How to cook better, at college, without hitting the bank account too hard!
If we're being honest, in your first year of college you probably spent about $700 on Starbucks coffees. If nothing else, I hope it's a lesson learned, that helps you be more mindful of your money and eating habits in college. But, I get it... it's your first year; you've never been completely alone and you don't really have any money management skills. Combine all those things, and a lack of planning, and you're on the "rough start" path.
College gets hectic, with homework, club meetings, hanging out with friends, internships, volunteering, exams, and very little time to do it all on your own. So when it comes to food, planning is key. I know it's easier to take Uber Eats every night and buy chips from vending machines to eat between class breaks, but your body will thank you if you take a break and put in a little effort to eat nutrient-rich meals.
This year I hope you decided to have a meal plan, cut down on Starbucks and make the food yourself. You'll still break the "rules" from time to time, but 80% success is still way better than 50%. So, here are a couple of tips, form college students, on how to prepare meals and eat well on a college budget.
START WITH WHAT YOU KNOW
Planning meals for the whole week, every week, can seem daunting, so start small with what you know in the kitchen. For me it was pasta. Pasta is any hobby cook's best friend because it is easy, fast and requires very few ingredients. It is also great for meal prep due to its flexibility and durability. According to Healthline, pasta lasts about 3-5 days in the refrigerator, so what I did in my first week of meal prep was make a large amount of plain pasta, and then I ate it with different sauces throughout the week. Whether it's pasta, rice, or just bread (you'd be surprised how many things you can do with bread), start with a base you know well and build your meals from there. Try to choose things that can last in the refrigerator long enough to repeat throughout the week.
WORK YOUR PROTEINS
I can't stress this enough: buy protein and portion, they will save your life. My strategy is best explained with chicken. I buy a pack of boneless chicken breasts and out of the skin and separo in portions, season each and label if it is a large or small portion in a ziploc bag. The portions go to the freezer and since they only take about 10 minutes to defrost with hot water and eight minutes to cook, I can eat delicious chicken breasts in less than 20 minutes. For storage, I use Ziploc bags, but if you want to save the environment, you can also buy freezer safe Tupperware containers, which won't cost more than $ 15 and will be a plus for a long time. It's also worth noting that protein stores best in the freezer when not cooked, according to The Kitchn, Raw chicken can last in there for months without spoiling or losing its flavor.
KEEP YOUR OPTIONS OPEN
Yes, meal prep is great and will help you eat better and cheaper, but sometimes there's just no time to defrost and cook chicken breasts, so always keep your options open. Plan as many meals as you can, but when grocery shopping, keep in mind that simple microwaved meals are sometimes a good option. I try to minimize frozen meals, but a Publix pizza is currently in my fridge and as I'm overwhelmed with homework and mid-term exams, it's probably going to be my dinner tonight. If you do the math, at the end of the day, it's cheaper to buy frozen meals, which may not be the healthiest, than to pay for Chipotle delivery every night that won't do your arteries any good either.
For reference, some of my favorite prepared meals are Publix Pizzas, Cooked Mashed Potatoes, Frozen Orange Chicken, and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. These aren't healthy, but they're well priced and will cost me less time and money than standing in line at Hub Chick-fil-A between classes.
BUDGET, BUDGET, BUDGET
I know this step is annoying because who has the time to keep track of their money? But it's crucial if you don't want to accidentally spend your financial aid refund while traveling to Wawa. I have learned that by keeping track of what I spend, I hold myself accountable. There are apps you can use, like Mint or EveryDollar, or you can go the easy way out and use an Excel spreadsheet, but keep track of how much you spend on food and set goals for yourself on how much it should be. By keeping a budget, you also help yourself financially in other areas that don't have to do with food; you can be more careful about how much you spend on clothes, entertainment and even entering clubs. That way you'll know exactly how much money you can save to go out to eat every now and then with friends and continue shopping for the week.