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The Exam Diet: Your guide to budget-friendly brain food

27Kate, our Student Intern, shares her tips for eating well on a budget during exams…


Endless tesco meal deals, the occasional wi-wo, various chocolatey snacks and an array of beverages from hoffi coffi’s selection may seem like the ideal exam diet, but it’s neither brain food nor budget-friendly.

I know the struggles of exam time. That period when lif0127e seems suddenly empty of social interaction and full instead of that brain-frazzled feeling; a time when that lidl vanilla crown you promised yourself seems to be the only thing dragging you forward through the seemingly endless stack of revision notes. Though rewarding yourself is an important part of revision, your body and brain need proper fuel for revision. Swap sugary snacks for high-protein ones like nuts, eat fresh fruit and vegetables and try not to consume too mach caffeine.

Drop the Krispy Kreme and reach for the Kale. Here are my tips for eating well on a budget during exam time.


Plan ahead

Planning your (healthy) meals for the week means you will save time by avoiding frequent shopping trips, and money and calories by avoiding the lapses in willpower that accompany various walks through the bakery section. More money, more time and better brainpower for the coming exams; planning ahead is the number one tip.

If you’re lacking in healthy meal ideas, there are lots online. Try BBC Good Food student recipes of some of our own Easy Eats blogs for some inspiration. Planning meals ahead also means that you can fully commit to a full library session, armed with positivity, high protein snacks and a brain-fuel-filled Tupperware. You can do this.


Know what foods fuel the body and brain…

Fruit and Vegetables

Like salt and pepper, fish and chips, or Ant and Dec, fruit and vegetables are a golden duo and the key to a good balanced diet. Though your parents may have been stretching the truth a little bit when they said carrots can make you see in the dark and eating sweetcorn can make you suddenly swell to giant-size proportion, they are the brain foods.

Five portions a day will keep the library demons away. Although this may seem like a lot it is definitely achievable. Don’t forget fresh, frozen, canned and dried fruit and vegetables count towards your five a day. So if you’re one of those students that buys fresh fruit and vegetables but never gets round to eating it before it goes off, opt for the canned and dried goods!


Other tips:

  • When buying tinned fruit, opt for fruit stored in juice, rather than syrup, to avoid added sugar.
  • Use frozen vegetables to bulk out meat dishes, to reduce your meat intake and make the dish more cost-effective. For example, add frozen peas and sweetcorn to stir fries and rice dishes. Alternatively, use frozen mixed vegetables with mince to make shepherd’s pie.
  • Add tinned pulses (chick peas or lentils) to curry sauce instead of meat.
  • Add tinned tomatoes, onions, garlic and olive oil to make a bolognaise sauce for a meatball or lasagna dish.
  • Add dried fruit to cereal.
  • Frozen berries are much cheaper than fresh berries and are delicious when added to natural yoghurt and honey.
  • Swap meat for vegetarian options as it will be cheaper and better for you.



Starchy foods are an important component of the student diet. These include bread, potatoes, pasta, rice and breakfast cereals (try to opt for the whole grain varieties). Starchy foods are broken down into glucose which is the main fuel for your brain. Not only does the brain play a key role in ensuring you have an efficient metabolism, it is also your key tool for exam success. So feed it goodness! Carbohydrates can be good for those long revision sessions, so try and make sure to include starch at mealtimes.

Long-term avoidance of starch can cause the brain to register a false starvation and respond by slowing the metabolic rate, thus making weight gain more likely (a big no no).

Rice can be bought relatively cheaply and has a long shelf life. Similarly, couscous and pasta are great store cupboard ingredients and are quick to cook.

Some cheap nutritious student friendly meals can include:

  • Pasta in a homemade tomato sauce with cheese (because you have to treat your studied-out self).
  • Stir-fries with rice or noodles, with leftover meat and vegetables.
  • Jacket potatoes with beans or cheese or coronation chicken with leftover vegetables topped with cheese, bolognaise sauce or chilli.
  • Spaghetti and meatballs.
  • Use leftover potatoes and vegetables to make a Spanish omelette.
  • Macaroni cheese.
  • Buy pizza bases and add your own toppings for a treat. Use, for example, sausage, leftover meats, cheese, frozen peppers and sweetcorn. This is far cheaper than the frankly extortionate price of Dominoes Pizza.
  • Couscous salad with chick peas or leftover meat or fish.


