How I Find Time to Cook Every Meal as a Busy College Student

There are some common misconceptions that all college students eat pizza or rice for every meal, they don’t have any time to cook, and that they generally have poor eating habits. Although this may be true for some people, especially if you’re a first-year still figuring out how to eat in a dorm, it doesn’t have to be. 

I’m a college student (and an extremely busy one at that), and every day I still find time to cook all three of my meals. Sure, there are some days here and there where I go out to eat with my friends, but I almost never, ever go to the dining hall.

How do I do it? First, it helps that I strongly dislike the food at my school’s dining hall (though that’s not required). It also helps that I really, really enjoy cooking (also not required), and that I do have the means to go food shopping every week. But any student can find the time and motivation to cook for themselves with the right planning and the right mindset.

All you really need is one or two hours out of your week, a desire to cook nutritious and quick foods, a hunger for something other than ramen noodles or frozen pizza – oh, and the five tips below.

I plan my meals in advance

This might be the most important tip, and I really can’t stress enough how useful this is. Each week before I go to the grocery store, I plan out the meals I’m going to make for the week. Most of the time, I don’t end up making everything, and sometimes my plans change, but this helps give me at least a sense of what I want to make. If you plan in advance, you won’t ever spend a night staring into the empty fridge. You’ll always know what to make. 

Most days, I eat the same things for breakfast and lunch, but I switch up what I eat for dinner every week. I always pick recipes that are quick and simple, and that make at least three servings. I write down everything I need to buy before I go to the store, and usually try to get ingredients that I can use for more than one recipe. For example, I buy broccoli to have as a side dish to chicken one night, and I then I mix it in with a pasta dish the next night. After a couple weeks of practice, it becomes a lot easier to figure out what you enjoy, what’s easiest to make, and what recipes can be made together with the same ingredients.

I go food shopping with a list

Many people look in their fridge around dinner time and realize that they have nothing to cook. It’s not that they don’t have any food, it’s that they don’t have any food that constitutes a nutritious dinner. If you go food shopping with no idea of what you’re going to buy, you’re likely to end up buying almost exclusively snack foods. Maybe you’ll buy some pasta and some fruit, but likely you won’t have the ingredients you need to create a complete meal.

The one time I went to the grocery store without planning in advance was an absolute disaster. What normally takes me 20 minutes took almost an hour, and I spent the majority of the time walking from one end of the store to the other trying to decide what to get. By the end, I had a cart full of granola bars, a bag of chips I knew I would never eat (which is still sitting unopened in my cabinet nearly three weeks later) and a package of chicken breasts that I didn’t know what to do with. lf you plan your food shopping – and your meals, which I’ll get to – in advance you’ll know exactly what you need to buy. You’ll never end up with a fridge full of nothing and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner.

Related: 6 Food Staples All College Women Need to Keep on Hand

I meal prep for the week

Another tip that I absolutely swear by is meal prepping. Every Sunday after I go food shopping, I set aside an hour of my day to make my dinners for the majority of the week. This might seem like a daunting task—especially thanks to all of the Instagram accounts that make meal prepping look like an entire day’s worth of assembly-line style cooking and Tupperware-filling—but that isn’t how it goes for me. Usually, it takes me two hours or less.

Another type of recipe that I really recommend are grain salads. If you pair them with a protein, like tofu, chicken or fish, you have a complete meal. A grain salad usually consists of rice, quinoa, or other similar grains and a multitude of other vegetables, nuts, herbs and add-ins. You can make the salad in advance, then cook your protein fresh each night. My absolute favorite recipe is this roasted sweet potato and quinoa salad, I’ve made it roughly a hundred times already.

I augment simple recipes

Mac ‘n cheese doesn’t have to be just a quick-bite college student dinner. For me, things like boxed mac ‘n cheese and canned soup are lifesavers when it comes to making dinners for myself. The difference is, I don’t simply make them as they come; I augment them a little bit.

One box of mac ‘n cheese with some steamed broccoli and sundried tomatoes makes a delicious and balanced meal! Although, I do recommend buying brands like Annie’s, Pow! or Banza mac ‘n cheese, as they’re just slightly healthier options.

Along the same lines, a can of tomato soup with some white rice and shredded chicken breasts make a filling meal for a cold winter day. And instead of buying just a plain can of premade pasta sauce, try buying a can of crushed tomatoes, sauté some onions, garlic and red peppers and you’ll have the simplest sauce ever.

Your two best friends will be food storage containers and your freezer

While you’re meal prepping, Tupperware will be your lifesaver. You don’t have to portion out every meal like some people do, but you’ll need a least a few containers to hold your vegetables, grains and proteins (if you decide to make things in advance). Even more important is your freezer. Food like loaves of bread and bagels can last so much longer if you freeze them instead of leaving them in the pantry, and anything you prep can be stored there, too. Frozen vegetables are another lifesaver. If you don’t have time to go to the grocery store every week, buying frozen broccoli, cauliflower and even spinach can save you from wasting fresh produce or being left with nothing. 

As a busy college student, you won’t have time to cook everything from scratch, so when you do have time, you’ll want to make an extra batch and save it for later. For breakfast I often make banana-oatmeal pancakes (the best recipe ever is below) or breakfast cookies, and I freeze them in plastic bags and pop them in the toaster when I’m ready to eat them. I also buy a lot of frozen veggie burgers that are quick and easy to cook on the stove and have with a grain salad. 

If any of this seems daunting, don’t worry! When I found out that I’d be living in a townhouse with my own kitchen my sophomore year of college, I was immediately so excited to be able to cook for myself, but then I realized how much of a challenge that it could be. Once I started to do it and got down my routine, I realized that it wasn’t as challenging as it seemed. 

Nothing tastes better than a home-cooked meal, and nothing is more fun than a Sunday spent meal prepping.