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College life makes it hard to consistently eat well. But meal prepping is possible for anyone- and a little work on the front end will pay off throughout the year in more ways than one.
This guide is a culmination of 4 years of tinkering to find the best, most efficient approach for cooking enough healthy food to get through the week in 2 hours or less.
There are two goals with this approach to meal prepping: simplify the cooking process and eat well.
#1 Tip- Get A Crockpot
This is a detailed guide that you may not want to read start to finish. But no worries! If you get one thing out of this meal prep guide for college students, here’s one thing I really recommend you do:
Get a crockpot.
Why? Here are a few reasons:
- You’ll save time– Start to finish, you can expect the working time to be about 30 minutes for a crockpot meal prep. Pro tip: Do your prep right before bed, then set the crockpot to “Low” overnight.
- You’ll save money– Crockpots are fantastic for cooking “lesser” cuts of meat, like thighs, stew meat, and tougher steaks. My slow cooker has saved me hundreds of dollars over the last 4 year this way. I also waste way a lot less food.
- If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll save money by cooking dried beans in your crockpot. Cheaper than buying canned beans all the time!
- You’ll save calories– You don’t need to use oil or fat when using a crockpot. Water or stock will do the trick. Those saved calories add up over time.
- Clean up is easy– Hot water, dish soap, and 20 minutes to soak makes cleaning the crockpot easy, too.
You’ll see later on that I recommend using a crockpot for your “baby” meal prep during the week. I’ve had this model for 4 years and never had a problem with it.
For $39, you can’t beat the value. It will pay for itself very quickly.
To give you an idea of what you might make with yours, here’s a list of slow cooker recipes divided by category (breakfast, lunch, dessert, Mexican, BBQ, etc.) and another with 90 crockpot ideas for dinner.
I bought this Paleo Slow Cooker recipe book for under $10 a few years ago and recommend it.
With this approach, you’ll be prepping a week’s worth of meals in 2 hours or less.
On Sunday, you’ll spend about 90 minutes doing your “big” meal prep for busy people for the workweek. This does not include 45 minutes at the grocery store.
On Wednesday or Thursday, you’ll spend about 30 minutes doing a “baby” meal prep for busy people to get you through to the weekend. Adjust the days to fit your schedule and lifestyle.
Things You’ll Need
For each item below, I either linked to stuff I own or the least expensive alternative I could find that will get the job done.
- 2 Pans
- 1 3-Quart Pot
- 2-3 cookie sheets or baking dishes
- 2-4 large Tupperware containers
- 8 portable Tupperware containers (small enough to pack for the day)
- Aluminum foil
- 1-3 lean protein sources (see my favorites below)
- 3-8 vegetable options (see my favorites below)
- 1-2 fruit options
- 1 bag of long grain rice
- Olive oil or coconut oil
- Spices (specific recommendations below, but this all-in-one spice rack gives refills for 5 years)
- Preferred Snacks (optional, see my favorites below)
Things To Consider
Door Delivery Food Services
I haven’t used either of these services, but know friends that swear by them.
- Blue Apron– Chefs come up with a weekly menu that you pick your meals from. The meals arrive at your door with step-by-step instructions for cooking and serving.
- HelloFresh– Simple recipes and premeasured ingredients show up at your door each week so cooking is easy. Their plans reoccur each week and the price goes down if you are feeding a family.
Both companies offer incentivized deals to try their service once, so give it a try if it seems like a good fit.
You’re in college and on a budget. Do you know how much you’d save if you stopped buying expensive coffee drinks from Starbucks? About $1,971/year!
Fortunately, it’s pretty cheap to make your own coffee at home.
High-quality food choices are things like lean proteins, fresh vegetables and fruits, and tasty snacks with some nutritional value.
Amazon has made it easy to shop for most things from home, but you’ll probably want to also buy perishable groceries. Eat Wild can help you locate farmers in your state that sell various grass-fed meats.
Here are a few of my favorite grocery store items:
Shoot for lean sources of protein that you can buy in bulk. Some of my favorites are:
Ground Turkey- $2.99/lb
I’m allergic to eggs, which limits breakfast options, so I eat a lot of ground turkey. It’s cheap, easy to eat, and you can make it taste good during the laziest of meal preps (AKA, cover it in random spices and stir until cooked).
Easy Recipe: Turkey Sloppy Joes w/ homemade sauce (30 minutes)
Boneless, Skinless Chicken Thighs– $1.83/lb
Boneless and skinless will mean less work on your end during your prep. This is one of the “lesser” cuts that work well in a crockpot. You can get bone-in chicken thighs and other cuts of chicken much cheaper. .
Chicken breasts are good too, but I probably go with these more because they cost less.
Easy Recipe: Soy Balsamic Glazed Chicken Thighs (40 minutes)
Flank Steak- $8.50/lb
Steak is the most expensive thing in my cart. I buy it probably once every two weeks.
