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If life were an Instagram story…

You wake up at 6 a.m. to meditate, followed by a light breakfast and a steamy chai latte infused with homemade almond milk. After your yoga session, you float to class, green smoothie in hand (where did that come from?). Later on, you arrive home to a spread of flawless produce, trimmed cuts of meat, and freshly sprouted microgreens, ready for you to work your magic. You have just enough time after dinner to study for your exam, blog, and get ahead on a few assignments before completing your nighttime gratitude journaling and hitting the hay at 10 p.m. sharp.

IRL…

You stumble out of bed at 10:17 a.m., realize you hit snooze on your alarm one too many times—and you’re late for class. Between classes, you grab a coffee and muffin for some quick energy. No time for the gym today; you have two papers to finish that are already overdue. At 11 p.m., while cramming for tomorrow’s test, you realize you haven’t eaten anything since that muffin. You order a large cheese pizza so you can have leftovers tomorrow for breakfast—genius—and stay up all night because you decide it’s better than getting only three hours of sleep.

tired woman spilling coffee

We’ve all been there. And while we can’t guarantee everything in your life will go perfectly, we can help you get your nutrition and meal planning on point. In a recent survey, over 40 percent of students said their biggest barrier to preparing meals is that they simply don’t have enough time. Fortunately, there’s a balance between the two examples above that will allow you the time to eat nutritious meals no matter how crazy your schedule is. The secret? Batch cooking.

What is batch cooking?

“Buy bulk foods. For example, buy large packages of meat on sale and freeze.” —Rachel M., second-year graduate student, Northern Illinois University

Batch cooking (or the trendy term, “batching”) is the process of preparing and/or cooking large quantities of food, and refrigerating or freezing leftovers to eat throughout the week. Though it won’t solve all your problems, batching can save you time, money, and energy, and it can help you make healthier food choices when you’re busy.

“For people with a busy schedule and lots of homework, batch cooking may help reduce the amount of time spent in the kitchen on meal prep,” says Jenna Volpe, registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist at Whole-istic Living in Austin, Texas. “It also helps save money—it’s usually cheaper to eat at home than to eat take-out or at a restaurant, and batch cooking can help with mental stress around deciding what to eat.”

“Going home after a long day and having a delicious meal in the refrigerator is almost heaven,” says Langston C., a fourth-year undergraduate at California State University, Channel Islands. “Freeze the meals you plan to eat later in the week, [and] cook when you have the time, like on weekends. Make sure you proportion your meals correctly so you don’t go hungry on a crucial day.”

Batch cooking is simple once you get the hang of it. There are also plenty of meal prep apps that can guide you every step of the way. Like all things, the key is to start small. As you get better at it, you can slowly add more and more dishes to your batch-cooking routine. If you’re brand-new to batching, use the basic guide below to get started.

  • Prioritize batching ingredients that require more time and effort. “Certain types of vegetables, grains, and proteins take longer to make than others,” says Volpe. “I am more likely to batch cook these types of dishes because it saves me time to do other things.”
  • Choose one or two food items to make from scratch and buy the rest precooked or ready to eat. “For example, if I make roasted carrots, onions, and potatoes, I’ll buy a precooked protein to go with it,” she says.
  • Batch cook passively while doing other activities, like watching TV. “I’m notorious for doing this with potatoes,” Volpe says. “They take about an hour, so on Sundays while I am watching one of my favorite shows, I will often bake enough sweet potatoes to get me through the next four days!”

At the beginning of each week …

grains of wheat1. Cook a big pot of grains

Try these: rice, quinoa, oats, buckwheat, farro, spelt

Option: Replace your grain with “riced” cauliflower

Grains are extremely versatile and can be used as the base for many dishes, such as stir-fries, burritos, curries, and beyond. Most cook up fairly quickly, can be made in large quantities, and freeze well. Cooking grains with stock (such as chicken, beef, or vegetable) instead of plain water adds more flavor and complexity. Try rotating between different grains each week.

