Meal Prep in College
So we have all heard of the “Freshman 15.” How does it happen? Well, basically the convenience of dining hall food exacerbated by the stress and the difficulty in effective time management when starting college. You are in a new place, surrounded by new people, and probably making many decisions of your own for the first time in your life. This is a quintessential time to establish meal prep in college habits, and healthy eating is just one of the important ones you can build right now.
Whether it’s to save time, money, or just to know what exactly is in your food, meal prep at a college is a must. Meal prep is also fundamental for those with particular dietary restrictions (e.g. celiac, lactose-intolerant, etc.) or lifestyle eaters (e.g. vegan, pescatarian, eco-friendly, etc.). It’s also just another great hobby to take on in college. So let’s begin!
One of the most fundamental considerations is going to be access to Trader Joes or other health food stores. This is actually quite critical to establishing good eating habits. If all you have available to you is your cafeteria foods and convenience stores on campus, it will be hard to develop a well-balanced, nutritious diet. Your goal through meal prep should be establishing good life-long eating habits, and this starts with perusing the full selection of a grocery store to know what are the basic ingredients of your food. If you have a car, great. If not, find a roommate or a friend who can drive you. If that is also not an option, find a school or local bus route that takes you to your local shopping center. If none of the above, find a friend to split an Uber with. It literally is that important to find access to a good grocery store.
Next, plan your main meal-prep day—for most people, this will be Sunday to have your meals freshest over the busy weekdays. This day will be when you do the bulk of your prep. You will also need a re-up or glide day some time in the middle of the week—for most people, Wednesday evening—to get you through the rest of the week. Only one day of meal prep, despite the appeal, is simply not enough. Try as you might, nearly no nutritious food can be kept unspoiled 5-6 days after being prepared.
Next, obtain the right accessories. Consider the type of foods you want to make, the easiest ways of preparing them, and the means available to you in your dorm. Maybe all you need is a pot, a pan, and a stove—assuming you have a stove available in your dorm. If not, there are alternatives which might even be more effective. For most people, a pressure cooker or an Instant Pot is indispensable in cutting down meal prep time, and all you need is a power outlet. Will you need transportable storage containers to keep a few days worth of food in the refrigerator and in your bag? Look for BPA free and other manufacturing standards to ensure you are finding good quality containers. Depending on what you plan to make, look into microwavable options. Do you prefer low-hassle, meal-prep specific plastic container or washable and reusable glass? There are many options available, but take the time to consider what works best for you.
After you know what instruments and storage volumes you are working with, plan your meals.
Breakfast is probably the easiest to prepare, and my personal favorite. The essentials: pre-boil half a dozen to a dozen eggs a week and cook hearty oatmeal. Worried about making it on time to that 8am lecture? Not a problem—have an egg while warming up a bowl of oatmeal, sprinkle some brown sugar, and you have a great, warm breakfast in just minutes to start your day off right. A great alternative is also a protein shake—pour 8-16oz of milk, a banana, a scoop of peanut butter, half a cup of oats, and a scoop of protein powder into a blender, blend for 30 seconds, and voila—a great, nutritious breakfast ready in about a minute. You can even pour it into a shaker cup and take it with you to the lecture hall!
For your more essential meals of lunch and dinner, it is important to account for transportation. Will you be leaving your dorm in the morning and keeping it in your bag all day? If this is the case, ideally, find a refrigerator to store your food. If you are in an academic building around lunch time, they usually have lounges for graduate students and faculty that you can use if you label your food. If not, you can also find the insulated containers where you place ice packs in the pockets to keep your food cool. It might seem like a hassle, but almost any nutritious food can not be left at room temperature for more than about two hours without spoiling. Lack of access to refrigeration will severely limit your meal options. Another alternative is to keep your food in your dorm refrigerator and make the trip back to your dorm to eat. This solves your refrigeration needs and also removes the hassle of having to carry your food in your bag.
Once you figure out your circumstances, look into foods that are easy to prepare, store, and just sound delicious. I recommend considering with each meal a main, where you get the bulk of your protein, and two sides, which provide great carbs and micronutrients. For mains, consider pastas, tacos and burritos, salmon and chicken, chilies, noodles, or sandwiches and wraps. Even these basics lend themselves to endless varieties that you can fine-tune to your individual desires and needs. For sides, try things like mashed or sweet potatoes, various fruits and vegetables, salads with leafy greens like kale and spinach, or beans and lentils. The trick is to know how much to make on meal prep day so you can split it evenly to fill each of your containers. Because your main will probably take you longer to prepare than your sides, consider making one or two mains throughout the week and mixing up your meals by making four or more sides. Or, if you like to eat entirely different foods each day, prepare them as such. It is more of a time commitment to prepare more meals of smaller size, but it is still very manageable if it is important to you.
Finally, based on your week’s meal list, build a grocery list. Look into nutritional facts and potential substitutes. Plan on making rice? How about using brown rice? What about substituting with quinoa? Does your recipe demand butter? How about coconut oil instead? The possibilities are endless in getting clever with ingredients. This is a prime opportunity to educate yourself on nutrition. Most campus and fast food is going to choose the ingredients which have the longest shelf life, full of preservatives and synthetics, because it makes profit margins greater. You, however, can select the most nutritious ingredients to best suit your needs.
The benefits of meal prep are undeniable. You learn about what is in your food, save time and money, and avoid the Freshman 15 as well as its counterparts (the Sophomore 10, etc.). It can also be an enjoyable process! Make it social: get your roommates interested and encourage each other to try new recipes and techniques. Meal prep will be much more fun if you all enjoy and look forward to days when you do the bulk of your cooking. Also, having those around you do meal prep is a great way for establishing and sticking to your routine. Share recipes, find foods your enjoy, and learn prep techniques that are most effective for you. Finally, rise above the bad habits of college dining and enjoy your healthy lifestyle!