Note: The author of this post definitely does not advocate that others eat the same food groups she does. She grew up in an Italian family, eating some sort of pasta six out of seven nights per week, and she has never broken the carb addiction. See your elementary school cafeteria for recommendations on healthy eating habits.
The most obvious and basic tip I can give anyone for eating cheaply at Columbia is simply not sticking with the meal plan. Sorry, freshmen.
Unless you steal at least a gallon of juice, enough plasticware for you and your friends for a few weeks, some walnuts and cranberries to munch on, and a few slices of pizza, you’re getting ripped off by dining for around $14 a meal. Assuming you’re normal and like to have at least two full meals per day, that’s $28, or almost 3 times what you could be spending.
I knew I needed to be off of the meal plan for good. I ran the numbers by my parents—”Mom, $2,210 is a lot of money. $2,050 is a lot of money. Even $1,298 is a lot of money for the crap they give us. I can eat on $10 per day, I promise. I’ll be at school for about 110 days, so there’s no reason why I can’t save half of the money that you’d be spending on the largest meal plan.” Mom acquiesced. I have a sibling in college too, and medical bills are outrageous. $10 really isn’t unreasonable, and if I were more committed, I could go even lower.
The first bump in the road was that I don’t cook, or rather, that I hate cooking and lack the time and patience for it (I would make a terrible housewife, which I’m not too sad about). However, if you enjoy watching things boil and nearly slicing your finger with the carrots, you will be healthier and able to eat even more cheaply than I can. Lucky for me, Columbia is in a big fucking city with lots of talented chefs and bakers and sandwich artists.
Step 1: Breakfast. Some people say this is the most important meal of the day. I skip to Step 2 when I disagree. Do I want something cheap? Yes, so I go to a coffee cart—specifically, the nicest guy ever on 114th and Broadway. His rather large bagels are $0.75, and a small coffee is $1.00. Do I really need more food than that when I’m going to be eating again in a few hours? I tell myself no and contentedly eat my bagel. Now I have $8.25 for the rest of your day.
Step 2: Lunch/Dinner. These are grouped together because it’s pretty damn hard to find two separate meals in New York City for only $8. I self-describe as a rather sedentary, scrawny individual, and can eat half of a HamDel sandwich for lunch and half for dinner while sticking to my budget; Milano sandwiches are a no-no. Alternatively, I buy a huge yogurt container from Westside for around $5 and have money left over to buy a healthy snack. Nussbaum and UNI have salads I customize for under $6 if I’m careful with the amount of toppings. Milano has pre-made pastas, and a 1/2 lb. or 3/4 lb. will keep me hip with the kids and under budget. Halal carts are also really cheap for a lot of food. I check Bwog and fliers around campus for free food as well. This whole plan works because I buy one main meal per day that will keep me full, and eat the leftovers and anything I find in my fridge or around campus when I get hungry (see: Snacks).
Step 3: Snacks. Let’s be fucking realistic. You can’t survive on one full meal per day, and neither can I. Some good, cheap snacks are Ramen noodles (3 for $2 at Westside), fruit (get it from the fruit stands—a banana is $0.25 on 111th and Amsterdam), yogurt (buy in bulk), and leftover $0.75 bagels from the morning. If I didn’t love carbs so much I would buy some healthy nuts and vegetables in bulk. I always stay away from MoWil (unless it’s for $5 chicken fried rice. See: Lunch/Dinner) and go to Trader Joe’s if I can, but getting there and back is half of a day’s worth of food! Gulati once mentioned something about cost analysis, I think.
Step 4: Being sociable. Let’s have another heart to heart. I know that the consumption of food does not exist in a vacuum. Sometimes I’m going to eat out with my friends or go get coffee for a meeting. This is okay if I plan accordingly. I don’t spend the full $10 most days, but rather $8 or $9, so I can “splurge” on $14 entrées. I make sure I get big entrées too, so I can take the leftovers home and eat them the next day. When I go to Starbucks or Joe’s, I choose espresso or a plain cup of coffee or tea. That’s healthier than a gingerbread latte, too. If I have to choose a location for a coffee meeting, I choose Butler Cafe because I always feel less pressured to buy their shitty coffee. But, the best part about eating with your friends? Friends with meal plans. All three Columbia dining halls have coffee cups with securable lids—I use these to carry out every sort of food imaginable without it all spilling in my bag. If you have tupperware, well,
you fancy huh that will get the job done.
Can this work for you? Maybe. It’s not anything special. If you are on financial aid as well, you already know a lot of these tricks. $10 per day would be considered a luxury for many parts of the world. I’ll admit that I don’t eat particularly healthily and skip out a lot on fruits and vegetables, and that eating nutritiously is a good long-term investment (if you have the money). I’m also not particularly active, and imagine that I would be much more hungry if I had athletic practice two times per day. Do not deprive your body of the food it needs just for a few dollars. Cooking and preparing meals for the week is easier than doing what I do, but it sucks up time you might not have as a busy Columbia/Barnard student. Still, last semester I only spent around $1,000 for food, saving a month’s worth of rent for the summer. Boo yah.
Bwog trying to cook via Shutterstock