This post contains lots of Easy College Dinner Recipes with a Printable Weekly Meal Plan and Shopping List (at the end of this post) for the beginner college cook.
One of my boys is living off campus this year and will be off the meal plan. Like most college students who are no longer on the meal plan, he will have to prepare all his own meals and stay within a budget. Breakfast and lunch are easy (he makes oatmeal for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch), but cooking dinner is going to be a challenge. He needs easy college dinner recipes.
My son has four requirements for cooking dinner. He will only prepare meals where: (1) no cutting is needed; (2) only a few ingredients are required; (3) minimal dishes need to be washed; (4) a healthy portion of protein is included. There will be no measuring of ingredients either.
I spent last week coming up with easy college dinner ideas that meet these four requirements. Fortunately, there are many spice/herb/seasoning mixes, marinades and simmer sauces available in supermarkets that can make easy meals for college students.
One pot meals and food that can be prepared in large batches and transformed into multiple other meals will be key to my son’s ability to meet his criteria for easy college dinners while eating healthy.
Basic College Kitchen Equipment
In a previous post, I laid out what I thought were essential equipment and supplies for a college kitchen. I have to admit looking back at this list that this was a list of what I would have liked in my first college kitchen (my specialty dish in college was Kung Pao Chicken). Here is a very streamlined list of kitchen essentials for college students like my son who are only interested in cooking very simple meals.
- Sharp knife (sorry honey, you will have to cut/chop something at some point)
- Large deep pot (6-8 quart) for pasta
- Medium saucepan (3 quart)
- Non-stick skillet (one small; one medium)
- Rimmed baking sheet
- Can opener
Basic College Pantry Items
- Olive oil
- Spice/herb blends, e.g., Italian seasoning, Cajun seasoning, steak seasoning, chili mix, taco mix
- Canned beans
- Jarred pasta sauce
- Whole grain pasta
- Brown rice
- Chili seasoning mix
- Taco seasoning mix
Basic College Groceries
- Inexpensive cuts of meat – ground turkey, ground chicken (less expensive than ground beef), chicken drumsticks/thighs
- Moderately priced proteins – boneless chicken thighs/breasts (look for sales), frozen fish filets
- Pulses such as black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils and other beans which are healthy, inexpensive sources of protein
- Frozen vegetables (if you’re worried about spoilage)
- Whole grain bread (bread keeps in the freezer well)
- Brown rice (you can buy instant brown rice to save time)
Purchases That Will Save Time
Cooking healthy college dinners can take less time if you buy some prepared foods to supplement your meal. Prepared foods are almost always more expensive than cooking it from scratch yourself, but sometimes it is worth the extra expense when you’re short on time.
- Pre-cut/pre-chopped vegetables (fresh or frozen)
- Pre-chopped onions/peppers (fresh or frozen) and pre-minced garlic (you can buy minced garlic with oil in a jar in the produce section)
- Rotisserie chickens (often priced very reasonably at the supermarket)
- Precooked chicken sausages (come in lots of different flavors – cut up, saute in a little oil and add marinara sauce; serve over whole grain pasta)
- Frozen meatballs (just add sauce and cook whole grain pasta for spaghetti and meatballs)
Cooking Gifts for College Students (Nice To Haves)
- Panini grill/press
- Rice cooker (get one that has a brown rice setting)
- Toaster oven
- Lekue Steam Case (makes it easy for students to microwave vegetables and entire meals) – I’ve tried Stir-Fry Chicken in this steam case and it worked well
- Spice mixes (Penzeys has some great spice/herb blends and they ship – Mitchell Street Steak Seasoning, Fajita Seasoning and Old World Seasoning are some of my favorites)
- Prepared sauces/marinades (look in the ethnic section of the grocery store for Indian and Asian simmer sauces) – great for care packages
- Prepared dal (Indian lentils) – Costco sells this in bulk
Cooking Large Batches Saves Time
You can save a lot of time cooking healthy college dinners by cooking in large batches before the school week begins.
- Cook a pot of rice for the week and reheat as needed (the rice cooker makes this a no-brainer)
- Cook a pound of pasta for the week and reheat as needed
- Make a batch of grilled boneless chicken thighs/breasts for the week and reheat/transform into meals throughout the week (see below for ideas)
Five Ways to Stretch Your Dollar
Cooking healthy college dinners doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. In addition to buying items on sale, choosing cheaper cuts of meat and including less expensive sources of protein like beans and eggs at dinnertime can stretch your dollar.
- Buy ground chicken or turkey instead of beef, or use half ground chicken/turkey and 1/2 beef in recipes
- Use chicken thighs instead of chicken breast
- Buy chicken on the bone instead of boneless chicken
- Add a can of beans to pasta sauce and chili
- Add a poached or fried egg to your dinner if you want more protein
Three Healthier Food Choices For College Students
- Eat brown rice instead of white rice. It has more protein and fiber and will keep you full longer.
- Eat whole grain pasta instead of white pasta. It has more protein and fiber and will keep you full longer.
- Eat whole-grain bread in place of white bread. It has more protein and fiber and will keep you full longer.
Three Easy Vegetable Ideas For Dinner
- Simple salad (many pre-mixed salad combinations are available in the produce section)
- Roast vegetables tossed with olive oil, minced garlic (or sprinkle on some garlic powder), salt and pepper and bake at 425 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until tender. Harder vegetables take longer to cook through. Baby carrots, green beans, cauliflower/broccoli florets (you can buy these already cut up) roast well.
- Steam or microwave fresh or frozen vegetables in a Lekue Steam Case until tender; toss with extra virgin olive oil or butter, salt, and pepper. This takes 2-4 minutes, depending on the vegetable.
