Being Vegan at University: Easy & Cheap Meal Ideas for Students

Leaving home and going to university is the first time most of us will have experienced the freedom to buy, cook, and eat whatever we choose. It’s for this reason that many people find that their diets change somewhat when they become university students. Those who have been vegetarian or pescetarian up until that point often find that starting university gives them the perfect opportunity to fulfil their vegan dreams.

If you’re considering becoming vegan when you start university in September, you may be surprised to find that it’s much easier, and cheaper, than you think. We’ve put together a guide to getting started on your vegan lifestyle, plus a few cheap, easy, student-friendly vegan recipes to get you started...

Before you go to university...

  • Learn how to cook and shop for yourself: Whilst there are a variety of vegan-friendly convenience foods on the market these days, the price of these convenience foods isn’t always student-friendly. If you are planning on becoming vegan when you start or return to university in September, the best preparation you can do over the summer is to learn how to cook and perfect a few easy recipes. Pre-prepared vegan foods are handy for when you're in a rush or don't feel like cooking, and supermarket's own brand 'free from' foods tend to be a lot cheaper than branded vegan products. Look out for half price or buy one get one free offers in supermarkets too; if foods can be frozen or have a long life then it's good to stock up whilst they're on offer.
  • Research your uni accommodation: Most first years typically live on campus in university halls of residence, which are either catered or self-catering. If they are catered, contact the university to see what vegan options they offer. If your accommodation is self-catered you’ll have much more freedom to cook and eat whatever you choose.
  • Research the area: If you’re moving to a completely new area for university it’s a good idea to have a look online for cafes and restaurants in the area that cater for vegans. Download the Happy Cow app or use the web version to find vegan and vegan-friendly establishments in any area, all over the world!
  • Educate yourself: Obviously you know that being vegan means not consuming any animal products, including eggs, milk, cheese, and even honey. However, there are certain types of alcohol which are off-limits to vegans, as well as some surprising foods that are actually vegan. Vegan-friendly alcohol includes Absolut, Bacardi, Malibu, Budweiser, and Yellowtail red and white wines. Biscuits including Oreos and Hob Nobs are ‘accidentally’ vegan, which is great news for vegan students who need a sugar hit when the exam pressure builds!
  • Join a vegan association: If you're new to veganism and need some help and guidance in what to eat, where to shop etc then joining a vegan association, such as the Vegan Lifestyle Association or The Vegan Society, will help you to meet fellow vegans in your area. It also gives you access to recipes, meal ideas, shopping tips, and exclusive discounts and special offers for vegan products. 

When you get to university...

  • Join a society: Most universities will have some sort of vegan/vegetarian or animal rights society that you can get involved in. It’s a great way to meet likeminded students, share vegan recipes, and get more involved in campaigning for animal welfare on a larger scale.
  • Stock up your cupboards: If you are in catered halls your main meals are already taken care of, but it’s a good idea to have a stash of vegan snacks in your room for hangry emergencies. Things like Nakd bars, peanut butter, and certain brands of bread are vegan, and check out PETA’s list of 44 'accidentally vegan' foods for more snacking inspiration. Of course, fruit and vegetables are all vegan and great for you too so shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to snacking.
  • Stock up your freezer: If you are in self-catering accommodation or living off campus in a shared house you’ll have much more freedom food-wise. Before lectures begin, it’s a good idea to cook batches of vegan meals like chickpea and potato curry, lentil Bolognese sauce, mixed bean chilli etc and freeze it in portions so that you’ve got some quick and easy meals to see you through those first few crazy weeks of the new semester. Also, check out the freezer aisle of your local supermarket where you'll find frozen fruits and vegetables, as well as Quorn's new range of vegan produce, the Linda McCartney range of sausages, non-dairy ice cream, Cauldron tofu products, and McCain Quick Micro Chips which are also vegan!
  • Be a savvy shopper: Things like nuts and seeds are an essential part of a vegan's diet, but they don't always come cheap. Rather than buying them from health food shops or the nut/seed section of the supermarket, try shopping in the world foods aisle of your local supermarket instead where you'll find nuts and seeds in bulk bags for cheaper prices. Also search your local area for a cooperative store and club together with your housemates or friends to buy big bags of nuts in bulk. When it comes to convenience foods, supermarket own brands and value brands tend to be a lot cheaper than branded products, but always remember to check your labels to ensure they are vegan!

