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Meal Planning 101 for Students: A Complete Guide

Ready to start the habit of meal planning? Here’s what you need to remember.

As a student, you’ve probably heard of a meal plan. You might have even thought of attempting to follow one yourself. But, at the end of the day, we often end up procrastinating or abandoning this seemingly big and scary topic altogether. That changes today. 

This guide is going to cover the 4Ws of meal planning. Hopefully, it’ll help you realise that it’s something you can do and enjoy. This is going to be an absolute monster of an article, but if all goes well, it should be the only one you need to set up a personalised meal plan and follow it, regardless of what expertise you have on the subject.

Getting Started and Why We Do It

To begin, it’s important to understand this — what’s a meal plan? I love how theKitchnn.com puts it: instead of asking what’s for dinner every night, you ask it once. The concept behind meal planning is simple. You note what you’re going to be eating for a specific time period, rather than leave it to conjecture and eventually end up with instant noodles for the umpteenth time.

Sounds good? I’ve got a few more reasons that might convince you to join the meal plan club!

Firstly, anyone can do it — regardless of whether you cook frequently or if you’ve tried a meal plan before. You can start small, with dinner/lunch for a week or a plan for 3 days per week. If you prefer, you can instead plan weekly breakfasts, lunches, or dinners. It’s flexible and entirely up to you. And it’s doable. I do have to concede that meal plans are more effective if you’re preparing most of the meals yourself. This guide assumes that at least half of your meals will be cooked at home. However, this is very much doable even if you don’t!

Secondly, as they say, follow the money. Meal plans are cost-effective if done right, so your money can go towards other things you care about. Additionally, it wouldn’t take you ages and, even so, the little time spent crafting your meal plan is time well-spent. You invest time now to save yourself time and peace of mind later. It also doesn’t involve complicated tools. You can make a plan on a notes app, a paper stuck to your fridge, a Google Doc, or whatever works best for you.

It also makes you eat healthier. There’s more control over food choices, portions, and ingredients. When you have a meal plan, you’re less likely to be surviving on the blessed triad of instant noodles, chips, and cereal.

If you love to have variety in your food, you may be worried about how meal planning may mean eating the same boring things day after day. That doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, it’s possible to increase your options and explore lots of different foods with a meal plan. Moreover, if there’s a recipe you’ve been eyeing and procrastinating on, a meal plan allows you to finally cook it! Every week, you can adjust your plan to include new things you’re excited to try or old favourites. If you cook a lot or you just don’t like to waste food, planning meals ensures there is less wastage and things don’t just go bad in your fridge

Now that you’ve hopefully been convinced, let’s move on to the nitty-gritty steps of how to craft your plan. Where do you start? The process is simple — just four steps in total!

Step 1: Brainstorm/Research Meal Options, Then Select Choices

List all possible options, then select those that align with your lifestyle, preferences, and food goals/needs. Then, put them into your plan grid, calendar, or other form. Don’t forget to account for days when you’ll be eating out or ordering in! At this stage, it’s important to be honest with yourself. What you want won’t necessarily be what you need or be practical for you.

For example, some recipes wouldn’t be possible if you don’t have an oven. If you’re at the stage of burning water, don’t choose complicated recipes, even if they look mouth-watering. Start small and build up.

If you know you’re going to be exhausted on Tuesdays because you have three consecutive classes, you’re better off ordering in or putting something to reheat in that slot rather than an intricate curry you’ve to make from scratch.

All this sounds like common sense, but you’d be amazed at the number of times I’ve put something in my plan and later wondered what on earth I was thinking.

Meal Planning 101 for Students: A Complete Guide

Most people recommend doing a weekly meal plan for about 30 minutes on Fridays. Alternatively, you can dip your toes in with only 3 days at a time or plan only lunches/dinner for the week. Also, remember to not fill your whole plan with only new stuff you’ve never done before. Start with only 3 or 4 of those per week.

Finally, always have backups in case the meal you’ve planned doesn’t work out or you don’t feel up for cooking. Simple things like reheated leftovers, scrambled eggs with bread, cereal, sandwiches, or instant noodles will do. The key here is simple and quick. Alternatively, you could also consider meal prepping — where you spend more time cooking more on a particular day so that you can simply reheat the meal whenever your day is too occupied.

