Bachelors on a Budget: Building the Perfect College Meal Plan

M&S Team
Written By: M&S Team
September 2nd, 2015
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Nutrition
20.5K Reads
Bachelors on a Budget
Eating healthy can be tough at college but at the same time you want to be able to enjoy yourself and have some fun while keeping up with your physique. Here's a simple guide to help you do both.

If you're headed to college soon, you'll probably find yourself falling into one of two categories:

  1. Paying for a campus meal plan.
  2. Cooking for yourself.

If you will be on a meal plan (possibly unlimited if you are a freshman), you likely will be relying on the college dining hall as your main food source and won’t have control over what is available or how it’s cooked. 

The good news is, many colleges provide “old-school” foods (pizza, fried meats, French fries, burgers, etc.) as well as new, healthier options (grilled meats, salad bars, yogurts, fresh fruit, etc.).  Most schools even have the nutrition information listed on their website for all the items they serve. 

However, you will be facing temptations each and every day from the smell of greasy pizza and salty French fries, and snack foods sent in care packages.  While you may be bulking, you don’t want those “freshmen 15” added in the first month of school. 

Of course, you could be in the opposite boat.  Perhaps, you are a picky eater and not having the comfort foods of home has you in search of ways to get enough calories in your diet to support your muscle gaining goals.

If you are not on a meal plan or have a very limited plan, you may have access to either a small kitchen or refrigerator in order to make your own meals.  Most college students are on a very limited budget and as such, you will be trying to shop for wholesome nutrition choices, meet your macros, and do so with limited time and money.

Meeting Macros on a Meal Plan

First thing’s first, you need to figure out your schedule and when you’ll be able to visit the dining hall to eat.  Will you be eating a standard breakfast (8am), lunch (12pm), and dinner (5pm)?  Or will you be making breakfast in your dorm room and getting your other meals in the dining hall(s) later?  Do you have flex points to use at other locations such as on-campus fast food restaurants, cafes, or sandwich/salad shops? 

Whatever your options, the most important components to strive for are balanced meals with a good source of protein, carbohydrates and fat.  Each meal should also have some vegetables and/or fruit to add a micronutrient boost to your daily intake

Most dining halls today often post the week’s meal plan ahead of time, so you can plan ahead.  If you are making your own food, planning will save you time and stress.

Building Breakfast: Get Your Day Started Right

If you are eating breakfast in the dining hall, you can probably get a good source of protein in the form of eggs, egg-whites, or Greek Yogurt.  You may be able to ask the chefs to not heavily fry your eggs or add veggies for an omelet too. 

Bachelors on a Budget

If you do notice that it is fried, just keep in mind the added fat and calories you will be taking in.  For carbohydrate sources you will probably have endless cereal options and a few hot options, such as pancakes, waffles, and oatmeal or home fires. 

I would advise you to always try to make more micro-dense choices, such as cereals with fiber and less sugar, as well as home fries or oatmeal instead of pancakes with syrup.  You will probably be taking in plenty of added sugars given all the tempting options over the course of the day. 

Most schools also have fresh fruit available.  You could probably slice up a banana or an apple and toss it in your yogurt or just eat it on the side.  For fat you may be getting enough in your eggs (and cheese if you add it) or maybe your school has peanut butter available that you could spread on your fruit.

If you're eating breakfast in your dorm room or apartment, keep it simple.  I recommend picking up a big tub of oatmeal, some yogurt, your favorite cereal and milk, a tub of whey, or some eggs to have on hand. 

Simply microwave some oatmeal and then add a scoop of whey to add flavoring and a source of protein.   You could then toss in nut butters or coconut oil as your fat source and also throw in some sliced banana for some additional carbs and micronutrients.

You could also concoct a sludge-bowl with yogurt, fruit, nut butters, and protein powder.  This also works great as a late night snack or dessert which you can prepare ahead of time. 

If neither of those suit your fancy, you could go the more traditional route - pour yourself a bowl of cereal with milk and microwave some eggs or liquid egg replacement.  Just make sure to watch a few YouTube videos on microwave cooking so you don’t end up blowing up eggs. 

The Lunch of Champions

If you are relying on the dining hall for lunch there are certain “musts”. 

Most schools have an unlimited salad bar available every day and as such, I would strongly advise you visit the salad bar to get in a variety of vegetables and toss in some olive oil for a good source of monounsaturated fats. 

Many also have a sandwich or wrap station where you can make your own combinations.  Sometimes they even have a staff member make one for you much like a Subway shop, in which you get to choose the bread, meat, cheese, veggies, sauces, or condiments.  This can be a great way to get in protein without having to deal with fried or heavily sauced meats awaiting you among the hot meal options. 

Among hot meal options I would always search out grilled meats and carb sources that don’t appear to be fried or heavily sauced. You can probably also find a bevy of fresh fruit available as well which will come on your meal plan. 

Then if you want some indulgence, feel free to set aside a day or two a week where you do get that cheeseburger.  Just make sure that you don’t indulge everyday as these options are higher in calories and fat with a lower protein content.

If you’re making your own lunches, make sure to include chicken breast, perhaps deli meat (while convenient this can also be pricey), a loaf of bread or wraps, microwaveable rice, canned beans, and fresh potatoes.  Lastly, make sure you have some vegetables on hand, whether fresh, frozen, or canned.

 Bachelors on a Budget

In terms of the meat, I would suggest buying 5lb packs of chicken.  It’s always cheaper to buy in bulk, you can cook it all in advance, and store in the refrigerator as meals for several days.  If you’re rushed between classes, you can quickly toss a chicken breast between a few slices of bread or in a wrap and be on your way. 