When you go home for the holidays...

  • Be prepared for a barrage of questions: When you return home for the holidays you will likely be faced with a barrage of questions from your family. They may assume it is just a phase, and they may not understand why you’ve become vegan. Stick to your guns and be prepared to answer their questions and educate them on animal welfare.
  • Help with shopping and cooking: Whoever normally does the food shopping and cooking in your family home will likely feel a bit stressed at the prospect of catering for your new diet. Get involved with meal planning, go to the supermarket with your parents, and get involved in cooking. You never know, when they taste your delicious vegan foods they may be tempted to follow suit!

Easy and Cheap Vegan Meal Ideas

Accommodation costs are always rising, and students are constantly having to stretch their loans further and further. Contrary to popular belief, living a vegan lifestyle is actually really cheap if you do it right. Opt for a natural, homemade approach, supplemented with supermarket own brand vegan produce, and you will save a fortune on food bills compared to your meat-eating peers!

Here are a few great ideas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that you can make quickly, easily, and cheaply...

VEGAN STORE CUPBOARD STAPLES

Stock up your store cupboard with these vegan staple items and you'll be able to whip up a quick and easy meal with no problem!

  • Oats: A 1kg bag of porridge oats will set you back as little as 75p and will last you approximately three weeks, based on a breakfast of porridge each morning where you use around 45-50g of oats each time. Oats can also be used to make granola, oat cookies, add more substance to veggie and bean burgers, bulk out homemade falafel, or even as a face mask!
  • Pasta: Not all pasta is vegan as some of it, especially fresh pasta, contains egg. Check your packaging before buying to be sure. Pasta is really handy to have in your store cupboard though as it's cheap and quick to prepare. Simply mix in some vegan-friendly pesto and roasted Mediterranean veg, chunky tomato sauce, or vegan 'meatballs' made with kidney beans for a cheap and tasty meal. 
  • Rice: Whether you opt for white or brown rice, it's always worth having a bag in your cupboard as it's so cheap and filling. A simple dish of rice and beans is one of the most cheap and hearty vegan meals you can make as a student. Just search online for a recipe and you'll find a plethora of tasty rice and bean combos. Rice also goes perfectly with vegan curries, mixed bean chilli, stir fries, or tofu and vegetable kebabs, among many other things.
  • Tinned beans and pulses: Having a few tins of chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans etc in your cupboard will give you the basis for a variety of different recipes. Turn chickpeas into homemade falafel or hummus, or simply coat them in spices and oil and toast them for a tasty snack. Baked beans in tomato sauce are also handy to have in the cupboard too as they're really cheap and quick to heat up and serve on top of toast or a baked potato.
  • Lentils: Packed full of protein, iron, and fibre, lentils are really cheap and versatile, and a big bag will last you ages. Add them to soups and vegetable casseroles to bulk them out; make lentil bolognese sauce or lentil-based curries, plus much more. Have a look on Google or Pinterest for tasty vegan lentil-based recipes.
  • Peanut butter: A jar of peanut butter is an absolute staple for many vegans, provided you don't have a peanut allergy! Spread it on toast for a filling and healthy breakfast or snack, scoop it up with slices of apple, add it to a sandwich with chopped banana or jam, mix it into your porridge, add it to a smoothie, or just eat it from the spoon!
  • Spices and herbs: Stock up your store cupboard with spices like paprika, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, garam masala, Chinese five spice; and herbs like oregano, basil, mint, thyme, rosemary, and coriander. Herbs and spices will liven up your other store cupboard staples, enhancing the amount of cheap and tasty meals you can make.