A cheaper option is London Broil, which is usually $5-6/lb.
Easy Recipe: Grilled Flank Steak Fajitas (45 minutes)
Pork Tenderloin- $5-6/lb
One of the many benefits of living in Colorado is King Soopers. They constantly have deals on pork loin (50% off or more), so I’ve always got one of these in the freezer.
Easy Recipe: Oven Roasted BBQ Pork Tenderloin (60 minutes)
I can’t eat whole eggs anymore because of an adult onset allergy, but I’d eat them every day if I could. They are the most versatile food at your disposal.
Easy Recipe: See the recipe section
Red Cabbage- $.89/lb
After years of meal prepping, I’ve concluded that red cabbage is the hidden gem of all vegetables. It’s dirt cheap, filling, and can be used in a variety of ways.
Probably like you, I walked by this stuff in the grocery store for years. I now buy a head of it every week and it never goes to waste.
Easy recipe: Red Cabbage and Shredded Carrot Slaw (20-25 minutes)
Whole Carrots- $1.25/lb
I strayed away from carrots for a long time, annoyed with their relatively higher carbohydrate count. Stupid logic, but that’s the truth. Now other than red cabbage, this is the vegetable I buy most frequently.
Easy Recipe: Oven Roasted Whole Carrots (30-40 minutes)
Sweet Potatoes- $1.29/lb
Sweet potatoes are calorically denser than the other vegetables on this list, but they are good for you, taste good, and versatile for cooking with. For most meals, I choose to have either sweet potato, rice, or corn tortillas as my “carb”.
Easy Recipe: Baked Sweet Potato Homefries (1 hour, less if you start them in the microwave)
Green Beans- $1.99/lb
I go through seasons with vegetables, but always make sure to leave the store with at least one green vegetable. I recommend you do the same. Green beans have been my green veg staple lately.
I should probably eat more green vegetables, but I’ve eaten enough spinach and broccoli in my post-college life to sink the Lusitania.
Easy Recipe: Roasted Green Beans with Garlic and Fresh Lemon (30-40 minutes)
Other than how tasty it is, there’s a lot of good research out there about the health benefits of garlic. I cook with it daily.
Check out the breakfast recipe section for a little hack on eggs using garlic that I used to love before I developed an egg allergy.
Here are a few spices that get a lot of use in my kitchen:
- Pink Himalayan Sea Salt– I didn’t salt my food for years, but now add a little bit of this during the cooking process.
- Chili Powder– I use chili powder during almost every meal prep, and have recently fallen in love with the Ancho variety.
- Paprika– A mild spice that goes well on most meats.
- Curry Powder– Curry powder can also be used in rubs, to jazz up chicken salad, and as a background flavor when roasting vegetables.
- Cumin– Cumin has an earthy flavor that pairs well with chili powder and a touch of sea salt.
You know the adage about “an apple a day”, right? I tend to go for the cheapest multi-colored option available, but my favorites are Gala, Fuji, and Ambrosia.
Berry prices are finicky. One week you can get a whole carton of blackberries for $.99, and the next you have to fill out a FAFSA form before leaving the store with them.
Corn Tortillas– $2.29 for a 30-pack
Corn tortillas are an underrated option for meals and snacks. You don’t have to “feel like Mexican food” to use tortillas throughout the week.
I throw 3 of them in a pop toaster for about 90 seconds.
Smoked Oysters– $1.89/can
I only discovered these recently, but have become a big fan. From the cans I’ve looked at, there is usually between 11-18 grams of protein in a 3oz can.
Cottage Cheese- $2.49/carton
Cottage cheese pairs well with fruits and is a good snack before bed. It’s a good way to get in some extra protein, too.
Rice Cakes- $1.99/bag
“Design Down” Your Weekly Needs
In the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey teaches us to begin with the end in mind. This means start with an end goal, and work your way back to the things that need to happen in order for you to get there.
I recommend you apply this to your grocery budget.
Figure out the answers to the questions below, and you’ll also have an idea of your budgeting and nutritional goals.
Question #1/1a: How much do you eat in a day? What are your nutritional goals?
Start by figuring out how much food you eat each day. You can guess, or:
You can find your caloric needs for the day and a protein/carb/fat ratio that meets that number. This Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) calculator can help you figure out how many calories you need. Use this information as a guideline, not as dogma.
A gram of protein and a gram of carbohydrate are both 4 calories, and a gram of fat is 9. I won’t recommend the ratio of protein/carb/fat you should use, but this calculator might help you figure it out. Recording my daily intake in this app has been very beneficial for me.
Question #2: What foods meet your nutritional goals?
How much ground turkey or chicken do you need to eat if your goal is 150g of protein a day?
What (and how much) will you need to hit your carbohydrates and fat goals?
