These ideas for meal prep for college students can be applied to anyone on a budget and with minimal time for meal prep. Enjoy these easy, budget friendly college meal prep ideas, from a graduate student and soon-to-be RD!
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Going to college brings its own set of challenges.
Living on your own and learning to cook (ahem college meal prep) is widely recognized as one of them.
Since I’ve been in the college setting for a LONG time (4 years in undergrad and now finishing up grad school), I have many tips and tricks for doing meal prep as a college student.
We’ll start by reviewing some major food groups and easy, dorm-friendly sources of them, which really is the base of the pyramid for college meal prep.
Then, we’ll talk about how to merge those together into quick and healthy college meal ideas.
Lastly, we’ll finish up with some tips and ideas for learning your way around the dining hall.
Table of contents
College Meal Prep 101: Things to Consider
To understand how to meal prep in college, you first need to adjust to living on your own and have a basic understanding of cooking.
College may be the first time you learn to feed yourself, probably without a kitchen and without much direction. On top of this, you likely have access to a dining hall where the possibilities are quite literally endless.
So, to all the college students feeling overwhelmed with navigating the food world on their own, you’re in the right place.
We know that doing some sort of college meal prep can help you save time and money, which college students are all about.
Here are some things to think about:
- Do you have a budget? How much can you spend on groceries?
- How much space do you have in your dorm room/living situation for groceries?
- Do you share space with roommates?
- Do you have a fridge, or should you stick to pantry staples?
- How much time are you willing to allocate to meal prep?
- What meals are most important to meal prep or make ahead? If you’re a college athlete with early practice, breakfast may be a great place to start!
- Do you have any dietary preferences or limitations? Whether you prefer vegan meal prep or love high-protein dairy snack options, make a list based on what you enjoy.
- Do you have a car? Can you get to the grocery store or do grocery delivery?
Tips for Saving Money
When thinking about any college meal prep recipes, you can always substitute ingredients or leave some out to keep it budget friendly.
You can approach budget-friendly meal prepping in college in two ways.
1) buy cheaper foods
2) buy foods in bulk.
Buy Cheaper Foods
High protein staples, like canned fish, canned chicken, eggs, cottage cheese, milk, or Greek yogurt, can help keep you fuller for longer to sustain your energy.
To add a boost of vitamins and minerals to your base, consider budget-friendly vegetables and fruits like broccoli, spinach, carrots, canned tomatoes, bananas, oranges, and apples.
Buy in Bulk
As for buying foods in bulk, if you have a friend or family member with a membership to a wholesale store, like Sam’s Club or Costco, ask if you can tag along when they go.
Buying in bulk decreases the price per unit of the foods you pick up.
Many of the products at these stores will be shelf-stable at room temperature for a long time after purchase.
Here are some ideas for how to stock your pantry in bulk.
Keep Snacks on Hand
Snacks are an important way to bridge the gap between meals. Also, if you have a sufficient snack stash, your meals don’t have to be as big, which may help save money in some ways.
We love many of these athlete snacks for overall healthy, nutrient-rich snacks.
You can also save money by making your own snacks rather than relying on storebought ones.
- No Bake Snacks – No bake snacks are the best for college students without an oven or even microwave. If you have a blender, which you may need for some recipes, that’s helpful and won’t take up too much space. Trail mix bars are a great snack on the way to class, and these no bake pumpkin cookies rely on canned pumpkin for tons of antioxidants!
- Oats go far – You can use oats for so many things, in meals and snacks.Plus, they offer fiber-rich carbohydrates, iron, B Vitamins, protein and more. Great gut food!
- Snack Delivery – We love Thrive Market, and while they have some fun finds there, it may not fit within your college budget. If it does, maybe do a fun order once a quarter, or ask your parents to contribute to your snack stash. You could also consider reaching out and seeing if they have a college discount, as many companies do offer this.
College Meal Prep Recipes
Budget-friendly meals are key for college students, so you’ll love these ideas for meal prep in college recipes.
One of the biggest challenges you’re probably facing is finding cheap, healthy meals for college students.
If you’re on an isolated campus, you might have limited access to grocery stores, and those that you can readily get to might have especially high prices.
But, meal prepping for college students doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. In fact, these college meal prep recipes are pretty cheap, all things considered.
If you’re not a fan of hot oats (and don’t have the space or oven to make them), overnight oats are another great form of oatmeal meal prep.
A carton of oats is between $4-5 depending on the size you buy and the grocery store. You can also buy in bulk from Costco.
Pop your oats in the fridge before you go to bed, and they’ll be ready to eat when you get up in the morning.
To experiment with fun flavors, here are some of our favorites:
Omelette in a mug
Eggs are as budget-friendly as they come and make college meal prep on a budget a bit easier.
