricots and pomegranate seeds.

Scarlett Bawden-Gaul, 23, who is also a student at University of Sheffield, says one of the issues she had was being healthy when cooking for one person.“I’d buy veg and I’d use it for one meal and the rest would go in the bin because I didn’t use it in time,” she says. “So for me as a student I have to really work to be healthy and plan my meals in advance.”

Scarlett likes cooking pasta bake as it’s easy to pack with veg and can be used as lunch or leftovers. She loves making bibimbap (a Korean dish of rice and mixed vegetables) because you can put a lot of vegetables in it, and says a stir fry is also a dish she’ll make that’s quick and healthy with leftovers in the fridge.

Bibimbap with fried egg and vegetables. 
Bibimbap with fried egg and vegetables. 

So whether you’re looking to expand your cooking repertoire as a student or you’re starting out from scratch, here are some easy, cheap (and most of all healthy) meals to try, as recommended by chefs.

Side note: we all know no student will spend every evening ensuring each meal they cook is healthy, but in among the takeaways, ready meals and pizzas, it’s worth having a few tricks up your sleeve, right?

Pasta with homemade sauce

Level: Easy.

Phipps, who wrote Student Eats, kicks off with a basic tinned tomato pasta recipe - making your own sauce rather than buying one (which will usually up having loads of sugar in). It takes five minutes to prepare and 15 minutes to cook.

For the sauce, you’ll need a 400g tin of chopped tomatoes, one knob of unsalted butter, half a teaspoon of soft brown sugar, half a teaspoon of dried oregano and salt and pepper.

“If you’re cooking pasta at the same time, start it off in a pan of salted boiling water and it will be done by the time the sauce is ready,” she says. “Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a medium heat. Add the tomatoes, swilling a splash of water around the tin and adding it to the pan to make sure you don’t waste any tomato that is still in the tin.

“Stir until the melted butter is all combined and add the sugar, oregano, and some salt and pepper to taste. Bring the sauce to the boil then reduce the heat so that it is just simmering. Allow the sauce to bubble away, thickening for 10 to 15 minutes. Spoon the sauce over or stir it into a pan of drained pasta to serve.” Yum.

Broccoli falafels

Level: Easy.

It might sound like this is going to be complicated but trust us, it’s not. It’s from Sarah Rainey’s ‘Three Ingredient Baking’ cookbook. “Not only are they healthy and deliciously more-ish, but they’re ridiculously easy to make - even in a tiny student kitchen,” she says.

You’ll need a head of broccoli (around 300g), 100g of dried herby breadcrumbs (you can make breadcrumbs from bread and add seasoning, or buy a packet from the supermarket) and two eggs. This will make about 15 falafels, which you could use for a few meals if you paired some with salad, hummus, or even put in a pitta bread.

“Preheat the oven to 220c/200c fan and line a baking sheet with foil,” explains Rainey. “Cut the florets off the broccoli, place them in a pan of boiling, slightly salted water over a medium heat and simmer for 8-10 mins.

“Drain and blitz to tiny pieces (or chop up really small). In a bowl mix these with the breadcrumbs. Crack in the eggs one by one and stir until combined. Slightly dampen your hands and roll dessert-spoon sized blobs of the mix between your palms to form balls. Bake for 20-25 mins or until they’re crisp and just starting to turn gold.” Find more three ingredient recipes here.

Chicken and mango curry

Level: Medium.

The guys behind Sorted food, a British YouTube cooking channel, say this curry is ideal for students as it’s really easy to make because the only chopping you need to do is cut up the meat. “This curry is mild, creamy and sweet,” they say. “A fragrant, fruity and chicken delight, which is also really rich and filling so you won’t need to eat nearly as much.”

You can check out all the ingredients and full recipe here, but here’s a short overview: Preheat the oven to 150c, spoon 360g of mango chutney and spices into a pan and bring to the boil for a minute. Cut the chicken up and then separately, stir together mayonnaise, yoghurt and the mango chutney.

Pour your sauce over the chicken, put in a baking dish and bake in the oven for 40 minutes. Pair with some rice and voilà, you’re all done.

Sorted recommend optional extras including putting almonds and coriander on top ready to serve.

Creamy gnocchi with spinach

Level: Medium.

Chef Limahl Asmall has tons of ideas in his ‘Tiny Budget Cooking’ cookbook, but he recommends the gnocchi bake as being an easy dish to make, and the perfect winter warmer meal now the darker evenings are creeping up on us.

“This big hearty bowl of creamy gnocchi with broccoli, spinach and cheddar is a go-to quick and easy recipe,” he says. “There’s a big dose of green veggies which are packed full of nutrients, and plenty of flavour to keep you happy. The recipe is easily adaptable and can be made with cauliflower, blue cheese, pasta, and other leafy veg so you won’t get bored.”

And the method? “Add garlic and onion into a pan on medium heat,” he explains. “Add butter, two tablespoons of flour and cook for 30 seconds. Slowly pour in 200ml (2/3 of a mug) of milk. Add pepper and stir well until sauce thickens.

“Meanwhile, add broccoli florets and gnocchi to a pot of boiling water and cook over medium-high heat for three minutes. Drain them, then add to the sauce. Add spinach one handful at a time. Add cheddar to taste.

“After it’s all put together bake for 10 minutes until bubbly and melted.”

For more detailed instructions, click here.

Tips on first-time cooking for students, from Phipps

:: Make sure you have all your ingredients measured out before you start cooking and you’ll be less likely to make a mistake or miss something out.

:: Don’t make life hard for yourself. Start with a few simple recipes, for example if you’re making something that is served with rice, don’t worry about juggling the cooking with making rice too. Start by serving it with microwave rice, and work up from there.

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