Going to university is an exciting time, but it can also be a time of change. You will have more choice over what you eat and the chance to take part in new social experiences and discover new food cultures, but also a limited food budget. Eating a healthy diet without running down your student loan or wasting valuable studying (or socialising) time can be challenging. Studies show that university students drink more alcohol, eat more sugar and eat fewer fruit and vegetables.
Yet, what you eat and drink can have an impact on your body and mind (and so your studies) in countless ways. Your diet can also influence the environment and climate change. What’s more, a healthy diet is a life skill, making university a great place to learn how to do it.
Taking time to eat well and having a basic knowledge of eating healthily in a budget-friendly and convenient way that is also more sustainable for our planet can help you get the most out of your university experience. This can help create healthy eating habits, for Freshers week and beyond!
- Get some tips on how to shop smart on a budget
- Cook tasty, healthy and affordable meals – for you and others
- Find out how to look after your wellbeing during stressful times at university
- Get the facts about drinks and alcohol
- Is your child flying the nest heading off to uni? You need our University Kitchen Survival Guide for parents and carers
A healthy and sustainable diet for the student budget
Although money may be tight and you may be busy with lectures and socialising, you can still eat healthily.
You can help make sure your body gets all the nutrients it needs to work well from day to day by having a healthy, balanced diet. In the longer term, a healthy diet can also help reduce the risk of diseases like cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Healthy eating is not just about eating less sugar, salt or saturated fat but also about what we should be eating more of, like fruit, vegetables and fibre. Everyone is different and there is no one magic diet or the need for all-or-nothing approaches. You can adapt the principles of healthy eating to suit you.
Find out more about the balance of different foods and nutrients we need for good health and wellbeing by reading our page on a healthy, balanced diet.
Did you know, on average it is thought that households save £60 a month by reducing the amount of food they throw away?
There are lots of factors to consider when it comes to defining a diet that is healthy and sustainable. Food waste is an important issue to consider for both your budget and the environment. It is estimated that food losses and waste could contribute as much as 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK, the food we throw away at home is the biggest source of food waste.
Here you can find some advice and tips for how to shop, cook and eat in a way that is better for you, your pocket and the planet. For further information read our page on eating healthily and sustainably.
Our tips may help you to stop spending the extra money on campus!
- Work out exactly what you need to buy, make a shopping list and stick to it! Budgeting is a big part of student life, and this includes working out how much a week you can spend on food and drink. You can reduce the temptation to buy foods you don’t need by planning your meals at the end of the week for the week ahead. Planning your meals can also help you cut down on food waste and save money.
- Try the supermarket’s own brand or value brand products. These will normally be cheaper than branded products. You can buy branded products you like when they are on offer, and you have space in your cupboard.
- Bulk out meals with beans, pulses or veg. Add ingredients like chickpeas, lentils and tofu to curries, pasta sauces and stir-fries to bulk them out and make them go further.
- Shop around. Foods from local sellers such as greengrocers, butchers, fishmongers, markets or specialist food shops like Asian stores might be cheaper. Check the supermarket world food aisle as well, as you may find some items cheaper here like spices and sauces. Some universities have food pantries available for students to access affordable food.
- Frozen fruit and veg can be cheaper than fresh. If there is space in the freezer, then buying frozen fruit and veg can save you money. Frozen fruit and veg still count towards your 5 A DAY and because freezing preserves nutrients, some frozen vegetables can even give you more of certain nutrients than fresh versions. Using frozen fruit and veg can also stop unused food going to waste, as you can use the exact amount you want when you want it
Top tip from graduate Alessandra!
Use any freezer space you have wisely for saving your leftovers - don’t forget to let the food cool first! Freeze food in one-portion containers, making it easier to defrost a meal when you are ready to eat.
Top tip from graduate Leah!
When I was cooking for myself, I would cook for two as recipes or items in a supermarket are normally enough for two people and so I would make two portions and take the second into uni the next day for lunch to save money.