Plus, the egg nutrition is unmatched. You’re getting protein, healthy fats, choline and a slew of micronutrients.
Spray a microwave-safe bowl or mug with oil, and add a few eggs, a sprinkle of cheese, ¼ cup of vegetables, and salt and pepper.
Scramble together until mixed well, and microwave in 30-second increments, stirring between each, until cooked through.
Greek Yogurt Parfait or Smoothie
All you need to do for this easy breakfast option is keep Greek yogurt, fruit, and granola in your dorm room, and layer them all in a mug or bowl.
This is truly the gold standard for making meal prepping in college easy! Greek yogurt is packed with protein to hold you over for longer, and also offers calcium, B-Vitamins, probiotics and more.
I prefer to add cereal or granola on top for a nice crunch.
If you’re having trouble finding granola at an affordable price, buy it in bulk from Thrive Market or substitute your favorite cereal.
Greek yogurt smoothies are another great option. Or, save your extra fruit, and add some greens, fresh or frozen fruit, and yogurt to a freezer friendly bag and create smoothie packs.
Chicken and Broccoli Macaroni and Cheese
I love making chicken and broccoli dishes for easy college meal prep.
Simply prepare frozen or microwavable macaroni and cheese, steam fresh or frozen broccoli (takes minues in the microwave), and shred rotisserie chicken or pre-cooked chicken on top.
Like this toddler mac and cheese, you can also use a blend of cheeses.
In less than 10 minutes, you’ll have a balanced meal with carbohydrates, protein, and fats, as well as a variety of micronutrients.
If you have an oven, you can also try this healthy sweetpotato mac and cheese for a heartier option with a crisp topping!
Black Bean and Veggie Quesadilla
If you don’t have a pan or stove, you can easily make these in the microwave, another easy college meal prep plan.
Sprinkle cheese, black beans, and veggies into a tortilla, and microwave until cheese is melted.
Consider using a whole wheat tortilla for extra fiber to aid digestion and keep you full and satisfied for longer.
To add extra flavor, dip your quesadilla in guacamole, sour cream or salsa.
Chicken and Rice with Veggies
Similarly to the chicken and broccoli macaroni and cheese, mix a prepared microwavable pouch of rice with shredded or chopped rotisserie chicken, and stir in whatever veggies you’d enjoy.
Since all of these ingredients carry flavor well, top with your favorite sauce or seasoning to cater it to your taste.
- I love Kevin’s for pre-cooked chicken, or a rotisserie chicken is always awesome!
- Add some broth and eat it as a soup alongside a crusty piece of bread, or throw it in a power bowl, like this tempeh buddha bowl.
Mason Jar Salad
This is one you can make in bulk for college meal prep. Grab a bagged salad kit, and throw the greens in the bottom of a mason jar (I also use these overnight oat jars for this!).
Then, top with canned beans, nuts, seeds, canned tuna, dried fruit, diced avocado, etc.
You can make your own dressing with oil and vinegar, or buy one if you have a fridge.
Did you know that you can make a baked sweetpotato (or potato) in the microwave? This is a college meal prep recipe that can be catered to your liking.
Use a fork to poke 4-5 holes in the sweetpotato, then wrap a damp paper towel around the sweetpotato and microwave for 5-7 minutes.
Depending on the size of the sweetpotato, flip halfway through.
Once it has finished cooking, let the sweetpotato rest for 1-2 minutes, then slice in half and stuff with your favorite budget-friendly toppings.
- BBQ Roasted Chickpeas
- Canned beans or lentils
- Pizza beans
- Rotisserie chicken
- Fresh, frozen or canned vegetables
- Greek yogurt or cottage cheese
Like a grain bowl, orzo cooks quickly and can be topped with many different options, like frozen veggies (broccoli), meat, beans and legumes and more.
This broccoli orzo salad can be ready in under 20 minutes, and can be a plant-based meal prep idea.
Meal Prep in College Without Refrigeration
But, what if you don’t have a refrigerator? Does that change your meal prep as a college student?
One of the largest challenges of cooking in college is the limited access to food storage and refrigeration, which can honestly make meal prep a little challenging, in my experience.
In most dorms, the best-case scenario for food preparation is a communal kitchen for everyone on the floor and a mini fridge in your room.
Considering this, a weekly grocery run with loads of fresh produce isn’t practical.
Fortunately, many shelf-stable foods contain plenty of nutrients (and tend to be cheaper than fresh varieties).
Just about all whole grains, like brown rice, oats, and canned corn, are shelf-stable, as well as beans and legumes, like canned beans and chickpeas or dried lentils.
Meal prepping doesn’t have to look like a full meal all the time – we can mix and match components.
Don’t shy away from canned fruits and vegetables, either, as they contain the same amount of micronutrients as fresh produce.
