How To

5 Steps to a College-Friendly, Healthy Meal-Prep Plan

With the glory days of dining hall eats long gone along with freshman year dorm lifestyle, the luxury of breakfast, lunch, and dinner only a quick swipe away fades away as well. This marks the point when the "no longer college newbies" have to adjust ourselves to the real, cold world of adulting, characterized by new responsibilities such as paying rent and electricity, grocery shopping, and cooking food to ensure we don't starve, among many important jobs. In particular, cooking appears to be a big challenge for college students when dorm life gets traded in for apartment living without a parent-funded meal plan to fall back on. Additionally, many college students never learned the necessary skills to cook and are unable to make use of the groceries they purchase. The solution? Easy, healthy meal-prep!

As a second year in college living in an apartment off campus, I have learned in just eight short weeks how to prepare a week's worth of food ahead of time so I won't have to slave away in the kitchen during the week when my time is occupied with school, work and other extracurricular activities. Though I frequently cooked with my mom at home and developed an expansive knowledge of food from my interest in cooking shows and food fads, I never truly had to take care of breakfast, lunch, and dinner on my own, nor make the trip to the grocery store to build these meals.

With my limited prior experience cooking at home and learning from experts in the field via online research and excessive viewing of the Food Network, I have managed to construct a healthy college meal-prep plan that works. And I am here to share it with you, whether college student or non-college student, dining hall-goer or non-dining hall-goer—a kitchen is all you need. And to make things better, this meal-prep is totally healthy and packed with all the nutritional elements needed in a balanced diet. If I can do it, you can too!

Here's my tips and tricks:

1. Set a Day to Meal-Prep

And stick to it. I like to meal-prep on the weekends when I have time to set aside an hour or two to get food ready for the remainder of the week. This could also be a day when you have no class, such as Fridays. It also helps to arrange around when you grocery shop, so you can head out to purchase all the food you need and come home ready to go. Sunday is a good day to meal-prep, because by this time, you have already gone grocery shopping and the crazy activities of the weekend have died down. If Sunday laundry is a thing for you, this may be a good day to get your cooking on too while finishing up chores around the house or apartment. Whatever day your meal-prep falls on, set a strict schedule to be on top of it week after week.

Keep in mind: the closer you meal-prep for the following week, the fresher the food. 

2. Start with a Carb

A carb base such as rice, pasta, or potato lays the foundation for the meals you can assemble throughout the week. This is a major key to healthy meal-prep, as these items are super versatile and flexible to the flavors you like.

In terms of rice, I recommend white, brown or wild rice. Another healthy and delicious option is quinoa, which comes in white, red, or a mix of the two colored grains.  If you have never heard of or tried quinoa, just think of brown rice and oatmeal in one—fluffy, nutty, and a little crunchy. Naturally gluten-free, quinoa provides a list of health benefits, including iron, B-vitamins, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and fiber. On top of that, it is one of the few plant foods that is considered a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. Found in salads, stir-fries, or on its own, quinoa is something worth looking into. Another healthful rice option is wild rice, which improves digestion and boosts the immune system.

If you don't have a rice cooker, I highly recommend investing in one, as it will surely become your best friend. For white, brown, or wild rice, pour two cups of rinsed and drained rice into the rice cooker, along with four cups of water, a little salt, and the rice cooker will do the rest! For quinoa, the same steps apply, but use only one cup of quinoa for every two cups of water.

Besides the various rice options, any type of pasta can work as a carb base for your meal-prep. Make it fun with different pasta shapes, such as penne or linguine, and even change up the type with healthy new choices like black bean, lentil, or brown-rice.

Finally, potatoes are a good option to pair with pretty much any sides you decide to create in your meal-prep agenda. The options are endless, with red, Yukon Gold, purple, and sweet potato as some of the most popular kinds. Simply preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, peel/wash/chop your potato of choice, and season with salt, pepper and olive oil. For extra flavor, you could substitute garlic salt for regular salt, or lemon pepper for regular pepper. Cook for 20-25 minutes, mixing the potatoes halfway through, and you're good to go!

3. Eat Your Veggies

I hate to sound like your mom, but you have to get your greens in some way to achieve a wholesome diet. Luckily, they are easy to incorporate into a healthy meal-prep. My personal favorites include mushroom, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and string beans. Any of these options would go perfectly with one of the carb bases outlined above. To make things easier, all of these vegetables can be tossed together in the oven or on the stovetop. I like to roast my vegetables in the oven for the perfect charred taste. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, wash/dry/cut the veggies of your choice, and lay flat on a foil-lined baking sheet. Season with salt (or garlic salt), pepper (or lemon pepper), and olive oil, and roast for twenty minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. Add crushed red pepper flakes for a kick of heat, or sliced red onions for more flavor, and enjoy! 

4. Add some Protein

To round out our healthy meal-prep, we have to incorporate a protein. Chicken, steak, tofu, beans, or salmon are all good choices to get your protein in for the week. If handling raw meat seems daunting, I recommend tofu. Both vegetarian and vegan-friendly, tofu can be eaten raw or cooked in the oven or on the stovetop. For my oven-baked tofu, I use the Trader Joe's Organic Firm Tofu. Simply drain, pat-dry, then cut up the tofu in square pieces. Coat the tofu in some oil so it doesn't stick to the baking tray, and season with soy sauce and pepper for some flavor. Bake in the oven at 350-400 degrees F for twenty minutes or until crispy and golden brown, flipping the tofu halfway through.

5. Sweet or Savory Snack

Finally, to end our healthy meal-prep, a sweet or savory snack is there to save the day. I always keep a variety of bars on hand in my apartment as a quick snack when I'm on the go. My personal favorites include the GoMacro Protein Pleasure bar in the peanut butter chocolate chip flavor, Lärabars (peanut butter chocolate chip, chocolate chip cookie dough, and chocolate chip brownie are my top three picks), the Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew + Antioxidants Kind Plus Bar, and the CLIF Nut Butter Filled Bar in chocolate peanut butter. If you couldn't tell already from the trend of flavored bars I chose, I am a peanut butter and chocolate fanatic. These four protein bar brands provide many other options other than peanut butter and chocolate that will complement any meal prep plan. To satisfy those of you who crave salty rather than sweet, I have pictured above the Trader Joe's Organic Hummus dip with carrots, but you can also substitute the carrots for cucumber, chips, celery, or red bell peppers.

Other snacks to keep in mind include roasted nuts, such as almonds, cashews, and walnuts, trail mix and granola blends, dried fruit (mango and apricot are always good choices), and fresh fruit (I like apples, bananas, and grapes).

Ok, now that you have five concrete steps to becoming a meal-prep expert, what are you waiting for? Take time this weekend to make moves in the kitchen that will make you appreciate your efforts later in the week. Being healthy in college shouldn't have to be a distant goal, and if you follow these five ways to achieve an easy and nutritious meal plan, life will get much better.