Think of some of the “staple” foods you eat, or if you’re new to this meal prep for busy people approach, figure out the nutritional value of a few foods you eat regularly.
I’d recommend playing around with a macro counting app to see which foods might work for you.
Question #3: How much food will you need to eat like that over the course of a week?
Multiply your daily needs by the number of days you plan to eat like this.
I think it’s fine for a lot of people to start with just the workweek to prevent overwhelm. Multiply your daily caloric and macro needs by 5 or 7 days, and that should give you an idea of how much food you need for the week.
Example: If your daily macro split was 150p/250c/80f, then your workweek requirement would be 750p/1250c/400f.
Question #4: Given this information, what do you need to buy at the store?
If your school week requirement is 750g of protein, and 1lb of chicken has around 130g of protein in it, how much chicken should you buy? Vegetables?
How much of your school week requirement do you want to commit to chicken? (Typing that out, I realize it’s a funny question to ask yourself)
This isn’t a robotic process by any means. The goal is to have an idea of how much food you need to make it through the week. It will take some tinkering.
This is simply a fool-proof way to trim the fat (pun intended) from your grocery list. Meal prep for busy people means being efficient whenever possible. You’ll save money only buying what you need and probably eat a whole lot healthier with this approach.
“Big” Weekend Meap Prep- 90 minutes
This does not include the 60 minutes or less you’ll spend at the grocery store.
Here’s how to do it:
- Pick 5-6 items from your shop- 2 “main dish” items (proteins), 1-2 carbs, and at least 1 extra veggie.
- Prepare your main dish and carb first. Consider any of the recipes in this article or other foods you enjoy. If it’s a meat/vegetable dish with 5-6 ingredients, it should take 30-45 minutes to cook 2-3lbs of food.
- Once the food is cooking, wash all of your vegetables and cut them up into bite-size pieces. For this approach, either fill a container with raw vegetables or make one big salad you can eat for a few days.
- Once the food is done, store it.
This is an easy way to make school week lunch and dinners for the next 2-3 days.
When it comes time to eat throughout the week, simply get a plate and 3-4 different containers of food from the fridge. Mix and match your items, using a few or all of the things you’ve prepared.
“Baby” Weeknight Meal Prep- 30 minutes or less
The beauty of the crockpot is that you can meal prep while you sleep.
Omit one protein source and prepare (chop up) 2-4 raw vegetable during Sunday’s meal prep, and have them ready to go for Wednesday night.
20 minutes before you go to bed, put all of the ingredients for your dish in the pot and add 1 cup of cold water. Set the crockpot to “low” and go to sleep. You’ll wake up to a fully cooked meal. Turn the crockpot off upon waking so it cools off while you get ready for work, and then store it before you leave.
*Pro Tip: To truly make this an all-in-one recipe, add a little extra water than seems necessary the night before. If you wake up with 30 or more minutes to spare in the morning, add 1 cup of uncooked rice directly to the “broth” in the crockpot. Add 1 more cup of water, turn the pot off, and stir.
In about 30 minutes, the rice will have soaked up all the juice from the dish you just cooked, turning the meal into a kind of “jambalaya”.
Meal Prep Recipes
Garlic Egg “Hack”
Eggs should be a staple purchase for any college student. They are cheap, and can be prepared countless ways.
Even so, if you have eggs every day, you’ll tire of them. I discovered this “hack” in college and made my eggs this way every day for a year.
It’s a simple tip: before you cook the eggs, mince fresh garlic and cook the garlic in a pan on medium-low heat with your preferred oil (I use olive oil). Keep the heat on medium-low heat so the edges of the garlic don’t burn before the eggs are even in the pan.
If you like, cook vegetables like spinach or peppers in with the garlic, much like you’d do when making an omelette. After 3-4 minutes of time in the pan, add your eggs in. The garlic infused oil will penetrate every nook and cranny of the eggs, and your eggs will have that awesome garlic flavor throughout.
Chicken and Vegetable Curry
4-6 cups of cooked rice
Preheat your pan on medium heat and add the oil in. Put all of the chicken in at once, browning it until there is no pink left anywhere. Once the chicken is cooked, add the garlic, bell pepper, onion, and broccoli. Stir for 3-4 minutes.
Add your spices all at once, stirring as you go. Like the chili recipe, it will seem like a lot of spice, but you’ll need it once you add the water. Add the green beans last (they stay crunchy this way). At this point, if you’re going to make rice, it should be cooking.
Once the spices have been added and the vegetables start to cook down, add 2 cups of water on top. Stir for a minute. Your goal is to add as little water as possible so the curry doesn’t get watered down. Add the can of coconut milk last, then set the heat at medium-low and let simmer for 30 minutes. Serve over rice or as-is in a bowl. This curry recipe heats up well and lasts about 4 days in the fridge.
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