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Are you so busy that it feels like there’s barely time for eating, let alone planning meals and cooking? Katelyn J., a junior at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, knows this well. With multiple jobs and a full school schedule, she usually goes to the grocery store only once or twice a month.
When she does, she focuses on easy. “I don’t make a bunch of fancy meals,” Katelyn says. “Usually I buy something like pasta and eat it until I run out of the package.” Kate B., a sophomore at Winona State University in Minnesota, agrees. “I keep it simple but nutritious,” she says.
According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, 92 percent of respondents believe they would save money if they cooked for themselves more often. By creating a meal plan, you’ll be able to buy nutritious, affordable ingredients and prepare meals in a timely way. Here’s how, including detailed shopping lists and recipes.
When choosing meals, ingredients, and menus, consider four factors:
- Nutritional value
- Ease of preparation
- Your tastes!
You can build most meals with basic ingredients like beans, nuts, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables–prepared in simple sauces or combined with spices that add flavor and texture. You can also add some lean meat, tofu, and dairy products for variety and extra nutrition.
Spend an hour or so on the Internet looking for recipes that pique your palate. Try to find dishes that use similar ingredients so you can buy a container of something and know you’ll use it up. This also makes it easy to tweak leftovers to create “new” meals.
Next, develop your shopping list. Check your cabinets and fridge to see what you already have on hand. Brielle M., a junior at University of Maryland, College Park, says, “This will keep your budget in check.”
Here are more prep steps:
Make a list of basics. Some items are good to always have handy. If you don’t have them, consider adding some to your shopping list.
- Whole rolled or steel-cut oats
- Whole-wheat tortillas
- Brown rice
- Pasta and/or other whole grains
- Whole-grain pretzels or crackers
- Apples, bananas, and other fruits that don’t perish easily
- Bagged spinach leaves
- Whole or peeled “baby” carrots
- Packages of frozen broccoli florets or other vegetables (without sauce or seasonings)
- Peanut or other nut butter
- Dairy or non-dairy milk (You can buy these in packages that don’t require refrigeration.)
- Olive oil and reduced-sodium soy sauce
- Basic spices such as salt, pepper, garlic powder, oregano, cumin, and cinnamon
Search for sales. Most grocery stores have virtual fliers where shoppers can check out upcoming sales and print coupons.
Organize your list. Group the ingredients on your list based on where they are in the store. For example, produce, dairy, frozen food, bread products, etc. Many nutritionists also recommend sticking to the perimeter of the store. This is where you’ll find fresh foods like produce, dairy, meat, and the bakery. The aisles (and especially the areas featuring sale items) have the more processed foods.
Using your shopping list will also reduce your temptation to spend extra money or buy less nutritious treats. Larissa B., a nursing student at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, suggests, “Don’t shop when you’re hungry! You will buy way more food.” But, don’t forget to include something sweet on your menu!
Keep an open mind. You may not be able to find exact ingredients, so consider alternatives. For example, if you need black beans but pintos are on sale, go for those instead.
A Week of Meals
Consider preparing and eating some meals with friends. You can buy ingredients in bulk to share or rotate responsibility for cooking. This can cut down on time and expense for everyone. Plus, taking a break to cook and eat is a nice respite from studying and a good time to catch up with one another.
Once you have your supplies, figure out if you want to cook most of your meals at the beginning of the week, or daily. For example, a big pot of soup can be frozen in portions and heated for lunch on a few days. Or, you can cook a whole pound of pasta at once but refrigerate it in smaller portions. (If you do this, consider undercooking the pasta by a minute or so. This way, when you reheat, it won’t turn to mush.)
When scheduling your meals, also think about how fresh the ingredients need to be. For example, berries and some vegetables will deteriorate within a few days, so salads and fresh fruits are best to eat earlier in the week. Also consider which foods will multitask. Consider eating meals with those ingredients on consecutive days so they stay fresh once opened.
Here are some menu ideas that use a handful of ingredients in a variety of ways. They are suited for vegetarians, and you can substitute or add lean meats if you’d like.
- Easy French toast
- Huevos Rancheros (Mexican-style eggs)
- Oatmeal with berries
- “Baked” apple and whole-grain toast
- Overnight oatmeal
- Vegetable soup with whole-grain toast and nut butter
- Kitchen-sink salad
- Grilled cheese sandwich and soup and/or salad
- Hummus and veggie plate
- Nut butter sandwich with fruit and yogurt
- Traditional quesadilla
- Steamed veggie and rice plate
- Rice salad
- Bean burritos and salad
- Pesto pasta and veggies
- Pasta salad with hummus
- Seasoned egg and veggie scramble
- “Fried” rice
Snacks and Desserts
- Nut butter on carrots, celery, and/or apple slices
- Vegetables with tangy yogurt dip
- Nut butter and banana quesadilla with yogurt and honey
- Sweet rice “pudding”
- Quesadilla “cookies”
Planning and eating healthy meals doesn’t have to be expensive, time-consuming, or intimidating. Anna C., a senior at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, says, “Have healthy backups as well. I keep food in the freezer so that I don’t fall back on a highly processed meal if I don’t have time to cook or discover I forgot an ingredient.”
By shopping ahead, you can plan a variety of easy, nutritious, budget-friendly meals. Preparing and eating them with friends can add to your enjoyment.
- When planning meals, consider a balance of nutrition over the course of the week.
- Look for recipes that use a handful of ingredients in a variety of ways.
- Focus on items that are affordable, simple, easy to prepare, and nutritionally rich.
- Plan to shop for, prepare, and eat some meals with friends–to save time and money.
- Vary recipes based on your tastes and nutritional needs.
- Freeze extra portions for days when there’s no time to cook.
Get help or find out more
Let’s Move, Plan a Healthy Meal
Produce for Better Health Foundation, Fruits and Veggies More Matters®, Healthy Meal Planning Guide