Avoiding Fast Food While Busy and Broke

If you saw my diet post, you’ll see it’s possible to avoid fast food when you have a busy schedule and limited funds.

I work a part-time job for minimum wage ($7.25/hr), work a full time unpaid internship, and attend graduate-level night classes (required for my internship). I received no financial aid for said classes, not even a loan, and my undergrad loan is in repayment. 

Thus, I’m busy and broke. But I NEVER eat fast food (not even so called "healthy" fast food). Here’s how… 

1. Investigate your school or work cafeteria, if available.
My internship's cafeteria is reasonably priced and I eat there every work day. A 12 oz bowl of soup is $2.49 including tax. It is slightly more expensive than bringing my own can of soup, but it’s usually better quality. Plus, it’s hot; no need to microwave. Only 50 cents for a banana or orange. Add $1.05 for soymilk or get water for free! I can get a complete meal for less than $5.  

2. Pack your own food. 
I always pack dinner when I have night class, because the food on campus is overpriced.
It's easy for me to pack things that don't need to be reheated or kept cold. Although I love peanut butter, there's also shelf stable hummus packs. Toss the pack into your bag with crackers or pita bread. Whole fruit or fruit cups don't have to be kept cold.

If you want something cold, like yogurt, add an ice pack or purchase a cooler bag (or use both). Those silvery plastic cooler bags from the grocery store are amazing and inexpensive. In the freezer aisle at my store, they sell cooler bags that really do keep food cold for 8+ hours. Of course, if you have a fridge at work, that's a good option, too.

If you want something hot, you can pack it in a thermos. If you have somewhere to warm food up, then you don't even need a thermos. Take leftovers in a cooler bag and then warm them up when it's time to eat. 

3. Prepare in advance.
 I love leftovers. If you don't, you can still prepare in advance. For example, if you don't have time in the morning to pack lunch, pack it at night. If you're in the kitchen already, it's easy to toss an apple into your bag.

4. Don't waste food.
If you're short on cash, don't spend money on food that's going in the trash. If you do eat out, bring part of the meal home and eat it later rather than letting the restaurant throw it out. Label and date the take-out containers and home-cooked leftovers. Then, go through the fridge and eat food within 7 days of preparing.

On the weekend, make a "garbage plate" with what's left in your fridge. Some restaurants are famous for serving this. They take mac and cheese, add whatever leftover meat they have, and any leftover vegetables. You can alter this to work for you, of course. 

Similarly, don't throw out fruit that's getting soft or bruised. Brown bananas are great in baking, for example. Softer citrus is easier to juice. Cut away bruised parts of produce and eat the rest. 

Freeze food, if necessary. Sometimes I don't think I can eat a whole pound of tofu in a week. So, I put it in the freezer, where it will last longer. You can freeze leftovers, produce, even milk and eggs!

5. Don't buy all organic, but do look for deals in the organic section.
I've found organic products can sometimes be cheaper than non-organic ones.  The picture below shows four products I bought cheaper in the organic section: honey, vanilla extract, boxed macaroni and cheese, and applesauce.

The organic honey was cheaper per ounce than non-organic honey, because it's in a larger bottle and larger containers often have "volume discounts." Honey doesn't really go bad; it crystallizes as it ages, but I don't mind heating it to melt the crystals. Similarly, the vanilla extract was cheaper per ounce because it's a bigger bottle.

The macaroni was marked down because the box was damaged, which I don't mind. (I usually make my own mac and cheese from scratch, but I thought I could donate it or keep it for a night I don't want to shred cheese.) The applesauce was marked down because it's best before date was approaching, but applesauce doesn't suddenly expire when it hits that date.

Lastly, there may be a sale on organic produce. Today, I found organic cucumbers for $1.50 each. The other cukes were 3 for $5 ($1.66 each). The cucumber I bought might be a little shorter than one grown in chemicals, but I'm just one person and a larger cucumber might go bad before I eat it. So, I'll save a few cents and prevent food waste at the same time.

What do you do to save money?


The information provided in this blog is not intended to replace individualized medical advice provided by your own doctor, dietitian, or other healthcare professional.
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