When you’re so busy with schoolwork and other extracurricular activities, it can be hard to make time to cook your own food. Plus, living on your own for the first time can be hard on the wallet. Budgeting is a skill that you’re still trying to master.
That’s probably why you usually resort to take-out and instant meals. While those are quick and inexpensive, they’re not the healthiest options around. Home-cooked meals have a better chance of being healthier for you.
A great thing to do to help your cook quicker meals while keeping you in budget is to practice meal planning.
What is Meal Planning?
The term speaks for itself, honestly. Meal planning is the practice of scheduling and organizing your meals ahead of time.
Meal planning helps you keep track of what you’re eating and how healthy each meal is. It also helps keep you within your target budget. It also helps lessen your food waste since you’ll only be buying what you need.
There are tons of ways to plan your meals, and it usually depends on your personal preferences and needs.
The Practical Art of Meal Prep
Meal Prep, short for ‘meal preparation,’ is a type of meal planning where you get together all the ingredients you need well beforehand. You divide all the ingredients into smaller portions so that they all fit for one meal.
During meal prep, you can opt just to split up the ingredients, or actually cook your food. Cooking your food beforehand, dividing them into single meals, and freezing them up helps you prepare for the entire week ahead. All you need to do is to heat each meal up.
If you have the time to make several dishes in just one day per week, meal prepping can be an excellent solution for you during your time in school.
Meal prepping is also very flexible. You can change anything and everything in your meal plan (from your calorie and macronutrient intake to your meal frequency) depending on your schedule, budget, and goals.
For example, if you are a college student looking to lose fat or gain muscle, you can focus more on a bodybuilding style of meal planning such as in this video:
What are the Benefits of Meal Planning for Students?
1. Meal Planning Helps You Save Money and Time
Planning ahead keeps you in line when you’re in the grocery store. You don’t need to dilly-dally in the aisles since you already have a solid course of action.
Knowing what specific ingredients to buy helps keep your shopping time to a minimum. It also helps keep you in check with whatever money you have.
2. Meal Planning Helps You Control Your Weight
You are the one who controls the portions you eat (or if we’re being honest, your budget is in control). By planning your meal, you have more say if you eat more carbs, more protein, or more fats.
You can allocate your food money to more fruits and vegetables and fewer noodles and rice if you want to. Proper planning can help you lose some weight if that’s a goal you have in mind.
3. Meal Planning Helps You Balance Your Meals
Here’s the thing. Instant noodles and microwavable food have preservatives that, while convenient, aren’t the healthiest. Plus, they don’t contain all the nutrients that you need to consume daily. The same goes for take-out. You don’t have any choice with what’s in your food. Home cooking is still the better option.
With meal planning, home cooking becomes less of a chore. You can also choose what kinds of food to include in your diet. You also have more control over how much of a particular nutrient you eat. Therefore, it’s easier to determine how balanced each of your meals will be.
4. Meal Planning Helps Lessen Your Stress
One significant factor why home cooking is so stressful is because it takes up your precious time. The time that you’d rather use to study, to rest, or to do something that makes you happy. That’s understandable.
There’s a lot of pre-planning that happens prior to cooking your meals. Without knowing what you want to cook, the time that takes to finish your plans doubles in length.
The easy fix? Plan your meals way ahead and shop only what you need. Since everything in the kitchen is already premeditated, you only need to cook what you’ve already planned (and that lessens your stress significantly).
How to Eat Healthy While in School
Eating healthy is a luxury for most students like you because of your busy schedules. Most would think that, but that’s not necessarily true. You just have to find the perfect balance between your routine and your eating habits. Here are a few tips to help you eat healthier while in school:
Try Not to Eat Out Often
Aside from being budget-draining, you don’t have a lot of say when it comes to how your food is made in fast foods and restaurants. Chances are if it’s cheap, it’s not that healthy (of course, that’s not always the case).
Try to limit how often you eat out. It’s alright to make plans with friends and spend some meals out in town. But it’s also smart to invite your friends to a day (or night) in and just cook your food at home. Here, you have better control on what you serve and eat.
Don’t Skip Breakfast
‘Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.’ If you’ve heard it said once, you’ve probably heard it a thousand times.
But it’s true. Your body needs a boost to jumpstart itself for the activities ahead, and what better way to do that than to give it the fuel it needs: food.
Some studies have shown that skipping breakfast can impede on your academic performance. It’s counterproductive if you skip it to study when you’re not in tip-top shape to receive new information.
If you’re really busy in the mornings, make sure to plan your meals in a way that they can be eaten to go, like a piece of fruit or a bagel.
Bring Along Healthy Snacks
The truth about going to college is that your schedule is unpredictable. Sometimes study sessions can last longer, while other times, they finish quite fast.
It’s a good idea to include healthy snacks in your new meal plan. Make sure that you have a few healthy options tucked away in your bag, such as fruits, pretzels, whole wheat crackers, and the like. By bringing snacks wherever you go, you’re minimizing the temptation of buying junk food from a vending machine.
Limit Sugar and Alcohol Intake
Yes, your parents aren’t there to remind you now. But that doesn’t mean you have to binge every sugary treat you see, nor should you drown yourself in all that alcohol.
It’s not bad to indulge in sweets and booze from time to time. But if you want to stay healthy, be responsible.
Plan your meals in a way that includes these things as rewards. But don’t overdo it. Once or twice a week is enough.
