The Essential Guide to Meal Prep for College Students

college student preparing a meal

Traditionally, meal prep for college students often involves soaking ramen noodles in hot water. But these days, with many college campuses offering apartment-style living options complete with kitchenettes, college students can look beyond instant noodles in favor of preparing far healthier, delicious meals. If you’ve ever come home after a long day of classes only to discover few options in your fridge, it’s time to learn how to meal prep in college. 

In This Article:

Meal Planning for College Students — What’s Involved?

Meal prep for college students refers to the process of planning your meals ahead of time using a few preparatory tasks in advance. For example, you can write down your meal plan for the week, shop for the necessary ingredients and chop up veggies or otherwise prepare certain ingredients on the weekend. You can also cook and freeze meals to save time later.

Since college students typically live with roommates, college student meal prep is best done in coordination with your roommates. For example, one of your roommates might like the idea of taking turns cooking or working together on a meal to share with everyone. Talk to your roommates to see whether they would be receptive to the idea of group meal prep or task sharing (as well as cost sharing).

College Student Meal Prep Benefits

The primary benefits of meal planning for college students are to save both time and money.

  • Saving time: You’ll save time meal planning by shopping for the entire week’s ingredients in one trip. Additionally, when you plan meals and prep food for the week ahead, you will then save time in the kitchen. (Plan ahead — it’s hard to know what you need at the grocery store unless you choose your meals in advance.)
  • Saving money: Meal prep can trim your food-related expenses considerably. By cooking more meals at home, you won’t be spending as much at restaurants. Plus, careful planning ahead can mean reusing ingredients or leftovers for multiple meals, which saves even more money.

In addition, college student meal prep offers health benefits. When you eat out at a restaurant, you might be more tempted to choose less-than-healthy options. Preparing meals at home allows you to control the ingredients and make healthier choices. Plus, it’s a particularly good option for students with food sensitivities or allergies.

How To Meal Prep in College Even if You Lack Culinary Experience

Even if you didn’t learn how to cook before you came to college, you can easily teach yourself some basic culinary skills now that you’re on campus. Meal prep for college students begins with meal planning.

Create a Meal Plan as a College Student

Get into the habit of writing down your meal plan for the week ahead during the weekend or on a day off. Do this before you go to the market. Before thinking about the types of meals you’d like to eat for the week ahead, however, you should consider your upcoming schedule.

Do you have any late classes, sports games or club meetings that may limit your cooking time? If so, plan to make quicker, easier meals on those days or choose your pre-cooked meals to simply warm up by cooking ahead. Or, you might prefer to make a large meal the day before so that you can have leftovers for your busiest day of the week.

Next, write down your meals for the week. As you do this, look for ways of reusing ingredients. For example, if you make spaghetti and meatballs, you could use the meatballs in a sub sandwich for lunch the next day. If you make chicken chili, you could use the leftovers in enchiladas.

Shop for Necessary Ingredients and Supplies

Some students arrive at college having already experienced some “adult stuff” in life, such as shopping for groceries independently, whereas for others, it’s a brand-new experience. If you’re a grocery-shopping rookie, you should know that you’ll need a list.

Review your meal plan and write down all of the ingredients you’ll need to buy for each meal. It’s helpful to write down your ingredients in a way that groups together similar ingredients. For example, designate a section on your list for items you’ll find in the frozen aisle, the dairy section, the produce section and so on.

There are some staples you’ll want to have on hand every week, regardless of your meal plan. Depending on your dietary preferences and needs, you may want to keep certain products on hand that you use on a regular basis, such as milk, eggs, bread, rice, bottled stir fry sauces and salad ingredients.

You’ll also want to invest in some meal storage containers. Keep it simple. Plastic or glass food storage containers work well for keeping prepped ingredients or prepared meals in the fridge or freezer. You may also want some plastic bags for chopped veggies and similar ingredients.

Prep and Cook Ahead for the Following Week

Once you have the necessary ingredients, you can do some meal prep tasks ahead of time. For example, you can cook a big batch of soup and freeze it in individual portions. Or, cook up a large batch of chicken to use in multiple different meals, such as chicken tacos or BBQ chicken sandwiches. Other meals that freeze well and allow for easy meal prepping include the following:

  • Chicken, beef or vegetarian chili
  • Lasagna and baked ziti (When you’re planning to freeze a pasta dish, cook the pasta al dente; it should not be well-cooked or it will become mushy when reheated.)
  • Calzones (You can make your own pizza dough from scratch with just flour, water, olive oil, salt and yeast, or you can buy premade refrigerated dough.)
  • Chicken cacciatore (Make and freeze the stew in advance, but make fresh rice or pasta to serve as the base.)
  • Quiche
  • Enchiladas

Set aside some time on the weekend to cook and freeze meals. You’ll be delighted with your efforts on busy weeknights when you’re too tired or pressed for time to cook dinner. This is a great opportunity to involve roommates who are also interested in how to meal prep in college. Sharing the meal prep tasks with a friend saves you even more time.

You can also partially prepare some meals on the weekends, saving the finishing touches for later in the week. For example, if you plan to eat quesadillas on Wednesday, you could chop up peppers, scallions, and any other desired vegetables ahead of time and store them in the fridge, along with grated cheese. Then, it’ll take only a matter of minutes to assemble your quesadillas on Wednesday and pop them in the oven or cook them in a skillet on the stove. The meal prepping part of your meal is already complete.

Quick Tips for College Students With Little to No Cooking Experience

If you’ve never cooked before, the thought of making chicken cacciatore or quesadillas might seem a little daunting. But all you need is a bit of practice, and you’ll be prepping meals for yourself and your roommates like a pro.

Start with just one simple recipe and make it a few times until you’ve mastered it and feel more comfortable in the kitchen. Then, move on to a slightly more complicated recipe. One easy dish to start with is scrambled eggs (or scrambled tofu for vegans).

Another way to gain more confidence in your culinary skills is to ask for help from a friend who knows their way around a kitchen. Spend a little time watching them cook to learn how to do basic tasks, like dicing and sautéing. Then, try those tasks yourself under your friend’s supervision. Here are a few more quick tips to get you started:

  • Remember to purchase potholders for your kitchenette.
  • Make one-pot meals to simplify your meal prep (and fewer dirty dishes).
  • Keep plenty of seasonings and seasoning blends on hand, like garlic powder, Italian seasoning blend and Cajun chicken seasoning blend.
  • Always have a bag or two of frozen veggies on hand. You can easily pop a bowl of peas with butter into the microwave or sauté some frozen green beans (try them with turmeric) in a skillet.
  • Check YouTube and various recipe websites for meal ideas and how-to tutorials.

Learn How to Meal Prep in College at GCU

When you become a student at Grand Canyon University (GCU), you’ll have a vast range of healthy and delicious dining options at your fingertips. GCU has invested heavily in our student life resources to create a thriving, vibrant campus community. From affordable on-campus restaurants and dining halls to the community food market offering grocery items, there are always plenty of choices available to GCU students. Complete the form on the page to learn how you can join our student community.


Approved by the director of Health Services on April 28, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.