My most prized accessory is my lunch bag. It’s orange and green with brown stripes. It’s insulated. And it’s from Mario Batali’s own line of lunch “totes”. I was raised on packed lunches—I literally ate salmon sandwiches every day of my high school career, much to the disdain of my friends—and homemade dinners.
Therefore, I was determined to stay true to my roots upon coming to university. For first and second year, despite living in a dorm room and mostly off cafeteria grub, I committed myself to packing my lunches. I became a master of artfully opening tins of salmon in my shared bathroom so as to never let the smell seep into my roommate’s bedroom. Matzo and Rivita replaced my treasured loafs of rye—the unleavened bread and crackers lasted weeks on my desk without ever becoming stale or moldy. I purchased exact numbers of carrot sticks and cucumber slices from Colman Commons with my dinner every night to slip into my lunch bag for the next day. However, it wasn’t until I moved off-residence (thus acquiring my very own kitchen) and 10- to 12-hour days on campus became a norm that I discovered meal planning.
It isn’t just for Today’s Parent–reading mothers, although that’s where I learned most of the tricks of the trade. In fact, I’d argue that university students could benefit from planning and packing their lunches and, depending on the day, breakfasts and dinners too.
Above all, meal planning saves time. Of course, ordering pizza seems so easy after a day of classes and what felt like the entire day stuck in rush hour traffic on the bus ride home. When you’re at your most tired, why would you proceed to whip up a cheese soufflé and an arugula salad with balsamic vinaigrette? I wouldn’t.
But with meal planning the way I do it, you, ahem, plan and make your meals in big batches once, maybe twice, a week. I allot perhaps an hour or two every Sunday afternoon to cooking my lunches and dinners for the week. And while you may think that sounds like a lot of time that you’re not willing to give up, it pays off during the week. It means that all it takes for me to enjoy a batch of homemade mushroom chasseur (that’s fancy talk for “stew”) with some bread on the side is two minutes in the microwave. It might not even take that long. I’ve developed a taste for cold soups—albeit some work better than others—and stews during times when microwaves aren’t available. In that case, my only prep before eating is opening up my tupperware container.
You’d certainly spend more than two minutes waiting in line at the Davis Tim Hortons and probably 495,720 minutes more while they actually prepare your order (unless of course they forget it).
I use my Sunday cooking time as a productive break between work and homework. I know that the second I get home after several hours at the Medium office, I’m not in the mood to finish up the last dregs of that assignment due the next morning. But I also know I’ll feel guilty taking time to watch TV or creep my so-called “friends” on Facebook. Cooking gives my mind some time to relax and focus for the week ahead, while still doing something healthy and thoughtful for myself.
KEEP THE CHANGE
If meal-planning saves you time, it also certainly saves you money. Every day I hear fellow students whisper words of apology to the god of the budget as they bite into their overpriced roast beef dinner with two sides. I’ve spotted many a crinkled-up receipt thrown to the ground in frustration at the double-digit total for that salad. Meanwhile, I’ll spend $10 or $20 a week on my groceries for my lunches and dinners. Maybe more if I choose higher-quality meat for my curry or I give in and splurge on some fancy cheese to go with my soda bread. In any case, it’s easier to control how much you spend on groceries while still eating satisfying and genuinely filling homemade meals every day instead of buying takeout on a daily basis.
On a similar note, I know there are plenty of penny-pinchers out there who claim they can eat out cheaply on and off campus, but are they eating well? In a Medium article from February 2013, the writer barely made it through the week eating at UTM on $25—and that was by relying on small portions and freebies. Whereas $25 at my neighbourhood FreshCo gets me more than enough starches, veggies, boxes of stock, and some sort of protein to whip up my weekly menu. It even gets me extras like a new addition to my spice rack or a bundle of fresh herbs.
Let me assure you: homemade meals wouldn’t keep making the cut in advice columns and blog posts about saving money if it weren’t actually possible.
TRAVEL THE WORLD… AND PICK UP A FEW SKILLS TOO
Since third year, I’ve made a different recipe for lunch and dinner every Sunday. That’s a whole lot of recipes. Meal-planning has taught me kitchen basics, like preparing quinoa and boiling eggs, as well as more advanced skills, like making homemade puff pastry and roasting a chicken. I’ve exposed myself to dishes from numerous faraway countries as well as Canadian classics. In fact, I’m a bit of a recipe whore. I become giddy every time a new issue of Chatelaine, Canadian Living, or Best Health arrives on the magazine rack at the RAWC. I will even go so far as to admit that I am the one who rips out random pages from their respective food sections. My last finding was an apple crisp recipe for my roommate. I’ve also been known to save old magazines from the depths of the garbage can by the Personal Training desk and bring them home to the warmth of my kitchen.
This curiosity makes the times that I do eat out—and I won’t deny that I do—all the more exciting. I have a better understanding of what goes into a dish. In fact, I’m a more conscious restaurant diner now; I’ll order what I know I don’t have the ability to make at home. And, hey, for that scary day when I finally have to cook for other people, I’ll be prepared. I can cry and complain about other things—I still firmly refuse to wash my sheets by myself or iron my white shirts.
Packing your lunches and dinners requires commitment and energy. You do have to care. While for most it’s an unnecessary stress, it’s one that pays off and saves time and money and improves personal health and well-being.
That said, I don’t think it’s sensible to immediately convert to the meal-planning lifestyle. I’ve taken three years to get to the level I’m at and it took a lot of simple salmon sandwich lunches to get there. Aim for one meal one day a week. See if you keep your promise to yourself and how much you enjoy the results. It might just be the best thing you eat that week.