Without meal swipes or wave bucks, cooking is part of an upperclassmen’s daily routine. However, sometimes it’s hard to know what to buy from the grocery store when trying to find foods that get you excited about cooking. Here are 6 tips to help you chef up some delicious meals without spending too much time or effort!

  1. Get creative!

It’s easy to start making the same meals every week out of habit. But we are all capable of cooking just about anything, if we have the right tools, a good recipe, and are ready to make that leap! The more you cook, the more comfortable you’ll feel in the kitchen and the less time it’ll take for you to make delicious meals. If there’s a certain dish that a family member back at home makes, or you went out to eat and want to recreate that perfect entre, sometimes a simple Google search is all you need. However, what works for me is going to the grocery shopping with different friends each week to see what they buy and what meals they plan on creating.

  1. Buy foods that are versatile

The more mixing and matching you can do, the better. So when you’re at the grocery store, try to buy foods that you could use in a few different ways.

One thing I love to buy is a big bag or container of spinach. I can use the spinach as a form of lettuce in sandwiches, to add some greenery to my pasta, or as a base for a salad. Quinoa can also be used as a side dish, mixed-up with meat and veggies, or added to a salad or wrap.

  1. Meal prep

The best time to meal prep is on Sundays because you have meals that are ready to go for the rest of your busy school week. Here’s what you need:

Veggies: Take any of your favorite vegetables (My faves are broccoli, brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, carrots, or cauliflower, etc.) and coat them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Cook in the oven at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes or until they are browned/crispy.

Protein: Pan-sear your favorite protein with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic. This can work with shrimp, chicken, steak, tofu, etc.  

Starch: Cook either quinoa or rice in a pot according to package instructions. I love to add a little pesto to the quinoa for flavor (Hint: You can use the rest of the pesto with pasta at the end of the week)! With the rice, you can add a little soy sauce for a nice salty bite.

Mix: Combine the veggies, protein, and starch in a large bowl and separate into four or five different plastic Tupperware containers.

Eat: When ready to eat, microwave the meal! I like to have hummus or guacamole on the side to add more flavor. This recipe works perfectly at home, or you can bring a Tupperware of food to the LBC and warm it up in the microwave. This saves time walking all the way home, cooking, and doing dishes – especially when you need to be studying all day.

When you meal prep, you can spend just one-hour cooking on a Sunday night. By simply cooking enough for four nights and storing the rest, you save time prepping and cleaning for the rest of the week.

  1. Use the freezer to your advantage.

It’s best to buy a lot of protein because you can always freeze it. When you come home from the store, take the meat out of its original packaging, wrap each individual piece in plastic wrap, and then put them all in a freezer-safe Ziploc bag. When you’re ready to eat, let it defrost in a bowl for a few hours and it’s ready to cook!

You can also buy frozen shrimp at the grocery store, which has been one of my favorite time-saving cooking hacks this year. The shrimp are packaged peeled, so all you have to do is throw them on the pan with olive oil, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes and let the heat do the work. The ice on the shrimp will slowly melt and evaporate away, and the shrimp with turn orange and slightly shrink. You can then lower the heat and allow them to simmer in the spice-infused olive oil.

The shrimp take about 5-10 minutes to cook and can be used in a variety of different meals. You can add them to a pasta, lay them on top of a salad, or mix them with sauteed peppers and onions to create shrimp fajitas.

Tip: If you don’t have time to defrost a piece of meat or simply forget to, then fill a bowl with boiling hot water from the sink and let it sit in the bowl for five minutes. This will soften the meat enough for you to cut it up into smaller pieces. Then, you can cook the meat on a pan (it may just take a bit longer than if it was fully defrosted). Or, if you’re a vegetarian, buy frozen veggie burgers and place them right on the pan!

  1. To save time on breakfast, make a smoothie

Here’s my go-to smoothie recipe:

1 banana

1 cup of frozen berries

1 spoonful of almond butter

1 cup of almond milk

Blend well and pour in a to-go cup. The only thing you’ll have to clean is the blender, and you can drink the smoothie on your walk to class.

  1. To save time on lunch or dinner, use one-pan meals.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Take out a large sheet pan and cover it with tin-foil to save time on clean-up. Chop up your favorite veggies and put them on one side of the pan. If you can buy pre-chopped vegetables at the store then this step can be eliminated. Place your meat in the center of the pan, and cut it in half if it looks too thick. Optional: place chopped-up sweet potatoes (or regular potatoes) on the other side of the pan.

Coat everything in olive oil, salt, pepper, and then add sweet paprika and garlic powder to the meat for extra flavor. Throw the pan into the oven for 20 minutes, checking on the meat to see if it cooks faster than the veggies. When you’re done, place onto a plate and enjoy! The only thing you’ll have the clean is the tinfoil-covered pan and maybe a cutting board.

  1. Keep practicing!

The only way that you can get better at cooking is to keep doing it. Practicing allows you to build a certain comfort level in the kitchen using knives and cooking wear and this comfort only increases with time. Use recipes if you don’t trust your judgment, and cook with a housemate to ask for advice.

We all deserve to eat three delicious meals a day. So start with these tips and your taste buds will thank you later!

What are your favorite easy-made recipes? Let us know in the comments!

COVER GRAPHIC: Bianca Falanga

About Nicole Kaplan

Nicole Kaplan draws inspiration from her semester spent studying in Amsterdam. This recent graduate from Chicago loves laying in Audubon Park, reading a good book, and cooking her famous chicken fajitas.

+ posts

Nicole Kaplan draws inspiration from her semester spent studying in Amsterdam. This recent graduate from Chicago loves laying in Audubon Park, reading a good book, and cooking her famous chicken fajitas.