[Image courtesy of Flickr user Nick Nguyen. Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0.]

If you shop like me, it’s that time of year where your semester’s grocery budget may be taking a hit after one-too-many meals out. Dwindling funds, plus general laziness/stress around midterms, can make it hard to convince yourself to put up the work needed to cook food–forcing you to rely on mediocre dining hall pizza or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If this sounds like you, don’t dispair–there is hope for you yet!

The goal here is to put your meal prep on autopilot. If you’re someone who doesn’t mind eating similar things from day-to-day, then this will probably be pretty easy. If not, you’re either going to have to adapt the meal plan with add-ins (like different produce) or find a more suitable way to deal with food prep. Food is one of the more personal things that you can be handling, so everyone’s experience will vary. This is, however, a workable meal plan, and is pretty close to what I do to feed myself on a daily basis. If you’re up for more variety, try these tips instead.

For breakfast, try Laura’s suggestion of oats. I eat them with hippy peanut butter, honey, some dried fruit, and nuts. It gives you more fiber and less sugar than breakfast cereal, meaning you’ll come out ahead in terms of feeling full. For five minutes of work and very little money, you have an easily-customizable breakfast. If you get board of the oats, just switch out what you’re mixing in with them–go for yogurt or brown sugar, for example.

For lunch, there’s three options: sandwiches, salads, or leftovers. If you live in campus housing and are forced onto a minimal meal plan, use your on-campus money/meal swipes for lunch and skip to the next paragraph. For those of you who need to brown bag your lunch (and if you’re not using meal plan money, you should be), those three basic structures can lead to several different meals. If you’re doing sandwiches, there’s no need to stick to PB&J. Instead, try for something savory and with at least some protein–my favorite is a caprese sandwich. If you get bored, move to salads for the week by taking whatever was in your sandwich and putting it on some spinach. Be sure to invest in some good containers for your food, because salads can leak into your backpack. If you’re doing leftovers, either eat them as they were the night before, or buy some tortillas and make tacos. There is almost nothing that will not be delicious when turned into a taco.

Finally, for dinner you’ll hopefully be at home and thus able to get a little more creative. First off, a note about fresh produce: it’s awesome! If bought seasonally, it’s cheap! But if you’re cooking for one person who’s often out for club meetings and the like, spoilage can be an issue. If that’s you, there’s no shame in frozen vegetables–they’re still better for you than ramen. Pick a cheap staple ingredient and try to build a meal around it. Personally, I like canned black beans, and that tends to be what I build meals around–one night will be black beans and brown rice with salsa and an egg, the next will be black beans with an avocado and asparagus. If I get adventurous, I’ll make black bean chili. The point is, for $.79, I have the foundational ingredient for at least two good-sized meals.

Generally, a good structure for dinner is bean+whole grain+vegetable. If you eat meat, add that in as well–just remember to make cheap plant protein your priority in order to cut down on costs and prep time. Vegetables can be easily cooked by rolling them in olive oil with salt and pepper and sticking them in the oven on a low setting for 15 minutes. For variation, keep the method the same while switching out what vegetables you’re using. Within 15 minutes, you have a full fresh-made meal.

There’s no need to eat poorly because of apathy or business. It really is possible to plan out your meals so that you’re well-nourished and not devoting hours to making dinner.