Eating Well as a College Student (for example)

A reader named Chelsea wrote:

“I would love to live a more sustainable lifestyle and to eat healthier but I don’t know where to start. I feel I eat semi-healthy but now that I moved out and live on my own, I tend to gravitate towards the ultra-high processed foods. I convince myself it’s easier and portable to take to my night classes. So I was wondering if you had any suggestions for living healthy on a college budget, living in a small apartment.”

Great question, Chelsea!

Mark Bittman, a cookbook author and food writer for the New York Times, whose work I really respect, wrote an opinion piece last week in which he took on the notion that junk food is cheaper. Now, I think there were some problems with his piece, namely, that those who are very, very poor frequently lack basic cooking equipment (and sometimes even a kitchen) but there was one part of the article that I thought was very, very good:

“The alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food: rice, grains, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, bread, peanut butter, a thousand other things cooked at home — in almost every case a far superior alternative.”

I think he has his finger right on a pattern of thinking and behavior that, to my mind, keeps many Americans following abysmal habits–namely this: all of us can make the perfectionist error of turning “the perfect” into the enemy of “the good.” It happens all the time. I have read so many extreme-“health” type diet books (like The Paleo Diet) that pit fast-food diets against whatever low-fat, raw, vegan, macrobiotic, whatever kind of program, and it’s just plain discouraging. I recently received a review copy of a book that looks at OLIVE OIL as a “bad food.” Olive oil, for cryin’ out loud!

The point is this: it’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that goes something like this: “well, since I can’t afford to buy everything at Whole Foods, I’ll just go get something from Wendy’s.” That’s an extreme example, but what I’m trying to say is this: the most important thing, when you’re working with a small budget and in a small kitchen, is to take what steps you can take and not worry about the ones you can’t.

That said, learning to cook is probably the most important thing you can do to eat well on a budget. If you can bake whole-grain bread–even in a bread machine, since that’s fairly foolproof–prepare vegetables in a tasty way, make soups, oatmeal, pancakes, rice and beans, and stir fries–that is your best bet. Yes, there is an investment of time. Yes, there is a learning curve. And yes, Chelsea–you have a small kitchen!

You know what? Mark Bittman does too! (read this!)

“I once cooked for six months in what amounted to a basement with a hot plate, microwave and a refrigerator and sink. Not only did I cook for six months, but I wrote [my food column] for six months. It was funny. People like to cook when they’re camping and in other places where the situation is less than adequate. For some reason they think they have to have a great kitchen to cook at home, but it’s not true.”

I have to say, also, that college can be a hard time as far as eating well. But it’s also a very important time to eat well: you need brain food! Perhaps the most important thing, next to learning to cook, is creating a community for yourself around food. I realize it’s not always possible–roommates have different tastes, different schedules–but eating together is important. And this is where you non-student readers come in: you probably have people in your life who could use some company at mealtimes. Make that happen! It doesn’t have to be perfect. (See my piece last week on the Christianity Today women’s blog here.)

So, in a nutshell? Learning to cook. Eating together.

And, oh, yes. Eating with joy.

Happy Monday, readers! I’ll be away as of tomorrow, but in the magic of the internet, there should be no break in blog postings…so stay tuned.

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