Many stores now sell frozen boxes of precooked grains, such as rice or quinoa, which are easy to heat and eat. This will likely end up costing you more than cooking your own bulk grains, but it’s a great low-prep option. You can also buy shelf-stable par-boiled or quick-cooking grains if you’re short on freezer space.

beans

2. Make a batch of beans or legumes

Try these: black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans

Beans are an ideal source of protein, fiber, folate, iron, and other essential nutrients, and they are extremely budget-friendly (especially if you buy the dried variety). Try them in tacos, soups, grain bowls, and salads, or as a base for veggie burgers.

Cooking dried beans is a pretty hands-off process; however, it does require a bit of planning ahead. For best results, soak the beans overnight in water in a large bowl or container, then rinse, drain, and boil. Different beans have different cooking times, but most take between one and two hours. You can cook them as is or add some onion, garlic, and spices to the pot for extra flavor.

Lentils are a great option for a busy schedule—they don’t require pre-soaking, and most varieties cook in less than 20 minutes. Try yellow, green, brown, black, or red for slightly different textures and flavors. Bonus: Split red lentils cook in as little as five minutes.

Even quicker and easier:

Don’t have five minutes? Try canned beans. Research shows that beans from a can are just as healthy as dried beans cooked from scratch. Just aim to buy the low- or no-sodium varieties, and rinse and drain before using.

Cook up full packages of lean meats, such as chicken or ground turkey, and refrigerate or freeze in individual portions. To save extra time, you can buy a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and just peel off the skin, chop or shred, and toss into whatever you’re making. You can even hard-boil several eggs to use as quick protein snacks throughout the week, or slice them up as a topper for salads, avocado toast, or grain or noodle bowls. Note: Cooked meat can be stored for three to four days in the fridge, while hard-boiled eggs can last up to a week.

arugula

3. Wash and dry your greens

Try these: kale, spinach, collards, Swiss chard, arugula

Washing and drying leafy greens every time you want to use them is a time-consuming process (especially that cumbersome kale). You’re much more likely to pop a handful of greens into whatever you’re making if they’re washed and ready to go. So, each time you return from the grocery store with a fresh head of greens, simply wash; dry thoroughly with a salad spinner, paper towels, or a dish towel; and store in a plastic bag, Tupperware, or glass container with another towel to absorb excess moisture.

Toss frozen greens (e.g., spinach) into any hot dish while it’s cooking for a few minutes to warm up and wilt. Or, if you can swing it, pay the “convenience tax” for fresh, prewashed greens (often sold in a bag or box). Prewashed greens make it incredibly easy to add a handful to sandwiches, smoothies, burritos, soups, stir-fries…the list goes on. Plus, it makes throwing together salads a no-brainer! 

three sauces4. Prep a dressing, sauce, or salsa

Try these: pico de gallo, tzatziki, chimichurri, lemon-tahini sauce, barbeque

Whether it’s a spicy salsa, a tangy yogurt sauce, or a zesty dressing, sauce can transform a ho-hum meal into a crave-worthy dish with little additional effort. Making your own sauce is easier than it sounds, and it can be a good way to avoid the added sugar, sodium, and preservatives often found in store-bought versions.

A word of advice: “When batch-cooking a salad, don’t add the dressing until you are ready to eat it,” says Volpe. “Otherwise this can make for a very soggy salad!”

