We’ve all been there. You start a new internship, land a research position at the downtown campus, join a club or have school work piling up and you just don’t have the time — for anything. You might not even have time to think of something healthy, affordable and creative to eat. Sometimes it’s just easier to get takeout or grab a coffee and croissant from Brewbike in between classes.
While it may seem like a lot of effort, eating at home will keep your wallet happier in the long run. Here are five tips to help you feed yourself when life won’t give you enough room to breathe.
Being organized and planning for the week to come is key, according to Jennifer Reddick, a Chicago-based certified health coach. Preparing a meal the night before can help when you’re running late in the morning or want those extra 20 minutes of sleep. Just grab the container out of the refrigerator on your way out. Save time by upping your dinner portions and packing what’s left as soon as you clean up the kitchen – today’s dinner can be tomorrow’s lunch.
Loading up on healthy snacks is also a good way to boost your energy in the meantime. Carry an apple, some trail mix or a protein bar so you have something to sustain yourself until you get home to make a more robust meal.
Stick to a grocery shopping schedule
You go overboard at the frozen foods aisle at Trader Joe’s, buy a month’s worth of fresh produce that goes bad before you can finish it or run out of groceries in three days. It’s never enough or always too much. What’s the secret? Commit to going to the grocery store once a week, Reddick said.
Pick out a few recipes you want to make for the following week and check the ingredients off a list as you wind through the grocery’s aisles. This helps you stay organized, eat meals you’re excited about and avoid scrambling for ingredients during your break between classes or at the end of a long workday. Work around your schedule; it’s about a 10 minute walk from the Arch to Whole Foods or Target and only a few stops on the ‘L’ from campus to Dempster Station, which is walking distance to Trader Joes and Jewel Osco.
Variety is key
Fresh is best, but pre-cooked, frozen or canned food are good options when there isn’t much space in your refrigerator or if the grocery store is a little too far away for frequent trips.
“Many people have a goal of purchasing organic, and that’s great, but you have to be real about what kind of costs you can manage,” Reddick said.
Vary your choices so there’s always food in your kitchen cupboard that hasn’t gone bad. Deciding what you could eat out of a can versus what should be bought organic can help save money.
Try to shop smarter. Every year, the Environmental Working Group releases its “Dirty Dozen” list that ranks the fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residue levels that shoppers should avoid. Strawberries, which top the list every year, are something you should buy organic, Reddick said. Cleaner produce, such as avocados, don’t typically have as many pesticides and don’t need to be organic.
“It’s really all about balance. Eating healthy doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing thing,” Reddick said.
Lean on your friends
Nearly everything is better with friends, and nourishment is no different. Take turns grocery shopping with a roommate. Share the cost and responsibility of making the trip so that everybody benefits. You can also alternate prepping and cooking meals. It’s a win-win because you save time and money. Pick out a creative dish or new cuisine that would be intimidating to try on your own but could be exciting to do with someone else. It’s a way to stay creative and have some fun – and a good excuse to see friends even when work is piling up.
Subscribe to a meal kit service
If you have a few extra dollars and want to splurge, meal kits like HelloFresh and Blue Apron, which start at around $7.99 and $7.49 per serving, can be your go-tos. Ingredient-and-recipe kits or ready-to-go meals are popular right now, but they’re going to be more expensive than simply making a meal yourself according to Caitlin Mellendorf, a nutrition and wellness educator and registered dietitian at the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
With clearly labeled ingredients, varied prepping and cooking times, tailored dietary preferences and nutritious choices, these services cut down time spent shopping and chopping, but also teach you how to cook. Meal service advocates say these services offer busy people a lot of flexibility and pre-portioned meals make it easy to budget.
“Customers can manage deliveries to suit their needs by selecting recipes they’re interested in and skipping weeks they don’t need,” said Heather Sachs, director of regulatory affairs at Blue Apron.
Most importantly, find what works for you
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to feeding yourself. Everyone is different. What works for others may not work for you.
“It really just depends on how you like to live your lifestyle,” Reddick said. “Being honest about that is part of what will make you successful.”
Thumbnail graphic by Zinya Salfiti.