One of the most difficult parts of being a college student and living independently is feeding yourself. Cooking nutritious meals each day is tedious and time-consuming, especially when coupled with meal planning and grocery shopping. On the other hand, frequent takeout is rough on the bank account. Like many students, I found myself resorting to quick fixes like instant ramen, buttered pasta, and quesadillas to get through the week.

Luckily, Trader Joe’s is known for its convenient meals, which can break you out of your instant noodle diet without breaking the bank. The best part is that these simple meals are fully customizable to maximize flavor and variety!

Below, I share three go-to recipes—that cost under three dollars per serving—that have become staples for me when I’m running short on time or energy. Each has a varying flavor profile, level of prep work, and cooking time. Let’s get cooking!

Soy Peanut Butter Noodles

Servings: 1

Price per serving: $1.97

Time to Make: 15 minutes

Amanda Zuniga

The noodles that kept me sane throughout midterm season in the dorms, this ‘doctored’ version of Trader Joe’s Squiggly Knife Cut Style Noodles is surprisingly creamy and flavorful. I’d microwave the noodles, then drain most of the water. Leaving some starchy water helps the sauce stick to the noodles better.

While the noodles come with their own packets of soy and sesame sauce, I found them to be a bit bland. To enhance the flavor, I’d add a spoonful of peanut butter and a packet of both soy sauce and sriracha, collected from takeout meals. The result? An effortless, dorm-friendly noodle dish.

#SpoonTip: Elevate this dish by adding a sprinkle of sesame seeds, chopped green onions, and/or cubes of tofu for additional flavor and nutritional value!

Amanda Zuniga

Orange Chicken with Broccoli and Rice

Servings: 4-6

Price per serving: $1.75

Time to Make: 20 minutes

Amanda Zuniga

This easy weeknight meal is one that I grew up enjoying. Throughout my childhood, when asked what my favorite food was, I would respond with my parents’ orange chicken. Little did I know, it was simply a freezer meal from the grocery store down the street. Served with steamed broccoli seasoned with butter and garlic salt, rice, and a drizzle of sriracha, Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken is sure to bring a delightful change of pace to your weeknight dinner rotation.

To prepare, simply follow the directions on the back of the package. I like frying the chicken for a little longer than recommended to achieve extra crispiness. As for vegetables, you can use anything you have on hand—sometimes, I’ll chop zucchini and sautee it with garlic and soy sauce, or quickly cut up some carrot sticks.

With the addition of veggies and rice, you can stretch this meal to 4-6 servings, making it great for meal prep or sharing.

Amanda Zuniga

Spicy Sausage and Veggie Pasta

Servings: 6-8

Price per serving: $2.47

Time to Make: 45 minutes

Another easy weeknight meal I grew up on, this one was a delicious way for my parents to use up all of the veggies left in the fridge. So, while this meal may list certain ingredients, feel free to improvise!

Spicy Sausage and Veggie Pasta

  • Prep Time:15 mins
  • Cook Time:20 mins
  • Total Time:35 mins
  • Servings:6
  • Easy


  • 1 lb dried pasta penne or bowties work great
  • 1 lb spicy or sweet Italian sausage
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 6-8 oz mushrooms
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 5 oz kale
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese grated
  • optional: bread
Amanda Zuniga
  • Step 1

    Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. As you make this recipe, cook the pasta simultaneously, following the package instructions for al dente consistency.

    Amanda Zuniga
  • Step 2

    Prep your veggies. Cut each into uniform pieces. Optionally, massage the kale with a sprinkle of salt to tenderize the tougher fibers.

    Amanda Zuniga
  • Step 3

    Cook the sausages. Remove them from their casings and place them in a large pan over medium-high heat. Press the sausages down as they cook to maximize contact with the pan. After 2-3 minutes, once the bottoms are nicely browned, flip the sausages. After an additional minute, reduce the heat and begin breaking up the sausages into smaller, bite-sized pieces. Once the sausage is fully cooked and broken up, remove it from the pan and place it on a paper towel-lined plate, leaving as much fat in the pan as possible.

    Amanda Zuniga
  • Step 4

    Cook the veggies. Add olive oil, onion, and garlic to the pan over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper. Saute until the onions become slightly translucent and aromatic. Then, add in your veggies, stirring occasionally. Start with the bell peppers and cook for 1-2 minutes before adding the mushrooms. Cook for an additional 2-3 minutes, and then add the kale. If the pan becomes too dry and the veggies begin sticking or burning, add a bit of olive oil.

    Amanda Zuniga
  • Step 5

    Combine all components. Once your veggies are cooked through, add the cooked sausage and pasta to the pan of veggies. Stir to combine, adding a splash of pasta water if the mixture is dry. Once thoroughly combined, turn off the heat and add the parmesan cheese. Stir until well combined, and serve.

    Amanda Zuniga

Enjoy this hearty dish that’s perfect for busy weeknights!

Amanda Zuniga

Running short on time doesn’t have to lead to a reliance on quick-fix meals. Weeknight (and Trader Joe’s) recipes like these have been my saving grace throughout my time in college, bringing variety and something to look forward to for dinnertime.