Aminah's Meal Planning Tip #1
  • Make the process easier with apps that can help you find recipes, generate grocery lists, or to draw up a calendar-view of your plan. Here’s a few to get you started: Mealime, Pepperplate, Yummly, BigOven, and Allrecipes Dinner Spinner.
  • Create a big pool of options and draw from it rather than search for new recipes every time.
  • If cooking seems scary or boring, watch some cooking shows! It sounds trite, but they really do inspire you and introduce you to new things to try.
  • Check out serious eats to dive into what makes particular recipes so good and discover cuisines from all over the globe.

 

Step 2: Shop for Ingredients to Prepare Your Chosen Meals

What ingredients would you need for the meals on your plan? List them all down. Next, go through your fridge and cupboards and cross out the ones you already have. Go grocery shopping for the remaining, and only the remaining, items.

Weekends are ideal for this. Select your choices on Friday afternoon or night. Go shopping on Saturday. Do an immediate prep after you get home and long prep on Sunday.

Alternatively, you can go the opposite route. Go through your fridge and cupboards and note what you already have that could be used to build the week’s meal plan. Then, do step 1 and find recipes for those ingredients. Any items necessary for your choices that you don’t have, go ahead and shop for.

This approach is good for when you have things in your cupboard you’re not using — like that bag of lentils hiding in the cupboards, I see you.

Meal Planning 101 for Students: A Complete Guide

You don’t have to choose any one approach and stick to it forever. You can try doing step 1 followed by step 2 for one week and then step 2 followed by step 1 the following week!

Step 3: Prepare Your Meals

Dice your carrots, freeze things you don’t need immediately, store your salad, veggies, and herbs to keep them fresh, put your chicken pieces into Ziploc bags with your marinades, and so on.

Ready? Now’s also the time to batch cook! (read as: meal prep) Make a big pot of that intricate curry and ration it out. Cook a big pot of rice for 4 meals — portion two in the freezer and two in the fridge. Anything you can do to make life easier for future you, please do

Aminah's Meal Planning Tip #2

Since we assume you’ll be cooking majority of the meals, here are some essential tools you might need.

(Disclaimer: this list is just a guide. Depending on what meals you’ve chosen, your list of essentials might look different.)

  • A good-quality deep pot for soups, stews, pasta, blanching veggies, boiling rice, and more as well as a good quality frying pan.
  • A stack of wooden cooking utensils. They’re more gentle to cook with. Metal ones tend to scratch the pots and pans.
  • A good knife and 2 chopping boards. Neither is negotiable. A chopping board prevents your chicken and onions from bleeding juice all over your countertop. Wood is often recommended as it needs replacing less often and keeps your knives sharp for longer, compared to plastic. It’s also advised to use different boards for raw meat and non-meat food to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Big ladles for stirring, dishing, and scooping.
  • A small peeler which makes carrots, potatoes, and all peeling-related prep so much easier. You won’t want to go back to using a knife after this.
  • Fine mesh sieve/colander for draining your veggies, pasta, rice, and so on.
  • Bowls and plates for serving and cooking.
  • Food storage containers to store leftovers or batch-cooked food/meal prepped in the fridge or freezer.

 

Other non-essentials that you might like to introduce into your kitchen are a smaller pot, a blender/food processor (particularly if you make soups, spreads, blended drinks, and smoothies), a can opener, a grater, measuring cups and spoons, as well as a slow cooker/crock pot among others.

Step 4: Revise, Rinse, and Repeat

What recipes or cuisines do you want to try for your new plan? Note how much you were able to follow the previous one. What went wrong? What can you improve on?

Sit down for 30 minutes and create your new plan on your allocated day. But also remember not to be too hard on yourself. With time, you’ll improve and always have an answer to what’s for dinner every night!

Meal Planning 101 for Students: A Complete Guide

To conclude, meal planning doesn’t have to be an exhaustive, low-reward chore. We’ve covered how it’s ideal for students, the four steps to an effective meal plan, tools that you need, and much more. I hope that you’ve found the guide instructive and now feel confident enough to attempt a meal plan of your own!

A. Bello is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s in Biomedical Science at Taylor's University. She’s passionate about discussing student life and how to make the uni experience as rewarding as possible. She’s also working on the ultimate papaya jam recipe to rule them all!

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