None of us are strangers to sitting in class and thinking about what we’re going to eat next. When you live on campus, there’s a certain comfort to knowing you’re pretty much limited to the dining halls. However, once you move off campus, things can start getting complicated.
Not only are you likely in harder classes than the year before, but you also have an apartment, rent, transportation and cooking to worry about. Meal planning makes life a whole lot easier.
If you’re not familiar with the term, meal planning consists of planning out meals for each day, determining the ingredients you need to buy at the store and finding the best personal dining plan for your lifestyle. There are five simple steps to this process that we’re going to cover today.
Make a calendar
The first step is to find an organized way of recording what you plan to eat each day. There are some fancy specialized planners that are made for meal planning, but they are also made to deplete your bank account. I’m here to tell you that all you need is paper, a pencil and knowledge of the “Days of the Week” song.
Start by making a weeklong calendar, and pencil in your general schedule for the week. Include which days you’ll be on campus a lot and which days you can be home in your own kitchen. Many people find it helpful to mark the days of the week when they know they’ll have a lot of homework and minimal time to spend on cooking — those are the days when frozen meals can be life-savers.
Make a list of your favorite meals
Now, onto the fun part. Start writing down your favorite meals and place them into the three main categories: breakfast, lunch and dinner (if you’re into color-coding, now is the time to break out those pens and assign a color to each of those categories). You don’t need to get specific. Something as simple as “pasta” would suffice for now.
Try to think of things that you’re capable of cooking. For example, making filet mignon on a weeknight might be aiming a little too high, but you can still easily incorporate steak into meals that are a little easier to make. This is not to say that you can’t be extravagant every once in a while. It’s just important to be realistic about the amount of time you have to make your meals.
One thing to think about when you’re brainstorming is how long whatever you’re going to cook can remain edible. If you can make a meal you love on a Monday and eat it Wednesday and Friday night, you won’t have to put in nearly as much work as you would if you had to make something new every night.
Look up the recipes
After you’ve compiled a good list of meals, it’s time to figure out what you need to make the meal. This might seem self-explanatory, but it can get overwhelming when you start consulting the thousands of different websites for recipes. Let me simplify it for you: If you stick to Yummly, Allrecipes and Food Network, your life is going to become a lot easier. These sites are great for beginners, because they’re extremely easy to navigate and there is a wide range of recipe options for those who aren’t expert chefs. Print out some recipes that don’t look too difficult and find a way to keep them all in the same place.
This is largely regarded as the most intimidating step in the process, but it doesn’t have to be that way. First, pick roughly two meals from your list to eat that week and grab the recipes. Circle any ingredients that overlap between the two recipes, so you avoid buying the same product twice.
When you get to your local grocery store, make sure you have a rewards card and start looking for store brand products. Following those two steps will save you more money than you would think. Unfortunately, it’s rare that you’re going to be able to find the store brand for every ingredient, but do your best. As you shop, check the expiration dates on the products to make sure you have a reasonable amount of time to make the meal. Once you think you have everything you need, double-check the recipes and get in line to pay.
Cook, save and refrigerate
Make your meals on your decided calendar dates or make them ahead of time if possible. Once they’ve been cooked, make sure to store them in the correct environment. Some foods need air flow, some may need to be sealed to prevent them from going stale, but most meals you make will need to be refrigerated. Keep them in a container, put them in the fridge and you’re all set — just don’t forget that they are there.
Meal planning can have many benefits, but the main goal here is to reduce your stress. Your lives as college students are already hectic enough, so having meals pre-made or at least scheduled for every weekday and not having to worry about cooking every night is just one way to reduce that chaos. Plus, you’ll acquire some cooking skills in the process