Dairy products

Another important food group is dairy, as most people require a minimum of three portions daily. 1 portion equates to one-third of a pint of milk, a small pot of yoghurt or a small matchbox size square of cheese. These foods contain calcium which is essential for healthy bones (don’t want to break your calcium-deprived leg falling over at the post-exam celebrations).

Some guidance:

  • Buy plain natural yoghurt instead of individual pots as it is significantly cheaper. Then either mix with meringues and frozen berries for a cheap Eton Mess or mix plain natural yoghurt with honey and granola.
  • Cheese on toast can be a quick and nutritious small meal
  • Buy mature cheese instead of mild as less will be required in cooking owing to the greater strength of flavour. A little goes a long way
  • Cheese is versatile and can be added to many dishes to add protein to meals. For example, pasta and pesto (personal favourite) topped with cheese adds protein to your meal.


Meat, fish, eggs, beans, and meat alternatives including soya

These foods contain protein and play an important role in allowing the body to grow and repair itself. Meat, eggs and pulses are good sources of iron. Oily fish contains omega 3 oils which play an important role in the prevention of heart disease.

Current guidelines recommend consuming a minimum of two portions of fish per week of which one should be oily. Eating fish can significantly reduce your risk of having a heart attack and therefore contribute to a healthy heart. Oily fish include kippers, sardines, trout, pilchards, salmon, fresh tuna (not canned as oils are lost during the canning process), mackerel and eel. If you can incorporate these into your diet you are doing well, and your body (and mind) will greatly appreciate it. Do not stress about the cost of it either, as frozen meat is usually cheaper and if you bulk buy and make meals the cost will be spread out over a number of days.

Top tips:

  • Choosing cuts of meat which are versatile makes economic sense. E.g. buy minced beef or lamb meat to make kebabs (kofta kebabs), burgers, bolognaise, meatballs, shepherd’s pie and lasagna.
  • A small cooked chicken can also be used in sandwiches, curry, chicken and vegetable savory rice dishes, and couscous.
  • Turkey is often cheaper than chicken.
  • Oily fish can be very economical, quick and easy to cook. Try pan-fried/tinned mackerel fillets with rice/mash, tinned sardines/kippers on toast or pilchards in tomato sauce with rice.
  • Fresh salmon and tuna can be expensive so look out for offers or buy them frozen as this is usually cheaper.
  • Pulses are high in protein and fibre. Pulses, including baked beans, kidney beans, chick peas and lentils, are all very cheap to buy either dried or tinned.
  • Buying dried pulses is more economical but some require soaking overnight before cooking and can take a long time to cook.
  • Some pulses such as kidney beans can be as cheap as 20-30p a can, and can be used to bulk out dishes instead of using meat. A mixed bean chilli is also inexpensive and very healthy. Chick peas and lentils can be added to curries.
  • Eggs are high in protein and a good source of iron. They are very versatile and quick to cook. Dishes including boiled/poached or scrambled egg, and omelets.
  • Meat alternatives such as soya, tofu and Quorn are versatile and can be used as substitutes for meat or fish. All work well with rice, noodles, pasta and potatoes. In general, meat substitutes are low in fat and many soya products are available to buy already frozen and therefore have a lengthy shelf life.


So there we are. A mine of nutritional knowledge and student-guide to a cheap brain-fuel filled diet all rolled into one! I hope you’ve enjoyed.


Good luck everyone! Pob lwc pawb!


Watch our video, ‘Staying saavy at the supermarket’

Check out more of our exam advice and tips

Top tips to help you revise effectively

Tips on coping with anxiety before and during exams

Top tips to help you manage exam stress

Exams and your tier 4 visa

Presentation panic? Tips to help


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Best wishes,

Kate, Student Intern.


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