Meal planning for the busy college student


If you’re anything like me, your schedule is so busy that sitting down to eat a good meal is very difficult. Because of this, we end up going through the drive-thru or gas station to pick up our favorite convenience foods. While these items fill us up, the food we consume from these places may not be the best nutritionally. These foods may even affect our ability to think. But don’t fret, research has shown that diets high in fruits and vegetables are linked to higher cognitive function! That’s right, eat all of the fruits and veggies! The antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals help us problem-solve, make decisions, and retain information (Mottagi, 2017). As a dietetic intern I frequently hear complaints about the cost of fresh foods but adopting healthier eating habits doesn’t have to ‘break the bank.’ I will share with you some helpful tips and tricks for planning health-conscious meals on a budget. Now, let’s eat up some information!


Meal Planning Pro Tip #1—shop ads!

The local grocery store ad can serve as a means for money savings and a source of inspiration for meal planning. Ads can guide meal ideas by focusing on the items with the biggest savings, typically meat and produce. Most grocery stores publish their ads on Wednesday mornings and prices are valid for a full week. This means you can begin planning your meals Wednesday for your shopping trip over the weekend. These ads are available in-store, via mail, or even online.  As an example, the local Hy-Vee ad can be viewed online at Hyvee Aisles Online. Upon review, there are many nutrient dense items on sale:

  • 16oz of chicken breasts ($4.99) or a 40oz frozen bag for ($5.99)
  • 1 pound of 93% lean ground beef ($3.99)
  • Bell peppers ($0.69)
  • Cantaloupe (2 for $4)
  • 12 oz bag green beans ($2.99)


Meal Planning Pro Tip #2—visualize your plate!

Making a meal from these ingredients may seem difficult, but a handy tool to help guide you in making your meal is to visualize your plate (picture provided below). It may seem hard to get your plate to look like this, especially for breakfast, so it’s recommended that your plate look like this for lunch and dinner. If this seems too difficult right now, it’s okay. Maybe try just dinner and build up to two meals when you can. Looking at the picture, the first noticeable item is the vegetables—they take up half the plate. When meal planning, vegetables seem to be the last portion thought about when making a meal, however, they should be the first. Vegetables are high in fiber and nutrients so they promote satiety and brain function. Then, focus on protein, which takes up ¼ of your plate. Protein consists of meats, cheeses, and nuts. A typical serving size is 3-4 ounces of protein, which is equivalent to the size of a deck of cards. Next, starch should take up ¼ of the plate. This section includes anything with fiber, sugar, and starch. Some examples are fruit, pasta, rice, bread, potatoes, and corn. It’s also important to focus on whole foods. That is, food items that are not processed. Most of these items can be found in the perimeter of the grocery store.

Meal Planning Pro Tip #3—two meals in one!

There are various strategies when it comes to meal planning. Some people find it easier to make all of the week’s meals on one day, others prefer to make them night by night. Find what works best for you. So, using the various items on sale from Hy-Vee Aisles Online, let’s come up with some dinner ideas. Then, see how to make dinners into lunch for the following day. Here are some meal combinations:


Plan 1

Plan 2

  • Dinner: Pork chop with green beans and apples
  • Lunch: Pork Quinoa Bowl
    • Cook quinoa as label directs, warm and cut pork into smaller pieces, and toss in the leftover green beans! If you have any extra non-starchy veggies, you can toss them in as well!

Plan 3

Plan 4

  • Dinner: Chicken breast with squash and side of cantaloupe
  • Lunch: Chicken and Rice Vegetable Bowl
    • Cook rice as label directs, warm up and slice leftover chicken and squash and serve!


The school year can be stressful, but proper nutrition can really make an impact on cognitive ability and overall health. This is why meal planning can be so beneficial, even though it may seem tedious. Hopefully the tips and tricks provided today inspire and help you begin your meal planning journey. So, remember, shop ads—get the most bang for your buck! Visualize your plate—think of your veggies first and prioritize whole foods. Lastly, make one meal last for two! Have a fantastic school year and a healthy life!

Taylor Williams

Cox College Dietetic Intern


Disclaimer: The Hyvee ad used was for 8/21 – 8/28



Mottaghi, T., Amirabdollahian F, F., & Haghighatdoost, F. (2017). Fruit and vegetable intake and cognitive impairment: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved 27 August 2019, from