Tips for College Meal Prep

DePaul student poses with friends at Konow's Corn Maze while celebrating Halloween near Chicago.

College life means being busy all the time, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t eat more than ramen and box mac and cheese. I love cooking and it has always been an enjoyable part of my daily routine, so I wanted to keep that tradition alive while living away from home. The main question for me was how to keep meals affordable, well-rounded, and realistic to make weekly. I have been living off-campus for two years now and I definitely feel like I have my meal prep down pat.  After lots of trial and error, here are my favorite tips to find a meal prep routine that works for you!

#1. Keep basic and versatile ingredients stocked up

First  and foremost, the foundation of your pantry is key. I used to just buy things that sounded good, but then I would go to make dinner and realize I had a lot of ingredients but none that would make a full recipe. Instead, I try to grab some rice, pasta, a ton of vegetables, a fruit, and some shelf-stable ingredients that can fit into many types of recipes (like chickpeas). This way, you can reduce waste from things going bad, and make the most of your budget. 

#2. Build a balanced plate

With a decent amount of ingredients prepped in your kitchen, it can sometimes be overwhelming to figure out a whole meal every night. But not every meal needs to be fancy! Stick to a basic structure and you will feel satisfied after eating. For me, I like to pick a base starch, some veggies, and a protein. Obviously, there is always wiggle room, but sticking to this formula helps me find some clarity when I get overwhelmed trying to decide. Just add some sauce or a topping and you are good to go! It also makes meals more satisfying and ensures that you are getting the nutrients you need. I refuse to fall victim to the Frat Flu or other illnesses that can float around college campuses!

#3. Shop with the sale cycles

I keep myself on a tight grocery budget, so coupons and weekly circulars are my best friends. I check the Jewel-Osco app to see what is on sale and shop around that. It can genuinely make a $50 run turn to $20! I buy proteins in bulk and portion them in bags to freeze, so I have everything on hand for when I need it. I focus on core ingredients for sales to save money, since I know that other items (my go-tos at Trader Joes) generally stay the same price. These small changes make a big difference and give me more money to allocate to other parts of my life- without sacrificing quality.

#4. Be realistic with your needs

Although meal prep is an incredible resource, I took it too seriously when I first started; I would watch a crazy amount of the TikTok meal prep videos designed for families of four. So I would buy ingredients to prepare for every meal of the week and would either not have time to cook it all, or I would get tired of eating the same meal every day and lose enjoyment. After a while, I realized that I had to accept that making every single meal ahead was not realistic. It is too hard to only cook at home when there are so many amazing cuisines available in Chicago! I try to explore the city’s offerings as much as I can, so I plan a meal or two every week as ‘free game’, where I go out, order in, or make a frozen meal, whatever I am feeling. This helps me stay out of a rut, and keeps my meals interesting. Meal prep is only supposed to supplement, it doesn’t have to run the whole show. Even cutting up veggies ahead of time makes a difference!

#5. Prep for on the go.

Working mornings and going straight to a full day of classes, I find that I rarely have time to do a sit-down lunch, especially without a microwave. I would end up carrying around lunch all day and having it go to waste, or be hungry because I did not know what else to bring. Now, I am preparing for on-the-go. I will bag up a few snacks at the start of the week and pair it with some fruits and veggies to just throw into my bag. They are quick enough to eat between classes but are still substantial enough to satiate hunger. I honestly love this setup for lunch now: my family is HUGE on charcuterie boards, and these snacks are like a travel charcuterie. Sometimes I feel like a little mouse, but now I have enough energy for the day ahead!

Meal prep might be intimidating, but it makes tackling meals during a busy schedule so much less daunting. I am eating great food, staying nutritionally balanced, and going below budget all the time now. That just means more time and money left over to try the incredible local restaurants of Chicago! I urge you to give meal prep a try and work with it to find what fits best into your schedule.

Good Luck and Get Cooking!

– Breanne K

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