How to Meal Prep on a Budget as a College Student

by Jalen

College life brings its own set of challenges, and making sure you’re eating consistently and healthily often takes a backseat. One way I’ve been able to keep up with my hectic schedule while also making sure I’m eating properly was through meal prepping. Developing a consistent meal prep strategy can help you make easy, healthy and cheap meals that’ll keep you well fed and your brain functioning properly for your Finals Week. If this sounds too time consuming to you, I’m here to show you how a good meal prep strategy can be tailored to fit the busy, budget-conscious life of a college student.

What are the benefits of meal prepping?

Knowing how to prepare food with the intention of feeding yourself for a few days comes with a lot of obvious benefits:

1. Saves Time and Money: Buying groceries and preparing your own food will always be one of the cheapest way to keep yourself fed. While this does come with the cost of time spent cooking, however, making your food in bulk for a few days ahead means you only have to cook on certain days, instead of everyday.

2. A Balanced and Nutritious Meal: Look I get it, chucking some ramen noodles in a bowl, adding some water, and then popping it in the microwave for 3-4 minutes is pretty inexpensive in terms of time and money, but the real way you’re paying for this is with your long term health. If you’re prone to or currently experiencing health issues like high blood pressure or you’re overweight like I am, taking control over your health is one of the best ways you can say thank you to yourself for being the awesome person that you already are. Also, making sure you’re eating right can massively help you boost your brain power.

3. Reduction in Stress and Decision Fatigue: As much as I love eating my favorite types of food, Its sometimes hard to figure out what I want to eat in a given moment. Its kind of like when you want to watch a movie on Netflix but cant seem to find one that peaks your interest. This is because you’re trying to maximize the use of your time to cure your boredom. When it comes to food, naturally you’d like to eat something you enjoy the most to cure your hunger. Trying to answer your “What should I eat today?” thoughts with Uber Eats or Doordash is likely to cause the same effect, and definitely wont be good for your wallet.

I was able to save over $3,000 over the course of a year after opting out of my college’s meal plan offerings. I’m not going to lie, it did take a little bit of effort and creativity, but I was able to make it work with the study-intensive schedule of a biology major, and I believe it can work for you and especially your wallet as well!

How should I get started?

For most students, meal prepping once or twice a week is the sweet spot. Sundays are usually a good day for most people, as it’s often a little less hectic. Doing a smaller mid-week prep, like on a Wednesday, can be used to re-stock your snacks or other food items for the rest of the week.

After you figure out your cooking schedule, you could then start to plan out what you would eat on what day. Try not to make the same thing for multiple days in a row though, as that’s how you get burned out easily (I’ve developed short-term pizza-phobia doing this). Fitting in quick snacks into your prep schedule can also be beneficial, as those can be things you take on campus to eat in between your classes instead of hitting up vending machines or buying stuff from the on campus eateries

Figuring out your cooking schedule is only the first step however, because you also need to know how to grocery shop effectively, and I don’t mean just buying a case of Truly’s and some cup of noodles for the week (We’ve all been there). Building a grocery list might make you feel like you’re your mom or something, but it doesn’t have to be complicated or boring, trust me.

Prioritize staple foods

As your favorite financially saavy biology major, I’ve learned that there are 4 sources of nutrition that your body needs to function. These are carbs (carbohydrates), proteins, nucleic acids, and fats; otherwise known as your “macro’s” by the gym-goers amongst us. Whole grains like rice, quinoa, and oats will satisfy your body’s needs for carbs. Non-red animal meats as well as some vegan options like chicken and tofu, or canned beans and lentils will provide your your proteins, nucleic acids, and fats. These are just basic items to give you an idea of how to min/max your nutrition versus your costs. You still need stuff like cooking oils (albeit not too much per meal) and spices to cook things properly and not make your food taste bland.

Plan but be flexible

While its best to have a plan of items to buy before you go shopping, being flexible can also be a good virtue to have. As long as you’re still fulfilling your “macro’s” you will be fine. If you’re planning to keep it simple and make chicken, rice, and broccoli, but you see that carrots are slightly cheaper during that time, don’t be afraid to pivot if necessary.

Snacks and extras

Yogurt, granola bars, or fruits are easy and healthy grab-and-go snacks that you can buy. Also, consider what you might want for quick breakfasts. Overnight oats or smoothie ingredients are cheap and convenient as well. Although if you’d rather go for a bag of chips, just make sure you’re eating nutritious foods for the majority of your meals. No big deal.

How can I maximize my savings?