Sustainability hack - Storing your food properly following the instructions on pack can help your food to last longer and stop you from having to throw it away early, saving you money
Cook tasty, healthy and affordable meals – for you and others
Cooking is a valuable life skill for university and beyond and is something you can do for yourself but also together with your housemates or friends to save costs and have a break from studying! You may find you learn a lot about different foods and cultures as well – food often has many stories, and food can be the basis of interesting topics of conversation including politics, food movements, health and history.
Budget friendly hack – Prepare your food for lunch at home and take this with you in a reusable container or lunchbox to stop you from grabbing something on the go and spending more money – don’t forget reusable cutlery!
Top tip from graduate Alessandra!
Batch cooking is an excellent way of having ready-made meals for your week ahead. Get your housemates involved so you can all share the costs of the food shop and cook together to make things more fun!
Top tip from graduate Leah!
Cooking with your housemates can help save you money - sometimes on a Saturday night we would all make a “fakeaway” meal together such as fajitas or pizza before going out.
If you or any of your housemates are vegetarian or vegan, then there are certain nutrients, like iron and calcium, which you might need to pay a bit more attention to when planning your meals. Find out more by reading our page on healthy eating for vegetarians and vegans.
Don’t forget to follow good food hygiene to prepare and cook food safely. For more information see the Food Standards Agency website.
Make-ahead easy breakfasts
Breakfast can fill you up and may help avoid feelings of hunger mid-morning. An ideal breakfast would include a starchy food like wholegrain breakfast cereal or wholemeal toast with a protein source like nut butter eggs or baked beans a piece of fruit or some veg, and a dairy product such as milk or yogurt.
Even if you are short on time before lectures or starting a day of studying, why not take some time the night before to make breakfast? Try our oat-based ideas below.
Simple snacks for energy
When heading to the library or needing a quick energy fix, take along items like bananas, cereal bars, dried apricots, or a handful of unsalted nuts or rice crackers. This will help you be prepared, and you may not be tempted to grab a snack that may be high in fat or high in sugars like fried chips, a chocolate bar or cake. Or why not try one of our ideas below?
Store cupboard recipes
These recipes make use of things you might have in your cupboard – but don’t worry if you don’t have some of the ingredients, as you can make some simple swaps.
Any day healthier fakeaways
Thinking about getting a takeaway? Try making something similar yourself with these ideas for a healthier alternative to your takeaway favourites - great to make with friends and you could save money!
Looking after your wellbeing during stressful times at university
When you have deadlines to meet or exams to revise for, it is easy to let your healthy habits slip. You may feel like you don’t have time to cook a meal and grabbing a quick fix that may not be nutritionally balanced, like a bag of fried chips and a chocolate bar, is an easier choice. But good nutrition is even more vital at times of stress when you may be run down and eating healthily should be an important part of your revision plan.
Keep your fluid levels topped up throughout the day as being dehydrated can affect your concentration. Read more in the Drinks section below.
It’s good to have a routine of being active a few times a week and this may be even more important during exam time as exercise may help improve your memory and concentration. Find what works for you – whether that’s a brisk walk or jog, or joining a society for your favourite sport, and try and fit exercise into your routine.
It’s likely that you’ll be spending a lot of time being sedentary (sitting down) when you’re studying and revising for exams. Try to get up and move around every so often. You could set a reminder on your phone or computer every hour and do things like get up to refill your water bottle or get outside for 5 minutes.
To learn more about the importance of physical activity for health read our pages on keeping active.
A lack of sleep can affect your studying and learning, making it difficult to concentrate and remember new information. Long-term poor sleep can also affect your health, increasing your risk of high blood pressure and lower your immunity (making you more susceptible to illness). Poor quality sleep can put you at a higher risk of weight gain as well as mental health problems like depression.
What you eat and drink and how active you are can affect your sleep. There are some things that you can do to help you sleep better.
- Avoid caffeine after mid-afternoon as it can stay in your body for many hours. Switch to decaf options or herbal tea in the evening.
- Avoid or limit how much alcohol you drink, as too much alcohol will disturb your sleep.
- Avoid eating or drinking a lot late at night.
- Get some exercise during the daytime, rather than in the evening too close to bedtime.
Find more tips for better sleep on the NHS website
Rest and relax
Make sure you take time to relax to keep your mental wellbeing in check. Read a book, take a walk, have a bath, or do your favourite creative activity. Choose what helps you relax and schedule this into your day.
