A question about living on a budget or with limited access to a functioning kitchen has come up recently, specifically from someone living in a college dorm situation. The student was really feeling like he was without any options, especially since he had a meal plan and was at the mercy of the cafeteria and their 'food'. As someone who lives on the road and out of hotel rooms, I think I have a good idea of what it means to be at the mercy of someone else's menu when it comes to the food that is immediately available to me, that being said, I also have a little more economic freedom than most college students, but I think I can offer at least a little advice to our wayward caveman. As a frequent traveler, I do my research both before I travel and after I arrive, and try to find the stores nearby where I can source good food. WholeFoods, Co-ops and even regular grocery stores are obvious choices some even try to provide better choices, like Florida's Publix and Byerly's in Minnesota. But, depending on the location and the season, you can even find Farmer's Markets that offer great opportunities for fresh, local food.
It's all about control
Control as much of your diet as you can, within your budget. Work with your dorm cafeteria and tell them you can't eat grain. If all they can do is gluten free, then take it. After that, eat the freshest food that you can, made from as little grain as possible (ie. most animals don't eat grain naturally, so if it's in their food chain, it's a lower quality choice). Eat from the salad bar early and often. If you are putting things in your fridge, buy your food as locally as possible. Regardless if you are buying it or picking it up from the cafeteria, examine your food from a "Good, Better, Best perspective". Food is fuel, and you don't put Diesel in a Ferrari. , so first, DON'T EAT GRAIN (or grain oils or legumes) avoid dairy and minimize your exposure to High Fat, Corn Fed animal products in general. Then, take your fishoil and follow the Good/Better/Best rules:
Eat as high on the scale as you can afford. If all you can do is Good, then eat good food. Higher Quality Protein is worth more to your overall health and longevity than organic fruits and veggies (except for the "Dirty Dozen" fruits and veggies - you'll want to eat organic in the dirty list if possible), so use your dimes wisely toward good health. If you have access to a communal kitchen, then be the most common fixture in there, next to the stove and lights. Cook in bulk. If you can only get in there twice a week, make them the most productive hours you can. I don't live in a dorm, but I do live out of hotel rooms, and unless I happen to be in an extended stay hotel, I typically have a mini fridge and a microwave. If that is the case, then this is what a week might look like for me: On Mondays, when I fly into town, I do my shopping and cook my lunches for the week. Chicken or burgers on the foreman or the BBQ grill (I'm in tampa right now, so if it isn't raining, it's grill weather year round), a dozen hardboiled eggs and I've even cooked a whole chicken if I have an oven and then used it as food for a couple meals and then made soup with the carcass the night after, threw it in the freezer in single serve containers and took them with me for lunch. Then I bring EVERYTHING with me to work and put it in the fridge. I'm the guy people hate, moving things around and making order out of the chaos that is a communal cold space. For the rest of the week, I eat from my fridge at work for snacks and lunch.
- Buy steam in the bag veggies. Stores for several days, microwaves up in about 4 minutes.
- While they're still in season, find the local farmer's market and get Fruits and veggies. It's almost ALWAYS cheaper than the grocery store
- There's no shame in eating from Walmart. They keep their prices LOW and as a student, that's priority one.
- Use nuts, but don't ABUSE nuts. Almonds and macadamia nuts are great periodic fat sources. For travel I actually use Justin's Nut Butter packets for an easy to carry and contain fatty snack.
- Coconut Products are the BEST, all around, fat source for the guy on the go. Coconut oil to cook in, coconut flakes for a snack, coconut BUTTER is heaven on a spoon...true story.
- When you are cooking, use coconut oil as your first choice of oil. NO CANOLA OIL, drizzle olive oil on your vieggies, but try not to cook with it too frequently.
- Avacado is tasty
- Here are some other tips and tricks that make life much easier when it comes to limited cook and storage space:
Sometimes, your dorm might give you access to a stove, but no utensils or pots and pans...Pots and Pans are simple. I always suggest a cast iron pan...they last forever, are multifunctional and make for tasty food. Go to target or surf on over to amazon and get a lodge 8" or 10.25" skillet (with lid if it's in stock), you can also get an 'essentials' pots and pans set which is just the basics (though I would probably add a larger pot for making soups and chili - you can't live without chili). As of this writing, I'm staying at a Residence Inn, which means I get a stove AND a full sized fridge (which I typically only put a weeks worth of food in anyway, but it's good to know I could stockpile if I wanted to, and while it does have pots and pans, it isn't a good selection. I bought a new cast iron, small chefs mate fry pan and two knives for under $50 (and I'll ship them home to myself should this project in hell ever end...), and I don't even use the pans that come with in the hotel anymore.