Watching your budget is just part of being a student, right? Well, this may be true: but, due to the present global situation (with international conflicts, coronavirus and inflation impacting the cost of living), many students are finding that money is tighter than ever. The good news is that, with a bit of effort, students can save hundreds of pounds a year just by making meal preparation a part of their weekly routine.

Proper meal planning can cut down costs in ways you won’t expect. From allowing you to choose recipes that are well-balanced yet full of cheap ingredients, to ensuring that you only buy what you actually need (minimising food waste and saving money), to cutting down energy costs (if you’re savvy, you can choose dishes that require cooking through on the hob or in the oven just once, and then microwave the leftovers throughout the week!), taking the time to plan and prepare meals is a guaranteed money-saver.

In this blog, we’ll highlight some easy ways to get started: from what you’ll need to how best to use your time. If you follow these steps, you’ll save both time and money – win win!

How to Meal Plan, Step One: What Do I Have – and What Do I Need?

Whilst meal planning is certainly advantageous, there are a few drawbacks. For example, if you over-cater, you could end up wasting food; or you could plan a whole week’s menu only to find that the recipes you’ve chosen can’t be cooked with the equipment that’s available.

That’s why it’s important to first work out what you have – and what you might need. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

·         What equipment and utensils do I have? Perhaps you have access to an oven; or you might only have a single-ring hob. Do you have the necessary pots and pans to make your dish?

·         How will I store my ingredients? What fridge and cupboard space is available to you? It might seem like a great cost-saving exercise to buy a 10kg bag of rice, for example – but is there room for this in your college accommodation? If you’re living in a shared space, your dorm or hall-mates will need space for their ingredients too.

·         How will I store my cooked food? Do you have enough Tupperware to portion your meals out? Is there enough fridge space available for you to batch-cook dishes – and what about a freezer? Can you store any extra food in the freezer for future meals (this could be very useful)?

·         What’s my budget? This is extremely important. Before you begin to plan your meals, you’ll need to work out exactly how much you can afford to spend on groceries, and then think backwards. If you budget carefully, you’ll be able to incorporate a good mix of store-cupboard staples (like legumes and chopped tomatoes) plus fresh ingredients, to create healthy, satisfying dishes that won’t break the bank.

How to Meal Plan, Step Two: Organise Your Groceries

Now you know what you’re working with, you can begin to curate your menu and plan your shopping list. It’s a good idea to build up an inventory of staples (items with a long shelf-life, like rice, pasta, tinned vegetables, herbs, spices, etc.) that you can work with week after week, as well as buying fresh items. You’ll want to choose a menu that offers a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and vegetables, as well as thinking of how it’ll complement your lifestyle: can you spend a day a week, for example, batch-cooking a big pasta sauce or stew that you can then live off for the rest of the week? Or would you prefer to cook food in smaller batches so there’s more variety?

Have fun experimenting, too! Try new recipes and make a note of those that you particularly enjoy – in a few months you’ll have your own tried-and-tested recipe book.

When you do go shopping, list in hand, be strict with yourself – which means no impulse buys! Deviating from your list will not only interfere with the benefits of the meals you’ve planned, but also will increase costs. Stick to the plan!

How to Meal Plan, Step Three: Cook up a Storm!

Even if you’re not a confident cook, you can still feed yourself with limited time and ingredients: the important thing is not to be daunted. To start with, keep it simple: try making bolognese; curry; soups and stews; or even fajitas. These kinds of recipes can be tweaked to suit your palate and lifestyle whilst offering a good amount of nutrition – you’ll be working hard whilst at college or university, so it’s important to fuel both your body and mind.

Think, too, about how much you need to cook, and when: are you just cooking for yourself, or will you have friends over? Adjust your recipes to suit the week ahead, and only cook what you need/can comfortably store.

Do bear in mind, though (as mentioned earlier) that it’s a lot cheaper to reheat meals in the microwave than it is to cook from scratch, again and again, on a hob or in the oven. So, if you’re hoping to save money, batch-cooking a big meal (which can be portioned out and then reheated in the microwave) is a great idea. It also takes the stress out of your week: if you’re tired after a long day of classes, you don’t have to expend any energy going to the shops, deciding what to eat, and then cooking – it’s all done for you. Happy eating!

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