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A college student's guide to better meal-planning

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FEBRUARY 03, 2014

It’s 7:30 p.m. After stacked lectures, work, an info session and missed lunch, the last thing you want to do is open your fridge door and try to get “creative” with a moist bag of spinach, half a can of chickpeas and Dijon mustard. You recall your trip to Trader Joe’s three days ago, miraculously spending only $27 and guessing you’d have enough to last for a week (#dumb). The reason you spent only $27 this time? Because last week, you spent $115, and almost a third of your groceries ended up uneaten, spoiled and thrown away. Talk about scandalous.

Is this scenario unsettlingly familiar? Guess what: It means you might suck at meal-planning. Fortunately, nearly 100 percent of college students have the exact same dilemma. It’s one of the first rituals everyone will face when entering adulthood and claiming pseudo-independence: realizingyou still miss the times your mom did everything. Planning your meals, keeping within your budget and preventing both malnutrition and an empty bank account before graduating college are all difficult things to simultaneously do, but they’re not impossible. Read on to see what kind of tips can help you make it through the growing pains of the phenomenon known as “cooking for yourself,” and you’ll find yourself having food to eat (most of the time), a decent budget and maybe even ambitions of eating healthy in order to lose weight. Joking aside, it is important to manage your health, eating and finances, so see what Eating Berkeley has to say.

1. Have a budget. Create and establish a monthly budget (but leave some buffer room in case you go over or under), and then cut up your grocery budget based on how often you require trips to the market. If, for example, your budget is $200 per month and you tend to purchase a lot of groceries to last you two weeks, then give yourself around $100. If you shop weekly, then make that limit $50 to $60. Over time, you’ll be able to gauge how much you actually eat, how much you end up throwing away due to spoil, and what items last you beyond the set time frame, such as butter, seasonings, cooking oils, etc. You might discover all you actually need is two trips per month, with a budget of $150 — or maybe more than $200 for individuals who prefer organic and more expensive foods.

2. Do your research. Search for recipes throughout the week, and then select maybe two of them to live off of for that week. For example, you can make overnight oats (oatmeal soaked in water or milk overnight) for breakfast with toppings of peanut butter and bananas; sandwiches for lunch; fruits and maybe chips for snacks; and then defrosted stew for dinner. Also, friends and roommates are great resources. Ask what they tend to eat throughout the week!

3. Have a grocery list. Prepare a grocery list before going to the market, and attempt to make that list’s total costs stay within your budget. That way, you won’t waste time walking around to scour all the shelves, unsure of what to buy. Also, it’s very likely you’ll get sorely tempted to buy extra snacks and items you don’t need or can’t afford, so having a list and sticking to it prevents you from overspending or at least gives you buffer money to cover the extra costs you didn’t expect even after staying true to your original list. But hey, it never hurts to make the occasional box of cookies or bar of dark chocolate an intentional part of your groceries!

4. Make large portions. Make huge batches of your recipes, and freeze the leftovers. Good freeze items are homemade soups, lasagna and recipes using chicken. All you would have to do is defrost a portion in the microwave and … Ta-da! You have a meal prepared in less than 10 minutes with minimal preparations! Also, a note: mMake meal-sized portions prior to freezing. It’s slightly illogical to think you should freeze an entire pot of stew or 9 x 12 inch pan of veggie lasagna, only to defrost the entire thing when you just want one bowl or square for lunch.

5. Keep it real. Don’t have unrealistic expectations, one example being: “I’m going to eat out only once a week!” or “I’m limiting SpoonRocket to once a month!” Let’s face it — we’re college students. And college students have club and organization meetings, stacked classes, work, maybe the gym every once in a while and hangouts with friends to deal with. You’re going to get coffee and maybe a sandwich with a peer. You’re going to buy outside food unless you’re a genius at packing lunches, and even then, you’re going to crave some Indian food from Mount Everest Restaurant, even though you have lasagna in the freezer you can eat (and you’ve eaten for the past three days in a row). So leave some room in your budget to account for those kinds of times. It’s only to be expected.

6. Record your meals. Log your recipes and meals into a meal book or make note on your phone (Evernote, anyone?) That way, you can steadily compile an archive of your meals and return to some old ones when you come up blank for the following week. Or why not try Tumblr and Pinterest as places to keep meal inspirations and jot down what you ate for the day? As a bonus, you’re bound to come across great blogs and pages of meals, recipes and food-porn photos that will make the kitchen an exciting, magical place rather than a space of despair that reminds you of your cooking ineptitude.

7. Remember: Leftovers are great. Never ditch leftovers. Throw them into something else, or silence your kingly stomach and down whatever’s safely edible. Plan ahead, and those leftovers can transform into awesome, original meals. This way, you save money and rid yourself of stress over what to eat next.

Image source: Kat Stan under Creative Commons

Contact Eunice Choi at [email protected]

FEBRUARY 03, 2014