Amidst the business of college life, oftentimes meals are an afterthought, getting pushed to the back burner over studying, working, exercising, or hanging out with friends. While finding time to prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day sounds absolutely impossible, cheap meal prep is a realistic option for many college students.

For those who are unaware, meal prep is essentially making meals in bulk and portioning them out ahead of time to serve as ready to eat meals throughout the week. In the end, making cheap meal prep recipes saves money, time, and labor throughout the week. By setting a few hours aside on the weekend, it can ensure that you have affordable, nutritious meals to fuel you through your week.  

1. Pesto Pasta

vegetable, pasta, tortellini
Angela Kerndl

Being relatively easy to prepare, pasta serves as an essential component of college kids' diets that rarely disappoints. In this recipe, this fresh pesto pasta recipe is elevated due to its subtle addition of nutritious components: tomatoes and garbanzo beans. Even if you don't have direct access to pesto sauce, any sauce (bolognese, Alfredo, vodka sauce, olive oil, etc.) can easily be substituted.

#SpoonTip: Adding beans, which are fairly neutral in flavor, to any pasta dish is a cheap and effective way to increase both soluble fiber and protein in your diet. 

2. Stuffed Peppers

pepper, vegetable, tomato, salad, rice
Megan Prendergast

I recommend doubling this recipe to optimize your meal prep, which requires purchasing two peppers and additional components for filling to yield four meals total.  

While this recipe happens to be vegan, adding one pound of cooked ground beef or ground turkey to the stuffed pepper filling would make it slightly more filling for not too much of an increase in price. If you want to keep the meal vegetarian but still want a bit of extra sustenance, melt a slice of mozzarella or provolone cheese before serving.

3. Lentil Soup

lentil, pea, vegetable, legume
Christin Urso

When I studied in Madrid, my host family served up lentil stew every Monday without fail.  While this specific lentil soup recipe does not have Spanish roots, the similarity renders this recipe near and dear to my heart. Made with straightforward ingredients, this hearty recipe can be enjoyed for both lunch and dinner any day of the week.

4. Mason Jar Salads

pickle, salt, herb, oil, garlic, vinegar
Bernard Wen

Salads are one of the easiest meals to prep beforehand because they require little to no cooking, depending on the ingredients chosen. Because they simply require chopping raw ingredients, they're an excellent way to add a variety of color to your diet.

#SpoonTip: Putting the dressing of your choice at the bottom of your mason jar, then layering vegetables followed by lettuce ensures that your greens aren't soggy come Friday.

5. Pulled Pork

bacon, bun, beef, slaw, coleslaw, sandwich, pork
Leigh Needham

Putting pork in the oven or slow cooker at the beginning of a day to let it cook allows for a hands-free cooking experience that will last you the duration of the week. If you happen to be avoiding pork for religious purposes or prefer other meats, consider using chicken breasts instead. Pair this sandwich with some sweet potato fries or green beans (or both) and you have yourself a complete meal.

6. Tilapia Tacos

bacon
Mallini Kannan

Since fish has a short cook time, it's one of the fastest proteins to prepare, perfect for college students who have limited cooking time to spare. By cooking the fish and chopping the vegetables ahead of time, all you have to do is grab some corn tortillas or mix things up with non-traditional spaghetti squash and zucchini taco shells and you have a quick lunch or dinner. Because this recipe serves two, I recommend doubling it to allow for at least four meals to have on hand throughout the week.

7. Chili

chili, meat, vegetable
Stephanie Cozza

Chili is a staple as one of America's comfort foods. Packed with meat, vegetables, corn, and beans, this recipe will surely fill you up while making you feel as if you are back in your mom's kitchen. Serving pasta to accompany chili ensures that you get a healthy serving of carbohydrates in addition to protein and vegetables all in one bowl. 

8. Overnight Oats 

Maggie Harriman

Not only is meal prep something that is solely for lunch and dinner, it can also be applied to breakfast. While I recommend prepping your overnight oats each night to avoid overly mushy oats, it is a huge time saver when you wake up dazed and confused in the morning after snoozing your alarm for a half hour.

With overnight oats, you essentially mix any fresh or dried fruit, natural sweetener, and milk or milk alternatives to oats the night before and it works its magic overnight in the fridge. It doesn't even requiring heating in the morning (depending on your temperature preference). 

#SpoonTip: While a mason jar makes your breakfast more ascetically pleasing, it is definitely not a requirement for the success of the recipe. Any generic tupperware will do the trick. 

9. Honey Mustard Chicken Nuggets

cereal, rice
Alex Weiner

Plain grilled or baked chicken tends to get boring after a few eats. Subtle additions like honey-mustard make your chicken much more flavorful without a whole lot of labor. By pairing chicken with brown rice and some asparagus, you can elevate your standard chicken and veggies dinner, as long as you are prepared for your pee to smell upon indulging in this meal.

10. Stir-Fry

meat, pepper, stir-fry, rice, chicken, broccoli, vegetable
Katherine Baker

Stir-fry is simple and quick to make in bulk. Not only is it an ease to prepare, but it's also a great way to avoid throwing away the produce sitting on your counter (because sustainability) while simultaneously boosting your vegetable intake in a delicious fashion. In terms of the tofu component, you can easily substitute chicken, pork, or an egg to this recipe, depending on the ingredients you have available or your personal preferences. 

11. Chickpea Curry

corn, vegetable, legume
Sini Choi

Chickpea curry (chana masala) rings in as one of my personal favorite cheap meal prep recipes for two reasons. Because of the array of spices used, it's packed with flavor, never failing to disappoint your taste buds. Second, it's one of the cheapest meals on this list, allowing you to get a lot of bang for your buck.

The initial cost of spices may seem a bit pricey, but if you frequently prepare Indian cuisine you will learn a little bit goes a long way. Therefore, these staple spices will be used over and over again before needing replacement. 

The best aspect about these meal prep recipes is that they possess versatility. My biggest advice with meal prep is to not be afraid to deviate from recipe in front of you. Get creative with the ingredients you already have in your fridge and cupboard to ensure that you are maximizing every dollar spent at the grocery store. Even if that means spontaneously throwing all of the ingredients for chili or lentil stew into the slow cooker, opposed to the stove, to find what cooking methods work with your lifestyle to make your busy week as stress-free as possible. 

Pick your favorite recipe, compile the necessary ingredients, and get on the cheap meal prep bandwagon. If you're no longer a meal prep beginner, maybe consider taking your meal prep to a new level with convenient meal prep containers or even an designated meal prep Spotify playlist