Cheap and easy student food: 3 meat-free money savers


I remember the very first meal that I cooked at university: chicken with pasta and pesto.

It was terrible. I was so terrified that I would give myself food poisoning that I overcooked everything, so I actually ended up with a tough and tasteless (and slightly burnt) chicken with soft and squidgy pasta and pesto. Yum.

I’m aware that being a bit rubbish at cooking made me a very stereotypical first-year student.

Living away from home for the first time, in total control of my budget and my food, I managed to tick off a few other stereotypes too. I ate way more than my fair share of beans on toast, lived in a fairly overcrowded and manky student house; and I knew exactly where to get a pint for 50p and a decent late-night takeaway.

But through trial and error (and there were so many errors) I worked out what my signature dishes would be. What I could reliably churn out if I was tired or hungover, what I would cook for friends who popped by? Check out my tips for cheap, low-meat recipes, below.

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My top 3 low-cost, low-meat meals:

1. Veggie stir fry (approx cost: 30p-50p per serving)

This take on an authentic Pad Thai is a tried and tested student favourite – so cheap, so easy and so little washing up. 

Vegetable and prawn Pad Thai

You’ll need: 

  • Half an onion, or a couple of spring onions (use the rest in your money-saving stew)
  • A clove of garlic (use some more of the bulb in the stew below)
  • 2 tsp of sugar (or a couple of sachets from your last coffee-run) 
  • 3 tbsp fish sauce (a bottle of this goes a long way, but for a cheaper – and veggie – alternative, use light soy sauce) 
  • 2 tsp tamarind paste (this will also go for miles but, if you prefer, save extra pennies by using instead a bit of your lime juice and some white wine vinegar mixed in with some sugar) 
  • A couple of handfuls of beansprouts 
  • A handful of mushrooms, and/or a red pepper 
  • An egg
  • A block or two of noodles (the straight-to-wok kind are easier, but dried ones are usually cheaper, and you can pre-cook them in hot water for 3 mins using the same pan if you want) 
  • Feeling fishy? Make this low-meat, not no-meat and add a few prawns for some variety: Sainsburys basics fish is all MSC certified. For another flavour combination, use half a breast of free-range chicken cut into strips instead
  • Get authentic: for real Pad Thai flavour, serve with some crushed peanuts and a wedge of lime 

Get cooking

All these ingredients might look a bit daunting, but this meal is super quick and super easy. Cook your noodles first in the same pan to save on washing up, or leave them heating in some boiling water while you do the rest. 

Mix the sugar, tamarind paste and fish sauce together in a cup and leave them to sit.

Chop your onion and garlic and chuck them in some hot oil in a big frying pan.

Stir them around for 30 seconds.

Add the chopped mushrooms and/or pepper, and cook for a couple of minutes (a bit of crunch is fine).

Now move everything to one side of the pan, crack the egg and stir it around in the clear bit for 30 seconds – it will look like a really broken omelette. 

Add your beansprouts and any prawns, then pour over your cup of sauce, stir everything about for another minute or 2, and mix in the cooked noodles.

Serve – with peanuts and lime if you’re feeling posh. Done!  

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2. One-pot money saving stew (approx cost: from 13p per serving)

This is a great way to use up any leftover veg from your stir-fry. It will also keep for ages, so use your biggest pot for cooking.

vegetable and bean stew with forks in bowls

You’ll need:

  • Half an onion
  • A couple of cloves of garlic 
  • Some spices for taste – I like a couple of teaspoons of chilli powder, some garam masala, and a bit of five-spice… mix it up.  
  • Some veg stock (tins of bullion powder are ultra-cheap and last for ages)
  • A tin or 2 of cheap chopped tomatoes 
  • A tin of kidney beans (or any other tinned bean goodness)
  • A tin of lentils or chickpeas
  • All the veg you can find – I use a potato, some courgettes, carrots and a leek or two. Peel your root veg for use in the chips recipe below.
  • Any leftover veg you need to eat.
  • For a low-meat alternative, boil the leftover bones from some chicken legs to make a stock, and add any leftover chicken meat to the pan after it boils.

Get cooking 

Chop the onion and garlic, and add them to the pot with your spices to soften.

After a minute or so, tip in all your harder veg (leave things like courgettes, peppers or mushrooms for later) and stir them around with everything.

Add the tinned tomatoes, beans and lentils/chickpeas. Do a bit more stirring, then in goes your stock and hot water to 3cm or so from the top of the pan.

Chuck a lid on the pot and bring to the boil. Now cook until all your hard veg has gone soft, then add the rest of your veg to warm it through.

I keep topping the pot up with more hot water as it cooks, to get a fairly liquid stew that lasts for days, but if you prefer, you can let it boil down for something a bit more stodgy. Sorted.

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3. Chips from veg peelings (approx cost: free)

Even your veg peelings don’t need to go to waste. If you’ve got an oven, save your skins for this super-easy fast-food snack.

potatoes and potato peelings

Lovely potato peelings, by Pixabay

You’ll need:

Get cooking

Pre-heat your oven to about 200C, then spread your peelings out on a baking tray.

Chuck out potato peelings that are green and throw salt, pepper and oil over the remainder. Stir to ensure all the skins are covered, then chuck them in the oven.

Roast for 15-20 minutes, giving them a shake once or twice during cooking.

Serve with your favourite dips, or grate a bit of cheese over the top for a tasty snack. Enjoy! 

The veg revolution

As it turned out, I spent my university days eating a lot of  meat-free meals

This was partly because of basic student maths (meat is expensive, therefore less meat = more money; more money = more 50p pints). But also because I was learning about the environmental impact of our meat consumption.

Hearing how soya monocultures were destroying the rainforests in South America, to produce feed for animals in the UK that went into my dinner, just convinced me that cutting down the amount of meat in my diet was the way to go.

And awareness about the impact of our high-meat diets has been rising since I was at university.

One study showed that 40% of people aged between 18 and 24 know about the environmental issues related to meat consumption, compared with 8% in 2007.

Students are campaigning on this, working with hundreds of universities to promote sustainable diets, for example with Meat-Free Mondays and People and Planet’s University League. Why not take action at your university? 

Inspired to go flexitarian? Join students across the UK and choose food that’s great for the planet and your bank balance.

Sign up and we’ll keep you stocked up with tips. 

Let’s all Eat Better together

This is an updated version of a blog first published on 24 June 2014.

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