Use the following formula to whip up a DIY sauce based on what you have on hand:

  • 3 parts fat (e.g., olive oil, avocado, tahini, yogurt, nut butter)
  • 1 part acidity (e.g., apple cider vinegar, lemon/lime juice, soy sauce)
  • 1 part sweetener (e.g., honey, maple syrup, dates, agave, stevia)
  • 1 part herbs or spices (e.g., oregano, parsley, cayenne, cumin, curry powder)

Adapted from Food52

Buy premade simmer sauces, salsas, dressings, or other types of sauces to instantly liven up your dishes. Aim to buy low-sugar or low-salt varieties when possible.

red onion slices5. Wash, cut, and/or cook your vegetables

Try these: raw carrot sticks, roasted Brussels sprouts, steamed cauliflower, microwaved sweet potato

Most cooking is 90 percent prep work. Preparing vegetables all at once saves a lot of time. Plus, it makes putting together a nutritious meal totally doable, even on your busiest days. You can cut up raw veggies to have on hand as a quick study snack with some dip or hummus, or try roasting, microwaving, boiling, or steaming an assortment of veggies to reheat for use in various recipes or as a side dish. To maintain freshness and safety, store cooked vegetables in individual portions in small, airtight containers for two to three days in the fridge. Raw, hardy veggies, such as carrots and celery, can be prepped three to four days in advance.

Use frozen vegetables, or splurge on prewashed and chopped veggies if it will give you some peace of mind down the road. “Buying some vegetables ready-prepared (such as pre-chopped peppers/onions or spiralized zucchini noodles) may help save time in the kitchen,” says Volpe. “It’s also less overwhelming for newbies.”

“The easiest to make are ‘one-pot’ dishes (e.g., stir-fries). Start with an aromatic base (onions and garlic), add protein, then any veggies, and serve over a grain (e.g., rice, quinoa).”
—Jonathan F., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

“Use similar ingredients, but mix up the spices and way of preparing it. [This] makes it possible to shop on sale, and the food won’t be as boring!”
—Danielle B., third-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick, Canada

“It helps to make a huge batch of pasta or a large salad all at once so that when you are tired, you can pull out a portion [to eat].”
—Lisa P., recent graduate, Santa Rosa Junior College, California

“If you throw all the ingredients into a slow cooker, it makes it easier to then pair with sides for a few meals.”
—Horatiu C., fourth-year graduate student, Portland State University, Oregon

“Multiply the amount of ingredients to align with the amount of servings you want to make. Some dishes improve with age, like spaghetti or stroganoff, while others don’t do well reheated in the microwave, like steak (which dries out).”
—Austin S., fifth-year undergraduate, Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan 

“Cooking everything together in a Crock-Pot® or slow cooker can make batch cooking more efficient. Slow cooker meals are great, especially during the fall and winter!”
—Jenna Volpe, registered dietitian, Whole-istic Living

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Article sources

Jenna Volpe, RD, LDN, nutritional consultant, Whole-istic Living, Austin, Texas.

Frechman, R. (April 7, 2017). Cook once, eat safely throughout the week. Eatright.org. Retrieved from https://www.eatright.org/homefoodsafety/four-steps/cook/cook-once-eat-safely-throughout-the-week

Garden-Robinson, A., & McNeal, K. (February, 2019). All about beans nutrition, health benefits, preparation and use in menus. North Dakota State University. Retrieved from https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications/food-nutrition/all-about-beans-nutrition-health-benefits-preparation-and-use-in-menus#section-0

Lentils.org. (n.d.). How to cook lentils. Retrieved from https://www.lentils.org/recipes-cooking/how-to-cook-lentils/

Macdonald, K. (September 8, 2017). The formula you need to dress up *any* salad or grain bowl. Food52.com. Retrieved from https://food52.com/blog/20437-how-to-make-any-salad-or-grain-bowl-dressing

Salzman, P. (June 13, 2017). Kitchen matters: More than 100 recipes and tips to transform the way you cook and eat—wholesome, nourishing, unforgettable. Boston, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press.

Student Health 101 survey, June 2019.

US Department of Health & Human Services. (April 12, 2019). Cold food storage chart. Retrieved from https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts/cold-food-storage-charts

Zanovec, M., O’Niel, C. E., & Nicklas, T. A. (April, 2011). Comparison of nutrient density and nutrient-to-cost between cooked and canned beans. Food and Nutrition Sciences, 2(2), 66–73. doi: 10.4236/fns.2011.22009