Here’s a great video with examples of healthy meal planning and meal prep for college students:
How to Start a Meal Plan to Help You Save Money and Time
Aside from increasing the potential of your meals into being healthy, meal planning has a massive effect on your money-saving skills. Pre-planning your meals can help you be more organized and, therefore, buy only the things you need.
So, how do you start meal planning while on a budget? Here are a few tips you might like:
Set Your Budget
The very first thing you need to do is to set your actual budget. You know how much you have in a month. Make sure to choose an amount that you can stick to, and add a small buffer so that you won’t be surprised when emergencies arise.
At first, it will be hard to estimate how much you will need each month, so don’t worry if you go over or under it sometimes. When you’re more settled on the routine, it’ll be easier to stick to a budget.
Research is Key
Before starting the practice of meal planning, do research on the type of diet you want and the food you will need. Diet here means your regular eating routine (not diet in the sense of weight loss and such).
Aside from knowing the actual food, you will need to buy, look into several easy recipes that you can try out. It’s a good idea to arm yourself with more recipes, so you won’t find your food choices repetitive.
You can also ask recipes from families and friends. The key is to be as comfortable as you can, so personalize your diet to your heart’s content.
Plan a Grocery List
After researching and picking the recipes you want for the week, make a list of everything you will need before going to the grocery or the market. Having a list on hand helps save time mindlessly walking in the grocery aisles since you already know what you’re getting.
A list also helps keep you within budget because there are fewer chances of you buying something that you won’t be using for the week. That doesn’t mean you can’t buy that box of cookies or pack of candies sometimes.
Let’s face it. A part of college is going out and having fun. So don’t set unrealistic expectations you know you won’t be able to stick to. Sometimes you’ll have to eat out more than once a week or get a coffee with a friend that wasn’t pre-planned.
That’s okay. It’s part of the experience and life, in general. Since you know things won’t always go as planned, make sure to place a buffer in your expectations, schedule, and budget.
Don’t Forget Your Leftovers
This can’t be stressed enough. Leftovers are easier and faster to prepare than meals you have yet to cook. For days where you’re ultra-busy (or you just can’t be bothered to cook), reheating food can be a total lifesaver.
If you have a little more time, you can even create new meals using your leftovers. Just toss them together and voila, an entirely new flavor for you to indulge in. Eating your leftovers also help with lessening your food waste since you’ll be consuming everything after all.
Use a Meal Planning Tool to Maximize Your Results
For most people, the biggest challenge to executing their meal plan properly is the ability to accurately map out exactly what they need to eat, and when. It’s even tougher to do this consistently on a daily basis.
Using an all-in-one meal planning tool, which helps you do everything from calculating your daily intake needs to generating automated meal plans and grocery lists, can save you a lot of time and effort while maximizing your results.
Money Saving Meal Planning Tips for Students on a Budget
Meal Planning Saver Tip #1: Buy in Bulk!
It takes effort and hard work to stay inside a budget. One super saver tip is to buy what you can from the bulk aisle.
The good news is that most of your staples can be found in this wonderful aisle. Sure, you’ll probably end up with a lot more than you can eat in a week, but since these food items are something you’ll buy regularly, it’s okay to stock up.
Some of the things that you can buy in bulk are:
- Olive Oil
- Pasta and Rice
- Maple Syrup
Meal Planning Saver Tip #2: Buy What’s on Sale!
Another thing you want to look out for when grocery shopping is the sale items. Buying food that’s on sale can make it easier for you to stay within budget.
If you find food that’s in your list on sale, good for you. But most of the time, that won’t be the case. When this happens, check what you can change and swap what you can.
Need an example?
Let’s say your recipe needs green peppers, but you find the red peppers are on sale for less than a dollar. Both kinds of peppers taste the same and can be interchanged. Buy the red peppers instead, and save your money for something else.
Meal Planning Saver Tip #3: Change Up the Menu!
Let’s be honest, some food items are really more expensive than others. Pork and chicken are more affordable than seafood or beef.
While there’s nothing terrible about buying more expensive food items occasionally, it’s also a good idea to know when you can interchange elements in a recipe. This trick is especially helpful when you find yourself short on money.
Need another example?
You can swap ground chicken or turkey for ground beef. Chicken is less expensive than beef, and there’s very little difference in taste when you change up the ingredients.
For seafood, check out the places where you can buy what you want for cheaper. Sometimes, the price also depends on where you shop. There would be instances where buying fresh is less expensive and other times where pre-packed food might be the cheaper choice.
Meal Plan Examples and Recipes for Students
When researching new recipes, it’s a good idea to keep it simple. Easy recipes are quicker to make, which is the name of the game when you have a busy schedule.
If you need a few food inspirations, head on over to these pages:
- Chicken Vegetable Fried Rice (Jeanette’s Healthy Living)
- Baked Potato Dish (BBC Good Food)
- Striped Chocolate Popcorn (Taste of Home)
- Sweet and Spicy Chili with Polenta (Kitchn)
- 15-Minute Three-Cheese Spring Pasta with Peas (Food Network)
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to reaching your healthy eating and weight loss goals? For most people, it’s the ability to accurately map out exactly what they need to eat, and when. It’s even tougher to do this consistently on a daily basis. We recommend this meal planning tool, which helps you do all that and more.
From calculating your daily intake needs to generating automated meal plans and grocery lists, this all-in-one meal planner will help you accelerate fat loss and muscle gain while cutting the waste out of your diet. Try it out and let us know how it helped you get fitter and healthier!