Meal prep — a rainbow fridge full of intricately labeled glass containers containing cubed butternut squash and deribbed kale and maybe even some quinoa. The picture of health and organized excellence. Everything in its specific place; each meal of the week planned out perfectly. Sounds great, right? But as a college student balancing school and extracurricular activities and social life and sanity, is it really realistic?

I argue that this picturesque ideal is not so out of reach. In fact, it is entirely achievable and a great goal to have as we enter 2021 — especially since we have more time on our hands without having to walk 30 minutes to the Public Affairs building every day. Not only is meal prepping for yourself usually healthier, it is also usually cheaper than Postmates or the prepackaged meals often marketed to college students. Here, I have organized my steps and best tips for how to meal prep realistically and efficiently as a college student in 2021. 

Laila Adarkar

Step 1: Grocery shopping -- what do you want to eat?

Make a plan of what you want to eat this week and what you need so you don’t over / under buy. This can range from just making a rough sketch to picking out specific recipes you want to try. For me, I never really have a strict plan of what I’m going to get. I just try to get what looks best, within my budget, following these rough guidelines:

1. Protein

Center your meals around some sort of protein. Beans? Eggs? Chicken? Whatever works for you.

2. Grain

Quinoa, rice, farro, etc.

3. Vegetables

I always try to get some sort of starchy vegetable, like sweet potatoes or butternut squash, and some sort of leafy green, like spinach or kale. The rest is up to you: brussels sprouts, bell peppers, onions, carrots. The possibilities are endless.

4. Fruits

Not much advice to give here. Just whatever you like, within reason.

Tip #1: Shop seasonally. Shop locally.

Shopping seasonally and locally is more sustainable and often lends itself towards the freshest and best-tasting ingredients. Usually, these would be found at a farmers market. However, I understand that for various reasons, from financial to geographic restrictions, this is not always possible. Just do your best!

Laila Adarkar

Tip #2: Get good staples.

Invest in good staple ingredients that you will use frequently, whether that is your favorite spices, hot sauces, oils, vinegars, or salts. This will immediately elevate your recipes and give them a strong foundation to work with.

Step 2: Prep

1. Carve out weekend meal prep time.

My roommates and I go to the farmers market on Sundays, so Sunday afternoon is my meal prep time! Carve out this weekend time to prep before the craziness of the school week catches up to you.

2. Make it fun.

Meal prep with friends! Meal prep to music or your favorite TV show or podcast! Find what works for you. It's going to make the process more enjoyable and hopefully, eventually, something you actually look forward to.

3. Prep a grain.

Prep a big batch of some sort of grain to last you throughout the whole week. You will thank yourself later.

Laila Adarkar

4. Chop. peel. organize.

Prepare your vegetables and (sometimes) fruits to make them easier and quicker to use — break down pomegranates, cube sweet potatoes, dice onions, etc.

*Bonus — they will also take up less space in your fridge

5. Make a sauce.

A good sauce is, in my opinion, the unsung hero of the bunch. From a trusty balsamic vinaigrette to a creamy tahini dressing, a good sauce is going to take your meals to the next level in no time. Prep one early so you can use it throughout the week! Here are a few of my favorites:

- Lemon Tahini Sauce

- Kale Pepita Pesto

- Maple-Balsamic Vinaigrette

- Miso-Jalapeño Tahini

Step 3: Cook & enjoy!

1. Be flexible.

A recipe is just a rough guideline. A multitude of factors, from the quality of your ingredients to your geographic location to the time of year, can greatly affect the taste of your dish. Get comfortable making swaps and substitutions and being able to cook off of feel and intuition. Having this level of comfort with your food will allow for great cooking.

*If you want extra help, Samin Nosrat’s bestselling cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat is a great place to start.

2. Don't get too fancy.

In an ideal world (at least my ideal world), I would have leisure to simmer beans and slow roast salmon and craft my own falafel from scratch, but I know that for many reasons this is not always going to be possible — especially in college. Save the fancy stuff for another time; if you bite off more than you can chew, you’re just going to end up stressed. Choose no-fuss recipes that are achievable and don’t have too many ingredients, especially ones that you will only use once.

Laila Adarkar

As always, remember that balance is key. Feel free to start small. Try cooking a new recipe and sticking to your usual routine for the rest of the week; try checking out your local farmers market; or try to meal prep for a couple of days with your roommates—baby steps are great, as long as you're starting somewhere.

I will end with a quote from my favorite movie: “Anyone can cook… but only the fearless can be great.” All of this information may be overwhelming, but, trust me, with time, it will get easier. The start of the year is the perfect time to integrate new, healthy habits into your routine. The unfamiliar will always feel intimidating until you try.