“But Jalen, grocery costs are going up, how can I cope with this?” Is something I’m thinking you’ve probably asked yourself at this point. Don’t worry though, rising food costs can be somewhat circumvented by buying strategically and knowing where to look.

1. Farmers’ Markets: You might be thinking, “aren’t those pricier?” …and you wouldn’t be wrong, but only if you go in the middle of the day. Towards the end of the day are when most vendors are just looking to offload their stock, are more willing to let their product go at reduced prices during this time. Even if it does end up costing a bit more, the quality itself is markedly better. Plus, it could be a fun outing for you and maybe a significant other as well.

2. Student Discounts & Loyalty Programs: Some grocery stores and local markets may offer student discounts. Look for loyalty programs as well if you like to frequent a particular place. Those points and coupons add up, trust me.

3. Buy Generic Brands: Name brands are cool and all, but generic versions are often just as good and a fraction of the price. Don’t get caught up in spending more for the same product just for its packaging or branding.

4. Frozen Fruits and Veggies: While, fresh foods are great, but frozen foods are even better value. They’re often cheaper and won’t go bad as quickly, so you can use them as needed. Perfect for smoothies.

5. Utilizing Leftovers & Understanding Expiration Dates: Leftovers are your friend, not your enemy. Make a stir-fry with last night’s veggies or add them to an omelette. Also, know the difference between “sell-by” and “use-by” dates. “Sell by” dates indicate the last day a product should be sold. On the other hand, “Use by” dates are the last dates recommended for the consumption of the product while it remains at peak quality. Both dates are set by manufacturers and primarily focus on quality, not safety. Most foods are good for a bit after their “Sell-by” date; just use your senses to be sure.

6. Buy in Bulk: Get your staples like rice, oats, or beans in bulk when you can. Doing this saves money and often reduces waste.

7. Buy Seasonal Foods: Keep in mind that seasonal items are largely concentrated on plant based produce. Here are some examples:

  • Spring: In the spring time, leafy greens like spinach and kale and certain fruits like strawberries and apples are plentiful.
  • Summer: Summer is best for certain stuff like tomatoes, zucchini, and watermelon.
  • Fall: Apples, pumpkins, and brussels sprouts are usually what’s on sale in the fall
  • Winter: Root veggies and citrus fruits are the most available in the winter. These are carrots and potatoes, as well as oranges and lemons.

8. Buying From Clearance Aisle: I’d recommend that you give shopping from the clearance section a chance, but just make sure that you’re not buying stuff that’s way over expiry.

9. Dumpster Diving Behind Grocery Stores: If you’re amongst the most daring individuals, you could try your hand at dumpster diving for unsold food at grocery stores, but this can be very gross and may get you into trouble, so be sure to check your local laws to make sure you wont get yourself into hot water (definitely take a hot water shower afterward). Because this method is technically free, this would be the easiest way to save money on food costs.

What are some easy, cheap, and nutritious foods I can make?

Here’s a bunch of simple, nutritious, and more importantly, wallet-friendly ideas to keep you fueled and feeling fantastic through all those lectures and late-night study sessions.


1. Overnight Oats: Mix rolled oats with almond milk, a dollop of yogurt, and your favorite sweetener (like honey or maple syrup). Top with fresh fruits and a sprinkle of nuts. Estimated cost: $1.50/serving.

2. Chia Pudding: Combine chia seeds with milk (dairy or plant-based), let it set overnight. Layer with fruits and maybe some granola in the morning. Estimated cost: $2/serving.

3. Egg Muffin Cups: Whisk eggs, throw in some chopped veggies (spinach, bell peppers, etc.), and bake in a muffin tin. Breakfast for days! Estimated cost: $3 for 6 cups.


1. Buddha Bowls: Start with a grain base like quinoa or rice, top with roasted veggies, some form of protein, and drizzle with a dressing. Estimated cost: $2.50/bowl.

2. Salads with Beans or Grains: Think mixed greens, black beans, corn, and avocado. Toss with a simple lime vinaigrette. Estimated cost: $2/salad.

3. Wraps: Grab a whole grain tortilla, slap on some hummus, toss in veggies, and maybe some grilled chicken or tofu. Roll and you’re good to go! Estimated cost: $1.50/wrap.


1. Stir-fry: Sauté your favorite veggies with protein (chicken, beef, tofu) in some soy sauce, garlic, and ginger. Serve over rice or noodles. Estimated cost: $3-$5 per serving.

2. Casseroles: Think of a combo like chicken, broccoli, and rice baked with a bit of cheese on top. Warm, filling, and perfect for those colder evenings or when you need some comfort food. Estimated cost: $2.50/serving.