BREAKFAST

There’s no need to go out of your way to buy fancy ingredients that cost an arm and a leg; many of your favourite go-to breakfasts are already vegan or can be veganified really easily!

  • Porridge: Oats are vegan, so you just need to ensure you make your porridge with vegan-friendly milk such as almond, hazelnut, rice, soya, or oat milk which are all readily available in most supermarkets, although soya milk is by far the cheapest option for a cash-strapped student! Top it with maple syrup, agave, fruit, or nuts for a tasty and filling breakfast any day of the week. You could also top it with jam, which is a much cheaper alternative, just be sure to check the ingredients first and make sure the jam contains pectin rather than gelatin, and doesn't contain any milk derivatives or other animal products.
  • Overnight oats: Oats are cheap, filling, and low fat so they make a great way to start your day, but porridge isn’t great as a grab-and-go breakfast. Instead, take half a cup of oats, mix with around 100g of vegan-friendly yoghurt and a lacto-free milk like soya. Mix it all together, refrigerate overnight; in the morning simply top with fresh or dried fruit or some nuts, or stir in some vegan-friendly jam, and you’re good to go.
  • Avocado on toast: Avocado is an excellent source of healthy fats, and fat is what helps you to stay full. Halve an avocado, remove the stone, scoop out the flesh and mash it with a fork. Meanwhile, toast a couple of slices of bread, then top with the mashed avocado. You could add a squirt of lime juice and some crushed chilli flakes, or a handful of sunflower seeds and a drizzle of maple syrup. Some supermarkets sell smaller avocados in packs of 4 which typically work out cheaper than buying them individually; and Tesco also sell frozen avocado halves which takes away the agonising wait for that perfect moment of ripeness and avoids mushy, wasted avocados!
  • Beans on toast: An age-old student staple; there’s simply nothing more comforting on a cold morning that some thick-cut brown bread toasted and topped with baked beans. Most brands of tinned beans are vegan but do check your labels to be sure!
  • Fruit and yoghurt: Make a fruit salad at the weekend and keep it in your fridge for quick and easy breakfasts during the week. Top it with soya yoghurt and a handful of seeds, chopped nuts, or granola. Frozen fruit is often cheaper than fresh and it won’t spoil in your fruit bowl either!
  • Green smoothie: A smoothie is the ideal on-the-go breakfast; simply invest in a reusable plastic bottle or carry cup and take your breakfast to lectures with you. Start with a couple of handfuls of a green leafy vegetable such as spinach, then add in some fruit such as strawberries or kiwis (the vitamin C in these fruits aids your body’s absorption of iron from the spinach!), and top it off with some vegan-friendly liquid like water, coconut water, or soya milk. You can also add in a tablespoon of nut butter for extra protein and yumminess.

LUNCH

During the week you’ll want something you can prepare easily and throw into your bag for a quick fix between classes, whilst at the weekend you can brunch your lazy little socks off. Either way, we’ve got you covered!

  • Hummus and pittas: Hummus is an absolute vegan staple, and if you can make your own you’ll save money too! The basic ingredients consist of chickpeas, tahini, garlic, coriander, and lemon blended together in a food processor, and homemade hummus knocks socks off the store-bought stuff. Scoop it up with toasted pitta bread or chopped raw veggies like carrots, peppers, and cucumber.
  • Soup: Tinned soup is fairly cheap, but remember to check labels to make sure it’s completely vegan. The best way to ensure soup is suitable for you is to make it yourself. It’s also a great way to use up leftover veggies. Start by frying an onion in a little oil, add in your aromatics like garlic and spices, followed by chopped veggies and enough stock to cover them in the pan. Add lentils to make it really hearty and filling, and simmer for about 30 minutes. Eat it chunky or blend it with a hand blender to your tastes, and serve with bread.
  • Salad: A salad is something that you can prep the night before and just grab from the fridge on your way to class. You can pretty much put whatever you fancy into a salad; start with green leaves like baby spinach, cos lettuce, or rocket, and add in things like tomatoes, chopped cucumber, red pepper, radishes, red onion etc. Next add in some protein such as toasted chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, or Quorn ‘chicken’ pieces, and a drizzle of vinaigrette. Quorn have only recently introduced vegan 'chicken' pieces to their range, so check the ingredients before buying to make sure you're not buying the vegetarian one which contains egg white!
  • Sandwiches and wraps: At first you’ll probably be thinking “what the heck can I put on a sandwich?”, but when you start to look into vegan sandwich fillings you’ll be surprised at the choice! Spread your bread with hummus and add sliced falafel and salad; slice or mash an avocado and add some chopped cashew nuts; toast some chickpeas and wrap them with salad in a tortilla; or good old peanut butter, on its own or with chopped banana or jam.

