Meal Planning: a guide for the busy student

Lemon and rosemary chicken and vegetables with parsley potatoes

This time a year ago, I was twiddling my thumbs and obsessively refreshing my email inbox for the first indication of my housing assignment for the coming year at St Andrews. Unlike the rest of my W&M joint degree compatriots, I had applied for a room in Albany Park, a collection of blockish concrete, self-catered houses situated closer to the seaside than any other university residence, a peaceful location which easily atoned for the dullness of the buildings! In addition to the neighbouring beach, the opportunity to break free from the university meal plan cemented Albany Park as my first choice. When my housing notification finally arrived, I was quite satisfied. Immediately, I began working out a scheme for realistic meal planning. As is often the case, the “realistic” element did not fully develop until after several weeks of practice. In the end, I didn’t starve, and I managed to make meals which I would gladly choose over the average cafeteria fare, thank goodness!

Most of all, I really enjoyed having a chance to cook on a regular basis. Evenly chopped carrots, delicately browned toast, lazily simmering soup—they all bring a particular sense of homey comfort in addition to the gratification of enjoying the fruit of one’s own labours. To me, cooking is essential to feeling at home wherever I may be. Now, I promise to stop waxing poetic about produce and share some practical tips and ideas for the college-student meal-planner. Being responsible for your own meals while studying full-time does not mean you will end up subsisting on solely canned soup and microwave popcorn. You may be surprised by how, with a dash of forethought and only a couple of cooking sessions per week, you can prepare nutritious, affordable, delectable dishes and still keep up with your coursework and your friends!

Making a Meal Plan

If you are interested in meal planning, it is best to start with a simple daily chart. Hundreds of chart templates are available online, but you may find it easier to make your own, as I did. You will want to have a column for each day of the week and a row for each meal, possibly including snacks. If you consistently do your shopping on a particular day, you may find it helpful to start your chart on that day or the day after; for instance, I usually went shopping on Friday, so I started my chart on Saturday to make sure both my pantry and chart would be refilled at the same time. Should the fancy strike you, it is always fun to decorate your chart, see mine below!

blank menu template

completed menu template

With a printed chart in hand or a digital chart on the screen, you can begin crafting your menu for the week! Simply fill in each slot with the meal you plan to have. The best way to minimize the time you will spend cooking it to make meals in large batches and eat them over the course of several days. Above, you can see how I repeat the same meals multiple days in a row. As long as you rotate recipes often and make about three or four different dishes per week, you should have enough variety to keep your taste buds happy.

Be Prepared: Meal Prep

a tremendous tray of roasted chicken breasts and vegetables

While all of us wish we had time to cook every meal every day, I would be astonished if anyone actually had such an abundance of free time! Meal planning is easiest when you cook large batches of meals and store them to eat in the following days. As I prepare meals for one, it is convenient to use standard recipes intended to serve 3-4 and keep extra portions in tupperware containers for later.

If you share your living space with friends, you may find it most manageable to cook at times when you can have the kitchen to yourself. This year, I did most of my cooking early on Saturday and Wednesday mornings before my housemates were up. It felt a bit strange to make a cauldron-sized pot of soup just after eating breakfast, but it was convenient to have the prepared meals on-hand later!


Recipe Tips

See the recipe for roasted chicken breasts from Gimme Some Oven under dinner recipes for the basis of this dish!

A general formula for healthy and satisfying meals is protein + carbohydrate + vegetables. For instance, a chicken breast with steamed broccoli and a baked potato is a simple, balanced dinner which can, with very little effort, be made in a batch large enough to provide lunches for half the week. There are endless possibilities of combinations, but that general formula will keep you well-fed and off the ramen-noodles diet!

When selecting recipes, also bear in mind the number of portions of that meal you plan to keep for later in the week: make sure you won’t run out of dinners after only Tuesday.

I prefer to make breakfast fresh every morning—out of habit and a sincere appreciation for hot scrambled eggs—but the internet holds an inexhaustible supply of make-ahead breakfast recipes.

If you pack lunches, protein bowls, salads, or topped baked potatoes (which are called jacket potatoes in the UK!) are great options. Try to plan ahead and prepare the components of your lunches for the week in one go: roast three or four potatoes or boil grains and beans and keep them for later. Then, each morning your lunch will be patiently waiting for you in the fridge!

When it comes to dinner, unless you happen to be a dish washing enthusiast, you will most likely want to use one pan or one pot recipes which include multiple food groups. Roasting chicken and potatoes in the same tray or letting beans and peppers simmer away in a single saucepan leaves you with a well-balanced dinner and minimal messes to clean up.

One of the most popular weapons in the meal planning arsenal is the slow cooker. Last year, I did not have a slow cooker, but this year I will! I am eager to try plenty of new recipes.

Budget Friendly Tips

  • Make a shopping list and hold to it: Try to buy only what you know you will need for planned meals to reduce food waste and grocery bills.
  • Cook things from scratch whenever possible: Boxed mixes, prepared sauces, and frozen meals tend to be more expensive than whole ingredients, and they are typically less nutritious. Cooking from scratch can be challenging, but you will be amazed at how quickly your repertoire will grow!
  • Buy fruits and vegetables in season: Fruits and veg are less expensive and of better quality when in season. Here is a guide to the produce of the seasons from Wisebread.
  • Buy less meat and more beans: Buy vegetable proteins like beans, chickpeas, etc… rather than meat to cut costs. On a blustery winter day, vegetarian chili with sweet potato or a tomato-y lentil stew can be just as satisfying as any carnivorous comfort food.
  • Use canned pantry staples: It is rare for me to leave the grocery store without canned tomatoes, canned tuna, and canned beans. Canned goods are cheap and versatile, which makes them the perfect thing to keep on-hand.
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify: Will you really notice the lack of a bay leaf or cayenne pepper or fresh thyme if you eliminate it from the recipe to save money on seasonings? Probably not. If a recipe calls for a large variety of ingredients, consider which ones are really necessary and leave out the extra items.

Further Inspiration

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