How to Survive College Without a Meal Plan

It happens to every college student who moves off campus for the first time; they’re standing in the aisles of the grocery store with a look of sheer panic on their face. In the whirlwind of excitement that comes with living alone for the first time, most students completely forget one major component of off-campus living: cooking. With parents making dinner or dining halls serving up meals, it’s easy to skate through life without learning how to plan, prep, and make meals…until it’s too late.

This reality can make many college students panic, especially if the only thing they’ve mastered is the art of ramen and scrambled eggs. If you find yourself in this position, don’t worry! We’ve spoken to collegiettes who have conquered the daunting task of off-campus dining. They’ve given us the best tips and tricks for making delicious meals that are quick, easy, and won’t break the bank! So for all you off-campus gals trying to figure out how to operate a stove, these three cooking hacks will save your life!

1. Embrace the Microwave

Trying to figure out how long to leave your meal in the oven, and on a certain temperature, can be way too confusing to deal with, especially when you’re on the run and can’t wait half an hour for your dinner to be ready. So why not skip the appliance all together? It’s definitely possible to create delicious meals just by pressing a few buttons, which can save you time both cooking and cleaning up!

Sarah, a senior who is pretty new to living off-campus, shared with us her microwave secrets. "I'm a huge fan of the one-bowl dinner and a self-proclaimed microwave chef. My favorite dish is spaghetti squash (cooked in microwave for 12 minutes) with some kind of easy protein like a veggie burger or grilled chicken (I buy grilled chicken frozen for convenience), along with a healthy fat like hummus or avocado." 

If you want to impress guests with your newfound cooking prowess, try out this recipe for microwave risotto! With a base of just six simple ingredients, and the ability to add in your own toppings, this is a great go-to dinner. The best part? It only takes seven minutes!

"For a sweet ending to the day, the classic mug cake is the way to go. All it takes is a few staple baking ingredients and some mix-ins. A few minutes in the microwave and voila! You have an effortless dessert with literally nothing to clean up. This Nutella mug cake is perfect for late-night study cravings."


2. On the run? Whip up a smoothie!

Smoothies are the perfect way to enjoy a nutritious meal on the go. They’re super easy to prep, especially if you freeze your ingredients in portioned bags. Just drop your ingredients in a blender, add some juice or yogurt, and you have a budget-friendly meal that is perfect to sip on your walk to class.

We talked to Maddy, a senior who has lived off campus for two years, and she shared her love for this quick and delicious drink. “One of the most affordable on-the-go meals I make are smoothies!” she said. “I like to pack a whole bunch of things into my smoothies in order to make them filling enough to be a breakfast or lunch alternative. My go-to smoothie recipe is a cup of Chobani plain Greek yogurt, a cup and a half of frozen berries (I buy them in bulk from Kroger for super cheap, and you get berries all year!), a splash of almond milk, and a serving of protein powder. Sometimes I replace the protein powder with OJ for more of an acidic taste. I throw all of that into my Nutribullet (honestly bless whoever created that wonderful piece of technology) and I have my on-the-go meal in less than a minute!”

As Maddy mentioned, frozen fruit is the best way to get the most bang for your buck. Berries can sweeten your drink, which allows you to add in some ingredients that may seem a little weird, like kale, spinach, or carrots, without leaving a bad taste in your mouth. For example, a blackberry green smoothie is a delicious way to trick yourself into consuming the greens that will keep your body running strong.

For those who are constantly moving and also want to save money, smoothies can be a great way to curb hunger while minimizing time in the kitchen.​

3. Invest in a Slow Cooker

There’s nothing worse than coming home after a long day of work, class, and projects to the realization that you still have to cook dinner. When you’re overwhelmed with studying and find yourself starving and still have to take the time to cook a meal, it’s easy to cave and order carryout. But if you want to save time, money, and eat a healthier diet, we have the solution to your problems: a slow cooker!

All you have to do is throw your ingredients in the pot before leaving for your long day of classes and work, and when you come home, you’ll have a delicious meal ready to eat in seconds. Andie, a senior living off campus for the first time, swears by her slow cooker. "My slow-cooker is my go-to tool,” she told us. “You can pop some frozen chicken breasts in at the beginning of your day, leave the slow-cooker on low the whole day, and it'll be ready by dinner time!”

Andie has also figured out some killer recipes that take no time or effort. “Pork loin is often on sale, and you can make it the same way and end up with some killer pulled pork. I also like making an easy chili by mixing together 1lb cooked ground turkey, two cans of diced tomatoes, two cans of beans (your choice of the kind, I like black and pinto), some chopped onions (if you want), and a packet of taco seasoning. Heat the whole thing up on the stove, and voila! An easy dinner for under $10 that feeds you about 6 meals!"

Instead of ordering Chinese take-out, make your own effortless version of broccoli beef. In the winter, this black bean soup will make you cry from happiness when you come home after trudging through the snow to find this warm and ready to devour. A slow cooker can save you so much time and effort, which makes it a worthwhile investment. If you want to spend little money and make multiple servings to reheat the next day, using a slow cooker will change the way you view cooking.

Learning how other collegiettes have survived eating off-campus shows that cooking really isn’t as hard as it may seem! With a few trusty appliances and staple ingredients, you can navigate the school year (and the kitchen) with ease. Give these recipes a try—who knows, you could discover your new favorite meal! Happy cooking, collegiettes!

Images courtesy of: Pinterest, Organic Power Foods, and Creme de la Crumb