However, with canned fruits, buy fruit canned in 100% juice to avoid added sugars.
Beyond these options, you might also consider buying individual applesauce cups, dried fruit, beef jerky, popcorn, and more.
Shelf-stable foods can be transformed into delicious meals and snacks, too!
College Pantry Staples
- Instant oatmeal—this recipe is the shelf-stable counterpart of overnight oats. Prepare your favorite instant oats packet, or plain quick oats, according to the package, and stir in toppings, like nuts, nut butter, dried fruit, or protein powder. It doesn’t get much easier than that.
- Energy bites—you can make the base of an energy ball by mixing nut butter, oats, and honey or maple syrup to make a firm dough, but personalize your treat by adding your favorite mix-ins, like craisins, chocolate chips, or nuts. Oats and peanut butter, as well as many mix-ins, are affordable, making energy bites perfect for easy energy and a great choice for your wallet. Some of our favorites are no bake cookie dough bites, peanut butter chia balls, lemon protein bites and chocolate almond balls.
- Rice and beans burrito—Drain and rinse a can of your favorite beans, and prepare a microwavable packet of brown rice or Spanish rice. Stir together, add your favorite sauce or seasoning, and portion into two tortillas. Roll the tortillas into burritos, and you’re ready to go. You’ll even have an extra to enjoy as seconds, save for later, or share with a friend.
- Pancake in a mug—Prepare one serving of your favorite add-water-only pancake mix in a mug, and top with your favorite non-refrigerated fruits, like apples or bananas. Bonus points if you sprinkle your mug pancake with cinnamon. We also love these storebought verisons.
- Peanut butter and banana sandwich—This meal is simple but classic. To pack in the most nutrients, choose your favorite whole grain bread, slather with peanut butter and sliced banana, and top with chia seeds or hemp seeds. Most peanut butters do not require refrigeration, but to be sure, check the label when you buy.
While you can treat the campus dining hall as a restaurant, but you can also treat it as a resource to make some of the above meal prep recipes for college students.
Foods from the dining hall can help you save money big time! And often times, many are grab-and-go, which can be great for snacks.
While cafeterias have fully prepared foods, most also have a variety of foods that can be used as “ingredients,” like grilled chicken, raw vegetables, pasta without sauce, and more.
If your dining hall offers options like this, take these foods to-go and use them to prepare a meal later when you might not have the time or energy to go to the cafeteria.
While using food from the cafeteria is a great strategy for meals, it’s just as effective for snacks.
Many dining halls have fresh whole fruits, like oranges and bananas, and dispensers with “snack foods,” like nuts or crackers, that you can take with you for later.
The possibilities are endless, but I’ve listed a few of my favorite combinations.
- Frozen chocolate peanut butter and banana sandwiches—grab bananas, peanut butter, and chocolate chips from the dining hall. Slice the bananas into ¼-inch thick rounds, then spread peanut butter onto a round and top with another, resembling a sandwich. Freeze the peanut butter and banana rounds until solid, then melt the chocolate chips in the microwave, and dip the peanut butter and banana rounds into the chocolate. Store in the freezer.
- Chicken and vegetable pasta salad—pack a to-go container with grilled chicken, pasta, hummus or salad dressing, and all of your favorite vegetables. When you’re ready to eat, chop the chicken and vegetables if they aren’t chopped already, and mix all ingredients together, coating thoroughly with dressing. Serve chilled or warm.
- Energy bites—see the “recipes without refrigeration” part of this post for directions, but get as many ingredients as possible for your energy bites from the dining hall. Chances are, you’ll be able to grab nut butter, oats or another cereal, and add-ins, like nuts, chocolate chips, coconut, and dried fruit. This way, you can take the amount that you need, but you don’t have to buy tons of multiple ingredients.
- Breakfast burrito—snag a tortilla, scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes, vegetables, cheese, salsa, and meat (optional) from the dining hall, and wrap all of the ingredients into the tortilla for a hearty burrito. If you’re planning ahead, grab enough of each ingredient to make a few burritos, and keep the extras in the freezer for a quick morning meal before your 8 am class.
- Yogurt parfait—most dining halls have yogurt, a variety of fruits, and granola or another cereal that can be layered into a parfait for a delicious breakfast or snack. For extra protein, ask your dining staff if they have Greek yogurt.
Begin with these ideas, but keep in mind that trial and error is key for meal prepping in college.
Because all students’ schedules, campuses, and access to food are so different, your strategies to fuel your body might look different than other students, and that is okay!
Whether you need college dorm meal prep or ideas from the cafeteria, we have options for both.
Use these ideas as a starting point to keeping yourself healthy and nourished, but don’t be afraid to experiment and make them your own.