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How to Survive Without a Meal Plan


The college dining hall is an unfortunately familiar scene on college campuses: mystery meat, pizza every night and sky-high prices. Every day, you trek to the caf, grab the same boring food, and pray that the food poisoning your friend got a week ago was a fluke. You dream of the day when you’re no longer required to be on the meal plan, and you look forward to making delicious, fresh meals in your room.

But the first night of your plan-less living, you may stare inside your fridge (stocked with a mismatched assortment of items) and come to a conclusion: there is nothing to eat.

For students who are used to home-cooked or cafeteria-prepared meals, living without a meal plan can seem difficult at first. However, there are many benefits to going sans plan—it’s often cheaper, and you’ll get more control over what you eat every day! But of course, preparing and shopping for food takes time. Here’s what you should keep in mind when living without a meal plan.

Get the Right Cooking Supplies

One of the best parts of living on a meal plan is the fact that the food is ready to be eaten the moment you scoop it onto your plate. Without a plan, you’re on your own. But that can actually let you be more flexible in what you eat!

Buy the Basics

There are a few customary supplies you should have before you can make your own meals. Here are the standard kitchen supplies that collegiettes recommend bringing, beyond plates and silverware:

  • At least one pot and one pan
  • Can opener
  • Cutting board
  • Knife sharp enough to cut veggies or meat
  • Large spoon
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Microwave
  • Mixing bowl
  • Slotted spoon
  • Spatula
  • Toaster
  • Tongs

Consider Specialty Items

Beyond the basics, you probably have favorite meals that require specific kitchen supplies.

“One of my roommates brought a panini maker, which also turned out to be a godsend,” says Kaitlin, a recent graduate of William & Mary. “We could eat paninis for every meal of the day, and sandwiches are easy because as long as you have bread, you can find any number of ingredients in your kitchen.” You could also make paninis on a mini grill, such as a George Foreman Grill, which will also allow you to cook meat, chicken and fish easily.

Collegiettes also recommended blenders as well for easy smoothies. Torri, a recent grad of Penn State, says she loves her NutriBullet. “It's great, super-compact and easy to clean (which means easy for the average college girl on the go), and [it] can make healthy smoothies within minutes,” she says. “Low prep time, plus the mixer acts as a portable cup — I love it!”

For other high-quality cooking supplies, like blenders and combination toaster/coffee makers (so convenient!), try BELLA Housewares—just be sure to check with your housing department that you’re allowed to bring these specialty items before you pack them!

Save money on supplies

Looking to find affordable cooking supplies? Try unexpected places, like hand-me-downs from relatives. “In terms of cooking supplies, my housemates and I used pots and pans from grandparents, parents, older siblings who had already lived in apartments – pretty much anything we could get for free!” says Nicole, a senior at Marist College.

Shop Smart

Here are some things to keep in mind before you go grocery shopping:

Make a Budget

The amount of money you’ll spend on food will vary dramatically based on how much you eat, how expensive your chosen grocery store is and how often you eat out as opposed to cooking at home. Especially in college, it can be tempting to load up on snacks, which can raise your grocery bill quickly. “I spent about $70 every two weeks on groceries and tried to go to the store with a strict list so I wouldn't go overboard on junk food and snacks,” Nicole says.

Consider shopping once a week or once every two weeks and sticking to a budget so you don’t overdo it on food you don’t really need. If you set a strict limit for each grocery trip, that extra box of cookies will look a lot less tempting!

Scope Out the Cheapest Groceries

Many grocery stores near college towns will jack up their prices because of the proximity to hungry college students. Ask upperclassmen about the stores that carry the cheapest, best foods. Take advantage of any local farmer’s markets, too, which often carry great, in-season foods for a fraction of the price you’ll pay at a supermarket.

“I think it's way healthier and cheaper to stay in and cook versus eating out or meal plan, and you're learning some valuable life lessons (e.g. just because you're broke doesn't mean you have to starve or live off of Top Ramen),” Heather says. “I bargain shop whenever possible; I do my shopping between Trader Joe’s and WinCo.”

Eat a Balanced Diet

Sure, Ramen is cheap, but it’s not doing you in favors in the nutrition department. Make sure you’re eating a balanced diet of grains, veggies, fruit and protein.

“I usually either eat cereal or cook an egg (fried, scrambled or poached) and make toast for breakfast,” Heather says. “For lunch and dinner, I'll make a salad, pasta, rice dishes, quinoa, sandwiches, stir-fry, curry, noodles, potatoes, vegetables, you name it. Vegetables are not as expensive or difficult to cook as people think!”

Get Creative!

You don’t need a stuffed pantry to make good meals. Keep your apartment or dorm stocked with essentials like chicken, bread, pasta, pasta sauce and rice, and add a few fruits and veggies to the mix. A lot of great dinners only require a few ingredients. Spices, for example, add a lot of flavor to meals but don’t cost very much (and don’t add unnecessary calories!). Need inspiration? Check out seven ideas for quick, easy recipes you can make at home!

Living without a meal plan will offer you a ton of flexibility in what you eat and how much you pay for it. Because you probably won’t have tons of expensive cooking equipment at your disposal, your recipes will likely be more healthy and simple. “I found that eating off the meal plan almost immediately improved my eating habits,” Kaitlin says. “When I ate at the caf, I would really stuff myself for one or two meals a day to ensure I got my value's worth and also because I only had a certain number of swipes.

“Now that I eat off-campus, I can eat a lot more, and much smaller, meals throughout the day, which has been better for my energy levels and body in general,” she says.

While cooking for yourself for the first time can seem a bit daunting, there are actually a ton of options, and you will likely be healthier and might even pick up some culinary skills along the way!

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