DINNER

Whether you like to relax in the evening by cooking yourself a vegan feast, or are looking for a quick throw-together meal after a long day of lectures, try out some of these recipes for size.

  • Instant ramen: No list of student meal ideas would be complete without some sort of instant noodle dish! Most supermarket own brands of instant noodles are, in fact, vegan, and they’re also really cheap. It’s definitely worth having a few packs in your cupboard for emergency meals. Eat them on their own, or go gourmet and add in stir-fried vegetables and Quorn's vegan-friendly ‘chicken’ pieces or chopped firm tofu to make a more hearty meal out of your ramen.
  • Veggie burgers: Check the frozen aisles of your local supermarket (or on the website if you’re placing an online order!) for frozen veggie and bean burgers, making sure to check the ingredients to ensure they are vegan. They’re really handy to have in the freezer for nights when you don’t feel like cooking. Of course, if you are able to make your own bean burgers they’ll be a lot cheaper, and often a lot tastier! There are tonnes of recipes online, just have a look on Pinterest or Google for inspiration.
  • Jacket potato and beans: Baked potatoes are cheap, filling, and healthy. Top them with baked beans for a quick and easy meal any night of the week. If your budget will allow, you could also buy some nutritional yeast flakes to sprinkle on top for that cheesy beans experience without actual cheese.
  • Chickpea and potato curry: There are loads of recipes for this kind of curry online, but they’re all basically the same. You’ll need a tin of chickpeas, a large potato or sweet potato, a bag of spinach, tinned tomatoes, stock, and aromatics like onion, garlic, and curry powder. Serve with a big bowl of rice, and don’t forget to freeze your leftovers for future quick and easy meals!
  • Falafel: There are loads of great pre-made falafels on the market, but it’s also really easy to make at home too, and much cheaper! Do a quick search and find a recipe you like, but you’ll typically need chickpeas, flour, spices like garam masala or harissa pasta, lemon juice, garlic, something green and leafy like spinach or basil, and some oil to gently fry it in. Serve it with cous cous and roasted veggies, or toasted pittas and hummus.
  • Spaghetti Bolognese: This classic is a student favourite as it’s so easy and cheap to make, even more so when you do it vegan style. For a vegan version simply switch out the meat for Lentils. Chop an onion and some garlic and fry until translucent. Add a tablespoon of tomato puree and mix will; add in the lentils, then tip in a tin of chopped tomatoes and some vegetable stock, as well as oregano and basil, and a splash of red wine if you have some to hand. Simmer for 20 minutes, then serve with a big bowl of pasta and enjoy!

SNACKS

A busy schedule of lectures, seminars, tutorials, and essay writing can take its toll if you’re not careful. Regular snacking between meals can give you the energy you need to cope with university life. Here are some really easy snacks that you can grab on the go, or make in advance and throw in your bag to get you through the day.