3. One-Pot Meals: How about a lovely chili with beans, tomatoes, corn, and ground turkey? The beauty is in tossing everything into one pot and letting it do its magic. Estimated cost: $2.75/serving.

Snacks (because we all need that mid-study boost!):

1. Homemade Trail Mix: Mix up some nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and maybe a chocolate chip or two for a sweet surprise. Estimated cost: $0.75/serving.

2. Veggie Sticks with Hummus: Carrots, cucumbers, and bell peppers are all great options. Dip and crunch away! Estimated cost: $1/serving.

3. Fruit with Nut Butter: Sliced apples or bananas with a side of almond or peanut butter? Yes, please! Estimated cost: $1.25/serving.

Remember, prices can vary based on where you shop, but these are average costs to give you a ballpark. Shopping sales, using student discounts, and buying in bulk can help bring these costs down even more. 

How can I efficiently prepare and safely store my food?

There’s no point in taking 2-3 hours to make food if its only going to make 1 or 2 servings (sorry grandma), or making a bunch of food just for it to go bad in 24-hours because you didn’t know proper food storage etiquette. To avoid this hassle, here’s some cooking and storage hacks I’ve used throughout my time in college that’ll make your life that much easier.

1. Batch Cooking: The most efficient way to meal prep would be to make large portions of food in one go. Afterwards you could easily split it into meal-sized portions for the week. This would be something along the lines of big pots of chili or spaghetti. It saves time, energy, and makes fewer dishes! Shout out to all the alfredo warriors out there.

2. Useful Appliances

   – Slow Cookers: These are perfect for “set it and forget it” meals. Toss in ingredients in the morning, and by evening, you have a warm meal ready to go. Ideal for stews, soups, and even oatmeal.

   – Instant Pots: Talk about speedy dinners! It’s a pressure cooker, rice cooker, steamer, and sauté pan all rolled into one. Perfect for one-pot meals.

   – Air Fryers: Want crispy fries or chicken without all the oil? Air fryers use hot air to get that perfect crunch, making them a healthier and faster alternative to traditional frying.

3. Storing Like a Pro: 

   – Glass Containers: They’re your besties here. Not only do they keep food fresh, but they’re also microwave-safe, so reheating is a breeze.

   – Utilizing Labels: Use masking tape or a sticky note to jot down what’s inside and the date you cooked it. This way, you’re not playing the “is this still good?” game.

4. Organize for Ease: 

   – Fridge: Store ready-to-eat items at eye level (like those prepped meals and snacks), keep raw ingredients lower down, and use the door for condiments and drinks. Oh, and keep your fruits and veggies in the crisper drawer to extend freshness.

   – Pantry: Group similar items together. Cans with cans, grains with grains. And if you’re feeling fancy, clear storage bins or turntables (not the DJ kind) can make access even smoother.

Luckily, you don’t need Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen to be able to start meal prepping. Here’s a budget-friendly list of everything you’d need to make all the delicious food you’re planning to eat!

How can I stay consistent with meal prepping?

Its much easier to start a new thing than it is to be consistent with it, so how can one do this with meal prepping?

1. Sync with Your Schedule: Planning for easy to make meals like salads or wraps are great for more hectic times such as a double or god-forbid a triple midterm week. During lighter weeks, feel free to get all Gordon Ramsay and try something more elaborate. The key is adaptability (bars *mic drop*)

2. Use What You’ve Got: Being consistent with meal prepping doesn’t mean you’re glued to a strict menu. It’s all about making smart, nutritious choices with what’s available.

3. Track Your Spending: Money is a universal motivator. Track how much you spend on groceries in a given week and compare that to the cost of your college’s meal plan offerings or how much you would’ve spent ordering out food everyday. Plus, doing this would also let you know if you’re spending too much on groceries, allowing you the clarity to make necessary adjustments in your budget.


From saving you money to helping you stay fueled with nutritious meals, meal prepping is like having a superpower in your back pocket! It gives you control over your diet and your budget, and let’s be honest, college can get hectic enough. So, what’s stopping you? Don’t let the idea of planning and cooking intimidate you. Trust me, once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it! Plus, your body and bank account will thank you big time. 

Loved these tips? Got some killer recipes or genius meal prep hacks of your own? Share the love and drop ’em in the comments below! For more wallet-friendly, college-living hacks delivered straight to your inbox, don’t forget to sign up for our Frugal Student Newsletter. Also, don’t forget to give us a follow on Twitter and Instagram. Let’s make college living delish and budget-friendly together!

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