How to Eat With Minimal Waste in College (On A Budget)


Ahhhhh, college: a time of sharing spaces with roommates, being rushed from class to class, hanging out with friends, and being “broke.” Am I right?

Back when I was in college, I was ALL about the convenience foods. Somewhat-cheap, definitely not good for me, and terrible for the planet.

What if I told you there was an easy way to eat healthier, save some money, and reduce waste with your food? There is!

Don’t worry, I’m not going to start this post off preaching by how you need to start composting ASAP, much to the dismayed look your dorm roommate is giving you (although if you’re feeling passionate about it, by all means! Go for it!). Bonus if there is already a composting program on your campus.

Even if composting is not an option, there are ways you can eat with minimal waste. Here’s how:

  • Start by bringing your own reusable dishes to college: While I’m not going to preach to you about composting, if you’re looking to reduce waste: disposable plates, napkins, and silverware isn’t going to cut it. Before you head off, hit up the local thrift store (or ask around to friends and family) for any extra dishes you can bring to college. Same with reusable napkins. Not only can you use the dishes in your dorm/off-campus housing, but you can bring them with to any type of on-campus BBQ, the cafeteria (if they don’t already have reusables), etc. Worried about what others might think? Use it as an opportunity to talk to people about your zero waste efforts. They’ll probably think it’s pretty cool.

  • Reusable, recyclable: For walking around campus and going to class, BYO reusable water bottles and refillable coffee mugs for coffee/tea (bonus if you use it while hitting up the local coffee shop!). For in the dorm, use the same items, or opt for drinks in bottles and/or cans, which can be recycled. With your reusable water bottle on hand, try and opt out of using single-use plastic bottles.

  • Snack attack: if you don’t have access to bulk (whether that’s proximity or budget), buy stuff in the biggest package you can, and then separate the food out into smaller containers once you get back to your dorm. This not only cuts down on overall waste (multiple smaller packages create more waste than one larger package), but you can also reuse the bigger packaging for something else - for example, a trash bag, food storage, etc. If you’re out on campus when a hanger pang strikes, get in the habit of carrying a small container that you can request any snacks in when purchasing something.

  • Meals: Most dorms that I know of allow a microwave, and that’s about it. While I did eat at the cafeteria, I certainly ate a lot in my dorm. I remember that it was really hard to find food I could cook in the microwave that wasn’t plastic-based (I ate a lot of easy mac and ramen).

Even if you’re in an apartment or house with a full kitchen, the easier the meal, the better (at least that was my roommates and my motto!). But not only are the easiest and most convenient meals not good for you, they’re not the best for your wallet, nor the earth.

Here are a handful of some easy dorm and off-campus housing friendly meals:

  • Quesadillas - Easy peasy - cheese, tortillas, black beans, salsa, avo (the possibilities are endless). You can reuse the cheese and tortilla bag for something else. Recycle the can of black beans. Reuse the salsa jar as food storage or other type of storage. Compost (if able) the avocado peel.

  • Overnight Oats - Yes, I know that fridge space is limited, but these are easy to make so even if you can’t batch-make them, they won’t take much time. And, they don’t require heating so they are perfect for those 8am classes (which you continue to ask yourself why you signed up for). Grab some mason jars and put about ½ cup of oats in (give or take depending on your preference). Pour in about ¾ cup of milk (again, play around with your preference). Add in some nut butter, fruit, and cinnamon, cocoa powder, etc. Look for items in bulk, reusable, or recyclable (in that order) packaging. Throw in fridge overnight!

  • Pasta dishes - Did you know you can make noodles in the microwave without the use of plastic? It’s true! You basically follow the same directions as you would for pasta on the stove, but add a little extra cooking time.  Here are the exact instructions. Once you have your pasta, the possibilities are endless.

For even more support, check out any zero waste or environmental groups on campus. They can be a great source of information, a great place to make friends, and a great way to rally behind a cause on campus (starting a compost program, perhaps?). They can also be a great place to spread the word about zero waste, so it starts becoming more mainstream to bring reusables, etc.

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Meet the Staff

Laura loves all things Harry Potter, edible cookie dough, and musicals. Additionally, she is a mom, wife, nature photographer, proud Minnesotan, outdoor enthusiast, self-care advocate, and so much more. Laura blogs over at The Mindful Mom Blographer and helps others REDUCE mental clutter through mindful and intentional living, minimalism, and zero waste living.