  • Popcorn: Certain flavours of Propercorn, Metcalfe’s Skinny, and Butterkist popcorn are vegan. It’s also easy to make your own; you’ll find popping corn kernels in most supermarkets and health food stores. Simply place the kernels in a pan with a little bit of oil, put the lid on, and warm over a medium heat until the corn begins to pop! Sprinkle with salt and pepper, sugar, coconut oil, cinnamon, or whatever else takes your fancy.
  • Biscuits: Certain brands of biscuits are accidentally vegan, and having some in your cupboard can be a lifesaver when you’re bogged down with coursework and revision and in need of a pick-me-up! Fox’s Party Rings, Oreos, Crawford’s Pink Wafers, and McVitie’s Fig Rolls, Hobnobs, Ginger Nuts, and Fruit Shortcake biscuits are all vegan, as are many brands of chocolate bourbon biscuits.
  • Snack bars: All flavours of Nākd bars are completely vegan, and they’re cold pressed rather than baked so they can even help a raw vegan out in a hunger emergency! They are sold in most supermarkets and health food stores, or you can buy them in bulk from their website. It’s also fairly easy to make your own cold pressed energy bars; you’ll need dried dates, cashew nuts, and some sort of flavouring such as cocoa powder, chai spices, or grated orange peel. Blend together in a food processor, line a square tray with cling film, press the mixture into the tray, and refrigerate for a few hours before slicing and enjoying.
  • Chocolate: There are several brands of dark chocolate that are vegan, so even the most hardened chocoholics needn’t be scared of making the leap from vegetarianism to veganism. Cadbury Bournville, Lindt Excellence 70%, 85%, and 90% Dark Chocolate, Green & Blacks Dark Chocolate plain, or the espresso, spiced chilli, ginger, lemon, mint, or maya gold flavours, and Fry’s Chocolate Cream are all suitable for vegans.
  • Crisps: There are a wide variety of regular crisps which are accidentally vegan, many of which are actually meaty flavours, somewhat ironically. Walkers standard crisps in salt and vinegar, ready salted, prawn cocktail, and Worcester sauce flavour, as well as Sensations lime and coriander chutney poppadoms, and balsamic vinegar and caramelised onion flavour. Hula Hoops in original and salt and vinegar, and Pringles in original, BBQ, paprika, and smoky bacon flavour are all vegan.
  • Nut butter: A chopped apple dipped in peanut or almond butter makes a healthy and satisfying vegan snack. Prepare it the night before and throw it in your bag for a tasty, well-balanced snack on the go. If you're at home when hunger hits, pop some bread in the toaster and slather it with peanut butter. And if you're all out of fruit and bread, there's absolutely no shame in eating peanut butter straight from the jar with a spoon!
  • Roasted Chickpeas: Drain and rinse a tin of chickpeas and pat them dry with a paper towel. Put a tablespoon of oil into a food bag, along with whatever seasoning you like, such as paprika and garlic powder. Add the chickpeas, twist the bag to seal, and give it a good shake to coat the chickpeas evenly. Spread them out onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper and bake at 180°C for around 20 to 30 minutes, shaking halfway through, depending on how crunchy you want them to be.
  • Nuts: Good old fashioned nuts are one of the easiest snacks to carry around with you for emergencies. They are full of protein and good fats, so they’ll really hit the spot when you need a burst of energy to keep you going between meals. Check the world foods aisle in the supermarket, or seek out a local cooperative, where you’ll usually find nuts much cheaper in bulk packs, then simply divide them into food bags or plastic tubs into perfect portion sizes.

Sources:

Disclaimer: The information in this article has been largely sourced from the above list of websites, and was correct at the time of publishing. Food manufacturers reserve the right to alter recipes without notice, potentially rendering items non-vegan in the future. Please use this article as a guide only, and continue to check food labels and, if in doubt, contact manufacturers for information before consuming products in order to ensure they fit in with your ethical diet and lifestyle.

This list of recipes and meal ideas is by no means exhaustive, but if you’re new to veganism it should give you some great ideas to get you started. Invest in a couple of vegan cookbooks, and with some practice you’ll soon learn how to adapt your old favourites to make them vegan too!