If you need more advice and help with coping with exam stress you can find this from the UK’s student mental health charity Student Minds.
We need enough fluid for our bodies to function properly. You should aim to drink about 6-8 glasses of fluid each day (alcohol doesn’t count). Water is a good choice because it hydrates you without giving you extra calories or harming teeth and is free from the tap!
Young people get a lot of free sugars (the type of sugars that we all need to cut down on) in their diets from sugars-sweetened drinks (such as fizzy drinks, squash and energy drinks). Try to drink less of these, and go for water, lower-fat milk and ‘no-added-sugars’ versions instead.
Tea and coffee count towards your fluid intake but be careful not to overdo it on the caffeine – try not to have more than four cups of instant coffee or five cups of tea a day (up to 400mg of caffeine a day). Too much caffeine can interrupt your sleep and cause anxiety, and in the long term may also increase your blood pressure and risk of an irregular heartbeat.
You may be tempted to drink energy drinks during revision or exam time. Whilst energy drinks can give you a quick boost, in the long-term, drinking lots of these drinks can make you feel irritable and affect your sleep because of the levels of caffeine they have. Most evidence suggests that drinking a lot of energy drinks can also lead to negative health effects such as high blood pressure, poor mental health effects and weight gain. Most of these effects are suggested because of high levels of sugar and caffeine.
Remember other drinks like cola have caffeine too.
Find out more about good drink choices and staying hydrated by reading our healthy hydration guide.
Sustainability hack - Some people may find keeping a refillable bottle close by while revising or studying helpful. If you are on campus then look out for water refill stations you can use to stay hydrated.
Students at university often drink alcohol, although more students are choosing not to drink alcohol. If you decide to drink alcohol, you may find it helpful to reflect on how much you are drinking, considering the risks and the benefits associated with cutting down.
Know your limits
If alcohol is going to be a part of your life at university, remember that it’s recommended not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week (equal to 6 pints of 4% beer or 6 glasses of 13% wine). This should be spread across the week with several alcohol-free days, rather than the units being saved up for one night out. Remember, some types of beer or wine may be stronger so will have more units. For example, stronger premium lagers can be between 5% and 7% and some stronger wines can be 14% or more.
Does eating a meal before a night out drinking stop me getting drunk?
Eating a meal with starchy foods like pasta or potatoes and some protein like chicken or fish before you head out won’t stop you getting drunk but will help slow down how fast your body absorbs alcohol, which may make you feel less drunk and could help prevent a hangover.
Regularly drinking too much alcohol can damage your health and increase your risk of long-term diseases like cancers, liver disease and heart disease and stroke. Drinking alcohol can also increase your risk of developing mental health problems, including self-harm and alcohol dependence.
In the short term, drinking alcohol might make you feel less stressed, but too much can disrupt your sleep and ability to concentrate and revise. If you do drink alcohol, drink within the recommended limits or maybe cut down during exam time.
Binge drinking is when you drink a lot of alcohol in a short space of time. Drinking a lot of alcohol quickly can damage your health and increase your risk of alcohol poisoning. You may be more likely to take risks and have accidents that cause injuries, which can even cause death in some cases.
What can I do to stay safe on a night out?
The most common hangover symptoms are headache, nausea, tiredness and dehydration. Drinking alcohol causes your body to lose more water than normal. Drink water when you get home and keep a glass of water by the bed. Drinking plenty of water the day after a night out will also help you rehydrate.
If you wake up with a hangover, then you might be more likely to miss lectures or seminars, which could eventually have an impact on your academic performance.
Is your child flying the nest heading off to uni? It can be an emotional time! Why not send them away with some things that can be useful and meaningful to help them get a good start to cooking for themselves and navigating eating well at university.
Where do you begin? Below we provide you with some ideas of kitchen essentials to pack, as well as what foods you might want to stock up their cupboards with, to help them find their way around the student kitchen!
Last reviewed September 2022. Next review due September 2025
With thanks to our nutrition graduates Alessandra Marchi and Leah Corper who are currently undertaking placements at the British Nutrition Foundation for sharing their tops tips for this article.
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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any personal advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.