Kaitlin Gallagher is a PhD Candidate specializing in Biomechanics at the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and a permanent author for GradHacker. You can follow her on twitter at @KtlnG.
In a perfect world, I would grow and raise my own food and cook every meal that I ate from scratch. I enjoy cooking because it’s so rewarding to eat something you made and that you know all the ingredients that go into it. But grad school has challenged my love of cooking in many ways. The odd and unpredictable schedule prevents me from being in the kitchen every night. When I look into my fridge in the morning, I sometimes realize that I forgot to go to the grocery store and I will need to buy lunch. Depending on the week, this will happen more than a few times.
On such a day, I was standing in line to buy lunch. I paid $8.50 for this mediocre pita. Sometimes it lasts me two (very small) meals but other days I eat the entire thing at once. And all of the sudden I thought…if I bought this twice a week, that is $17.00…I can make a lot of food for $17.00 that is much better than two sub-par chicken caesar pitas. My expenses are growing and there are many things that I want to spend my money on…crappy food is not one of them.
This changed my mentality on meal planning quite a bit. Here are some tips that I've really taken advantage of in the past few months:
BETTER planning ahead. I've always been decent at planning my dinners, but less so with planning my lunches. You should think about how many lunches you can get out of one day of cooking. Also take a look at your week to know when you can take some time to cook and when you'll need something quick to eat. It also means planning out the items you'll need for your favorite sandwiches or salads to last you the week.
FREEZE! Your freezer is your best friend as a grad student. In the GradHacker Gift Guide, I said that a perfect gift for grad students was masking tape, a permanent marker, and freezer safe containers so that they can plan meals ahead. Above what I like to freeze like pre-made food, I have done a lot of bulk cooking for quinoa and rice to make a quick stir fry. Also, there is nothing that makes me happier than finding a frozen dish that I totally forgot was there in the morning.
Separate your food into smaller portions. Whether in a freezer or fridge, separate whatever food you made into separate portions so that you know how many portions you have for food during the week. It also makes it easier in the morning that you can just pull out what you need for lunch and head off to school. I even do this straight from the freezer when I inevitably have one of those mornings where I totally forgot I have nothing left to eat.
Keep some quick cooking food on hand. There are times when I'll want to save a meal so that I can have it for lunch and not have to buy anything. That is why I typically have other things on hand, varying from ingredients for a salad, frozen vegetables, or my guilty pleasure...chicken fingers (which I always pair with vegetables to make myself feel slightly better).
Make sure you like what you are eating. After eating food over and over again, I will have a thought like "bleck…I don't think that I can eat any more chili" and then buy food at school. Its always easier when you enjoy what you are eating and cooking!
Here are some ideas of things that I have made (lunches and otherwise) that I love to eat and last for weeks in the freezer: chili, quinoa for salad with avocados tomatoes and almonds, rice for stir fry, sausage and red pepper tomato sauce, zucchini bread, stuffed shells in sauce, butter chicken, pizza dough (so much better than store bought pizza, cheaper than delivery, and so easy to make!), bread, buttermilk chocolate chip muffins, chicken or beef burgers, lasagna.
How have you dealt with managing your money and how much you spend of food while you are really busy with work? What are your favorite meals to cook ahead? Leave your thoughts in the comments by clicking here.
[Image taken by Flickr user ljv and used under the Creative Commons License]