A low-cost grill like a George Foreman would be a great investment for cooking.  If you don’t mind the taste of canned tuna, this is another great option because it doesn’t require refrigeration and you can easily open a can to slap on a piece of bread or toss on a salad for some protein.

If you have more time to prepare food, you can make some rice or potatoes in the microwave and melt some cheese or butter over top. I enjoy combining cooked rice with canned beans, tomatoes, and chili powder as a quick, convenient carb source.  This can also bulk up your fiber intake and allow you to get some veggies in. 

Diner’s Delight

Dinner in the dining halls will probably give you plenty of options.  You will again have the availability of pizza and burgers, but, most campuses today also have some international options. 

You may have access to an Asian stir fry station where you can chose a meat option along with vegetables and rice.  Or there may be some more physique friendly options such as oven-roasted meats and mashed potatoes. However, I’m sure you will also have some traditional Italian dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, or chicken parmigiana. 

Whatever you chose, you need to just focus on getting your main macronutrients.  Try to make sure a third of your plate has a decent serving of protein and another third is vegetables.  If most of the vegetables are loaded with sauces and oils, venture back over to the salad bar. 

When eating meats and carb sources, be aware of how they are prepared (or look up the calorie content on your university’s website) so you are aware of the additional calories you are taking in. 

For instance, 1 cup of mashed potatoes is going to have a lot of added ingredients and calories than if you have 1 cup of a baked potato.  If you are digging into some pasta, be aware of the sauce that is on it.  Is it a plain marinara sauce that is adding some extra carbs?  Or did you select a cheese sauce adding a significant amount of fat?  These are the things to keep in mind when selecting your options.

If you are making your own dinners, you can re-use many of the lunch ideas previously mentioned.  You should probably pick up some beef or fish to make, so you can get the nutritional benefits from a wide variety of meats.  I always look for sales and often find round cuts of beef as the cheaper options as they go on sale every couple of weeks.

I always had potatoes on hand for carbohydrates.  They gave me the flexibility to just toss one in the microwave for a quick and easy baked potato, or if I have more time, make something from a recipe like mashed potatoes or steak fries.

Bachelors on a Budget

If you’re more of a rice person, you could pick up some minute rice which cooks rather quickly and is quite versatile.  Or if you're like my brother, you can stock up on boxes of pasta and jars of tomato sauce as your main dinner carbohydrate source. 

Again, make sure you are getting a decent portion of protein and vegetables at dinner.  Then, depending on your calorie need, add larger portions of carbohydrates depending upon your needs.

Satisfying Snacks and Smart Choices

In college we are often pressed for time and sometimes we need just a snack for something quick to hold us over until the next meal. 

Here are a few portable ideas to keep in your dorm room:

  • Protein bars
  • Trail mix
  • Granola
  • Nuts
  • Granola bars
  • Cheese sticks

It’s also a good idea to snag some fresh fruit from the dining hall to take back to your dorm as a snack for later.  Between classes you could simply snag a piece of fruit with some peanut butter.  Speaking of peanut butter, a peanut butter and banana sandwich is another great on-the-go option to offer some sustenance. 

Bachelors on a Budget

All these foods are much better options than loading up on cookies, chips and dip, snack bars, crackers, or candy.  I am not saying you should NEVER have these types of things.  We all deserve some indulgences here and there.  However, these foods should not be your staple snack foods.

Practical Takeaways:
  1. At college you will have plenty of options.  However, there is no excuse for eating unhealthy choices all the time or not being able to hit your macronutrient needs.  While you are certainly allowed to indulge in some of the fried foods or pizza options occasionally, they should not be the staples of your diet.
  2. Focus on getting a decent serving of protein at each meal, along with some vegetables and/or fruit.
  3. Figure out what will work best for you in terms of timing, convenience, and personal taste. Try to plan out your meals in advance as this ensures you are getting in enough food and helps to resist daily temptations in college environments. 
  4. For snacks, try to limit the junk food in your dorm room. Stock up on protein, granola bars, trail mix, cheese sticks, nuts, and fruit as quick and convenient options.
  5. Be sensible – if you’re eating a breaded or fried chicken breast, then it’s going to have additional carbohydrates and fat compared to a grilled breast from home.  Factor this into your daily plan and make adjustments as necessary.

Final Food Thoughts

Eating a good diet in college is important.  It will keep your body primed for training and your brain fueled for class.  But college is also a time to enjoy, so don’t deny yourself a fun Friday night out of wings with your buddies. 

As long as your nutrition is good the vast majority of the time, you will have the flexibility to go out and should not stress over being off your diet.  Remember, balance, sensibility, and moderation in everything you do.

1 Comment
Charlie Manzano
Posted on: Thu, 09/03/2015 - 21:47

I'm currently a full-time student at a community college and I can totally relate to this. First of all, prepare in advance. Set aside $50 for a week of groceries. Prepare 2-3 meals for the following day! Pack your meals in a grocery bag or a lunch bag. Always consider the following: Portion control, quality and timing! Buy a water bottle and refill it! If you run out of water, refill it again! There are a lot of water fountains at school. Most of them with filtration systems. Don't be scared of tap water! If you forget your eating utensils at home, don't worry! Taco Bell, KFC, Subway or McDonald's have plastic forks and spoons! They also have napkins, condiments and restrooms! For free! Just ask nicely. 7-Eleven is also a great convenient place to purchase a snack or two! They have Quest bars, peanuts, almonds, beef jerky, boiled eggs, protein shakes, milk, cheese sticks, greek yogurt, protein bars, coffee, apples, bananas, salads and pretzels! When it comes to healthy eating habits, you have to aggressively and deliberately plan a strategy. You have to improvise and overcome! You can't depend on mommy or the cafeteria lady, you have to rely on yourself!