Budget-Friendly Ground Meat Recipes
Ground meat (e.g., ground turkey, chicken, beef) is one of the cheapest forms of meat you can buy at the supermarket and is super versatile.
Ground meat can be made into burgers and seasoned with your favorite spice/herb mix. Form them into square patties and serve on toasted whole grain bread if you like (a slice of melted cheese on top would be nice too).
Almost everyone loves chili, pasta with meat sauce and tacos. The ground meat is cooked the same for all three of these recipes. Simply heat a little oil in a large skillet and saute the ground meat of your choice until browned (if you have chopped onion or garlic, this is a great time to add some). Then it can be used in one of the following ground meat recipes. I recommend making a double batch of chili and pasta meat sauce, and freezing one batch.
- Chili – for each pound of cooked ground meat, add 1 can of beans (any kind will work ~ black beans, red beans), 1 can (15 ounces) of tomato sauce, and 1 packet of chili seasoning; cook 15-20 minutes; serve over baked potato (wash potato, poke holes in it with a fork and microwave 5 minutes; turn it over and microwave another 5 minutes or until soft), steamed brown rice or whole grain pasta.
- Pasta Meat Sauce – for each pound of cooked ground meat, add a large jar of marinara/pasta sauce (add garlic powder/onion powder and other herb/spice mixes to jazz it up if you like) and cook 15-20 minutes; serve over whole grain pasta.
- Taco Meat – for each pound of cooked ground meat, add 1 packet of taco seasoning and a little water; simmer for 5 minutes; serve with whole grain tortillas, salad greens and shredded cheese, make into a quesadilla (see below), or make a burrito bowl with steamed brown rice, salad greens, and canned beans.
Budget-Friendly Chicken Recipes
Chicken is a college student’s best friend. It’s relatively inexpensive, healthy and a great source of lean protein.
One of the simplest one dish meals that can be made in large quantities is this Easy Pan Roasted Chicken and Vegetables.
Packaged simmer sauces are also a great way to make dinner in very little time using chicken. I scoured the ethnic section of our grocery store and found a number of wonderful Indian and Asian simmer sauces. You just place chicken in a pot with the simmer sauce and cook. Alternatively, you can bake chicken with the sauces (I think this method would work better if you’re using chicken on the bone).
Grilling boneless chicken (or fish) on a panini press is one of the easiest college dinner ideas. Mom and Dad – this is a great gift for your college student. Simply season a batch of boneless chicken with your favorite spice/herb mix, drizzle with olive oil and grill. Since the panini press cooks both sides of the chicken at the same time, it only takes about 10-15 minutes on the high setting to cook boneless chicken breast.
6 Easy College Dinner Recipes Using Leftover Chicken
Leftover cooked chicken (grilled, roasted or store-bought rotisserie chicken) is really versatile and can be transformed into many new easy college dinners throughout the week:
Baked Pasta with Chicken and Vegetables – Mix together cooked whole grain pasta, cut-up cooked chicken, and cooked vegetables of your choice in an oven proof dish. Sprinkle with shredded cheese or grated Parmesan cheese and bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Alternatively, you can put everything in a microwaveable bowl and cook 3-4 minutes until heated through.
Easy Chicken Parmesan – Top grilled chicken breast with some pasta sauce and shredded cheese; bake at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes, until chicken is warmed through and cheese is melted. Alternatively, you can heat this up in the microwave for 2-3 minutes (The Lekue Steam Case would work for this; if you don’t one just make sure to cover the dish so it doesn’t splatter).
Mexican Rice Bowl – Place a scoop of cooked rice in a microwave-safe bowl. Top with chopped cooked chicken and canned black beans. Heat in microwave 3 minutes or until hot. Top with shredded cheese, salad greens and salsa. Guacamole (you can buy prepared guacamole in individual portions) and Greek yogurt or sour cream are nice extras.
Chicken-Veggie Quesadillas – Place whole grain tortilla in a skillet; sprinkle with some shredded cheese, and chopped cooked chicken (grilled/roasted chicken or taco meat) and leftover cooked vegetables. Cook until cheese is melted; flip and continue to cook until meat is heated through.
Chicken Vegetable Fried Rice – Heat a little oil in a large pan. Add cooked brown rice and toss until hot. Push the rice to the sides of the pan and add a few whisked eggs. Once eggs are firm, mix with rice and add chopped cooked chicken and leftover cooked vegetables. Season with soy sauce or teriyaki sauce.
Hearty Ramen Noodle Soup – Cook ramen noodles according to package, adding leftover cooked vegetables, chopped cooked chicken and an egg (crack open into the pot).
Weekly College Dinner Meal Planner
I came up with an easy college dinner menu for the week to get you started. It costs about $35 for groceries or just $5/dinner based on prices I found on Peapod.
Here’s the gameplan:
- Do your grocery shopping on Saturday or Sunday.
- Sunday is prep day for the entire week
- Minimal cooking is needed for the rest of the week – most of the meals are assembled and/or reheated.
Print out this College Dinner Meal Plan #1 and Shopping List #1 to get started cooking easy meals for college this week. I’ve also created printable Recipes for Meal Plan #1. Here is page 1 of the recipes to give you an idea.
More Easy College Dinner Recipes
For the more adventurous college student who is willing to do a little extra work, here are additional dinner recipes you might want to try:
Mexican Turkey Taco Meatloaf Muffins (can be made freeform in a loaf shape and baked on a baking sheet)
Turkey Taco Pizza (use whole grain tortillas, English muffins, pita bread, or naan bread)
Pasta Puttanesca (stir in a can of tuna for extra protein)
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