Making smart food choices on a budget at Union food court can prove tricky


Three days out of the week, I spend at least 10 hours on campus. This inevitably results in eating at least one meal from the K-State Student Union. Over the summer, I was on a health kick. Watching what I was eating and counting the calories of my meals became an easy regimen to follow. Once the school year started, I found it increasingly difficult to make healthy choices on campus. 

There are healthy places to eat in the Union, but I always gravitate toward the fast, easy and cheap choices, which are usually Chick-fil-A’s 5 for $5 deal or Panda Express. 

The one time I made a salad at the Wild Greens station, it ended up costing me more than $12, and that was the end of making my own salads. If anything can be said about me it’s that I’m incredibly frugal, especially when I have to buy multiple meals a week on campus.

I think eating healthy without spending $12 on a salad is a concern that most college students can identify with, so I’m going to compare a couple of foods to show which is the better deal in both nutrition and cost.

Today, we take a look at one of my staple food groups: Chinese. My usual choice at Panda Express consists of a two-entree combo with one side. I always get chow mein as a side and orange chicken as one of the entrees. My second choice is usually string bean chicken breast or Beijing beef if I’m feeling feisty. This plate comes out to a whopping 1,600 calories.

To give you an idea of just how bad that is, I used Mayo Clinic’s calorie intake calculator at, which shows my recommended daily caloric intake based on height, weight, age, gender and activity level. The calculator recommends that, to maintain my current weight, my daily intake should be about 1,900 per day. Again, that one meal from Panda Express came out to 1,600 — almost an entire day’s worth of calories in one meal.

Other aspects of this meal are of concern. As a woman, my recommended intake is 30 grams of sugar, 2,300 mg of sodium, 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates and 44 to 78 grams of fat, according to articles featured on Some of these numbers are based on a 2,000 daily caloric intake or are targeted to both men and women.

My Panda Express plate has 51 grams of sugar, 2,570 mg of sodium, 165 grams of carbohydrates and 83 grams of fat. As you can see, this dish exceeds my recommended daily allowances in most aspects. I understand that there are such things as good fats, sugars and carbohydrates, but I highly doubt that any of them can be found on this plate. 

Rather than picking this meal, I would recommend choosing a Panda Bowl, which consists of one side and one entree and is significantly smaller in size. Instead of the chow mein, which is 490 calories and 22 grams of fat per serving, the mixed vegetables are only 70 calories and half a gram of fat. 

As an entree choice, I would choose string bean chicken or beef and broccoli. The chicken combo adds up to 230 calories, while the beef and broccoli combo adds up to 190 calories. The two-entree meal has 1,000 more calories than either of these Panda Bowl combinations. 

What about the cost? The two-entree meal costs about $6.80 with tax and no drink. The Panda Bowl costs about $5.50. Realistically, you only save about a dollar by purchasing the Panda Bowl, so cost-wise there isn’t a big difference, but it’s still a lot cheaper than a $12 salad.

The Panda Bowl is definitely the better choice in terms of both cost and health. Even if you still get the usual sides and entrees, the smaller size alone is at least a little bit better for you.

Kelsey McClelland is a senior in journalism and mass communications. Please send comments to