6 Tips for Cooking as a College Student

Black beans and rice.

As a junior in college, I’ve grown accustomed to balancing schedules, churning out internship work between classes, and squeezing in time for homework and extracurricular activities and organizations. This year, however, has brought me an entirely new challenge: a kitchen and my hungry stomach. 

Without a meal plan, I’m left to fend for myself. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I was never really good at it. Usually, I just help out at home by chopping things for my mom despite her complaining at my slow pace. I moved into my apartment pretty optimistic about my cooking skills, but the transition from being a fairly passive kitchen observer to fully-blown cooking for one college student hasn’t been without its faults. 

Here are my 6 tips for surviving your first semester cooking for one:

  1. Life is stressful enough—plan ahead.

Know your schedule and when you have the time to cook, then plan your meals around that. For example, I have soccer practice or late classes Monday through Wednesday, so I usually cook something over the weekend that will last me until at least Thursday, when I have the availability to cook again. Making meals that will give me at least 4 servings is a great way for me to prioritize my time so that I not only have the chance to cook for myself, but I can do it on my terms.

I also use a meal planner (similar to this) to map out what I’m eating that week. I don’t follow it to a tee, but I’ve found that it helps me to plan out what I’m cooking for dinners, how much I have for leftovers and keep track of my breakfast and lunch supplies.

  1. Make simple meals with variables you can mix and match.

There’s nothing worse than growing tired of a meal not only took time out of a busy schedule to make but spent hard-earned money on ingredients. One way to keep your diet interesting when, like me, you’re eating the same thing for days in a row, is to make a meal that you can mix up every so often with different sides, toppings, or ingredients. 

A great example of this is hummus or falafel bowls. At the start of the semester, I bought a falafel mix and ended up with a ton of falafels. I used those to make wraps with fresh vegetables, salads, and bowls with lettuce and hummus. I used hummus, ranch dressing, and sriracha to spice up different sauces and interchanged carrots, tomatoes, bell pepper, onions, and olives as additional toppings.

One variation of my many falafel meals.
  1. Use what you have. You’re on a budget.

Paying for your groceries is an unfortunate side effect of growing up, which means that my instinct to be frugal often results in a need to use up the food that I’ve bought before it goes bad. This prompted the above story of the falafel hummus bowls, as I had bought a large tub of spring mix lettuce at Hyvee (the heads of lettuce all looked suspiciously yellow) and my greens were quickly wilting. I still ended up throwing out a portion of uneatable lettuce, but I did make a dent in the waste by eating salads for a few days.

  1. Freeze-able foods are your friend.

Keeping a well-stocked freezer can be a lifesaver on a busy college day. Freezing things like rice, chicken nuggets, pizza, and the occasional falafel leftovers to pull out on a rainy day when you didn’t get the chance to go grocery shopping or cook is a great way to whip up a meal in minutes. 

You can even freeze sauces. I stuck a Tupperware of leftover Sweet and Sour sauce I had from eating out from a Thai restaurant in the freezer at the beginning of the semester and pulled it out a month later who stir into some rice and sauteed (frozen!) veggies with tofu. Saved me money and time.

Pizza is a great meal to make for friends, and you end up with easy-to-freeze leftovers.
  1. Make a plan for eating out.

Don’t let fun times get away from you. Plan into your food schedule designated times to eat out. Recently, I’ve headed to Trivia Night at a local Pizza shop after my soccer practice on Wednesday nights, so I’ve worked that into my cooking schedule. I typically use one day a week to eat out, so I know that if I get pizza Wednesday, I’ll need to cook for myself Thursday through Sunday. 

Drunken Noodles from my favorite Thai restaurant in Des Moines.
  1. Keep a running grocery list.

This one I’m still working on. For me, the toughest part of cooking for myself isn’t the actual cooking, but the entire process of deciding what to make for myself. I usually don’t compile my grocery list until the morning of my trip and by the time I return to the apartment, realize I’ve forgotten something. 

Whether you’re a Notes App person or you prefer to have a designated paper grocery list, keeping a running tab of apartment essentials, snacks, and dinner ingredients is the easiest way to ensure that you return from grocery trips prepared for the week.

I hope these tips help make your college life a little less hectic! 

To learn more about me, check out my About page.

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  1. Lorelei

    This is good advice, thank you! I need to look into your hummus idea as an ongoing base. My current favorite mix-and-match is mexican-inspired food. Beans and refried beans are a cheap protein base that I frequently use for dinners. And eating mex gets me to remember to include veggies with every meal (tomato, greens, onions…). One day I’ll wrap it all up as a burrito, another day I’ll build tacos (12 no-sodium taco shells for a buck at Dollar Tree!), another day it’s just a colorful open plate/’salad’ of mex ingredients, etc. And if I’ve recently done some potato meals to save $ then I can splurge and get avocados for my mex meals.

  2. Eric

    A must-read article with very useful tips for those moving from meal plans to independent living.

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