A little over a year ago, I wrote about how meal prep changed my life as a new professional eager to enter the working world without spending $14 on salad every day for lunch. A lot has changed since then. For one, I’ve started to incorporate meat and fish back into my diet. I was strictly plant based for a while, and due to some health reasons have decided to maintain a more varied diet. I typically eat one plant-based meal each day, although my goal is two. Since I prefer to eat unprocessed foods, there are days where I may consume more animal products if the only plant-based options available contain refined grains, unfermented soy, or allergens. I’m also a student again, which means that $14 lunches are not really in my budget, no matter how delicious they are. Thirdly, I haven’t meal prepped breakfast, lunch, and dinner simultaneously in months. Between moving, traveling, and getting back into classes, I haven’t found my block of time to meal prep. To be honest, I don’t know if I’m even willing to block out and dedicate that many hours to meal prep anymore.
After consistently meal prepping for nearly 4 years, I’ve learned a lot about my own eating habits and how to adapt to new situations (i.e. school). Below are some tips that I follow to eat healthily on a student budget.
1. Figure out how much food you individually consume on a weekly basis.
Since I mostly purchase produce at the store, I shop weekly to pick up fresh foods. Because I know how much I consume in a week, it’s easy for me to go into a store and buy just what I need so that I am not wasteful. For example, I know that I eat between 2-3 fruits a day, so I purchase around 20 servings of fruit each week.
On a similar note, I also decide how many lunches and dinners I am going to prepare. It can be hard to predict lunch and dinner for the week since I am often attending meetings and events around mealtimes, so I tend to buy on the conservative side. Right now, I purchase a large bag of leafy greens (about 16 oz) that I can eat throughout the week either raw or sautéed. I also buy veggies that can double as snacks such as carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes. All of these veggies together would make a great salad, but if I am out during meal time, I will eat them as snacks.
So far, I plan to eat two meals at home each day: breakfast and lunch or dinner. If I happen to be at home for a third meal, I will usually grab leftovers or get takeout. My favorite options for takeout are salad or quinoa bowls.
2. Don’t be afraid of the frozen food aisle.
As a health food enthusiast, I spent many years avoiding the frozen food aisle. I wouldn’t even walk down it! I have discovered that frozen food is actually amazing and can save you lots of money if you choose well. In addition to fresh fruit, I like to buy some frozen fruit each week as well. Frozen fruit works well in smoothies, and it also stays fresh for much longer. If I have a busy week away from home and only eat 14 servings of fruit, I know that I can save my frozen fruit for the following week.
The same goes for vegetables. One of my go-to meals is chickpea or black bean pasta with veggies. I love a good roasted veggie pasta, but if time is of the essence, I’ll steam some frozen veggies instead. Keeping frozen veggies and quinoa on hand always guarantees a quick meal.
In addition, there are in fact some good frozen meals out there! I was surprised to see the abundance of organic, added-sugar free options in the frozen food aisle. Let’s face it-we all have rough days. Having some of these meals in the freezer means that you can choose well even when you just can’t with everyone and everything.
3. Stock up on canned foods.
Canned foods have a bad rep, partly for good reason. The only canned foods I buy are BPA-free, organic, and/or wild-caught. There are a lot of healthy options out there now. I love canned foods because similar to frozen foods-they don’t expire that quickly! A can of beans thrown over veggies and quinoa turns into a meal. A can of salmon mixed with some veggies turns into a salad. I always have canned wild Alaskan salmon, wild caught sardines, and various beans in my pantry so that I can whip up a quick meal.
4. Know what you like.
Often when I don’t like my food, it’s because it wasn’t curated for my palate. That’s the best part about cooking for yourself as a student-you can be selfish (most likely)! I love savory foods, so I always make sure to have that component in my dish whether it’s roasted sunflower seeds or crunchy chickpeas. I love avocado and hummus, so I will usually buy one or the other depending on the week to add to my dishes.
5. Don’t worry about making meals.
When I was working, meal prep was pretty much my second job. On Thursdays, I researched recipes, mapped out meals for the following week, and made my shopping list. On Saturdays, I went shopping. And finally, on Sundays, I got in the kitchen for 3 hours and did the darn thing. It was a whole lot of work.
While I love researching recipes and still do in my free time, I don’t know if this kind of coordination fits into my new life. Instead, I’m focused on creating meals with as many vegetables as possible and adding beans, meat, eggs, or fish as protein options. I vary my vegetables by the week to keep it interesting.
6. If you decide to cook, make more than one serving.
Even if you are cooking for yourself, make double or triple! It likely won’t take much longer than you initially planned and you can heat up the leftovers the following day or freeze them and eat them in a week or two!
7. Always be on the lookout for inspiration.
I am wildly passionate about healthy eating and cooking. I am constantly reading or scrolling through Instagram to find new ideas. You never know what will motivate you to try something new!
8. Make a list of meals you already know how to make.
Since I really want this to be as helpful as possible, below I’ve included some sample meals that can be thrown together in under 30 minutes.
Breakfast: Pumpkin oats
Lunch/Dinner: Salmon with sautéed kale, roasted beets (can purchase pre-packaged), and chickpeas
Lunch/Dinner: Veggie burger with sautéed kale, pickles, and roasted sweet potato
Lunch/Dinner: Kidney beans with quinoa, sautéed spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, and hummus
Lunch/Dinner: Hard boiled eggs with quinoa, sautéed kale, zucchini, and avocado