Nutritious and Easy Meals: Grad School Addition
September 22, 2018 5:07 PM   Subscribe

I need help figuring out what I can eat for lunch and (and some) dinners on campus that nutritious and easy. Easy is a priority.

I started grad school this fall and have a punishing schedule and food has dropped to the bottom of my priority list. I need stuff that takes zero thought and very minimal prep. I’d be happy to eat rice and beans every day but I don’t have the time to prepare ANYTHING. I’m on campus from 8am until at least 5pm, often later. This food needs to sustain me. I’ve been eating lunch “snacks” fruit, fig newtons, Chex mix, nuts, carrots and mini guacamole cups, etc. It’s been fine but not ideal. I’d rather eat a proper “meal,” like pasta and meatballs or curry and rice. Usually I’d make these things on Sunday and food prep for the week but I don’t have that time to spare right now. I don’t even have time to make PB and J right now.
Here are the parameters
- cheaper is nicer but this is what I’m willing to give in on (any good meal delivery services that are entirely cooked and worth it?
- I must be able to not refrigerate the food though I do have two I insulated (13ox and 16oz) lunch containers to keep things cold/hot
- I only have a microwave to prepare things
- everything either has to go in the microwave or not at all (aka rice and beans with sour cream is a no go because microwaved sour cream sounds nasty. Fruit that’s also packed in the lunch is good)
- I have access to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and other basic grocery stores (Harris Teeter and Food Lion)
- if it’s a freezer meal it’s still got to be decent after it’s been floating around my backpack for 4 hours before I microwave it.
- I hate leafy salads (grain salads with leafy things are ok)
- I don’t care for soup, stews/chili are ok
- I don’t really eat seafood, no other allergies.
- If really prefer to not eat complete crap. If you have freezer meal suggestions great! I’d just prefer to eat something healthier than TJ’s fried rice.
- I’m usually already eating a pretty good/solid breakfast.
- I much prefer to eat meals rather than snack or graze.
- decision fatigue is a big part of this. I’m more than fine eating the same thing 5 days in a row for lunch.
- there aren’t great restaurant options buy me during the day. There’s a chick fil a nearby but I’d like to eat healthier than that if I’m going to shell out the money.
- one idea I had was buying a big curry and extra rice from a favorite Indian place... in my old city.. I’d be ok quickly portioning that out into 5 Tupperware. I don’t have the energy to figure out good restaurants here.
- I’m in Chapel Hill, NC.
posted by raccoon409 to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
One thing I do for easy lunches is microwave frozen meatballs in a ziplock sandwich bag and have it with baby carrots or carrot chips and an individual cup of hummus. The only prep is putting the baby carrots and meatballs in a bag.

As far as frozen meals go, you can't go wrong with Amy's frozen dinners. Their enchilada and Indian meals are really good--if you have a Target near you, they go on sale there for under $4 frequently.
posted by shortyJBot at 6:06 PM on September 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also, Amy’s burritos. They are OK being out of the freezer for ~4 hours before microwaving.
posted by Kriesa at 6:18 PM on September 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is a really tough thing to solve - I definitely spent most of grad school either eating granola bars for lunch, or just not eating at all until evening. The best thing I ever managed was to start making green smoothies and carrying them around in an insulated thermos, so I could inhale some calories in a spare five minutes. Tofu, nut butter, frozen spinach, miscellaneous frozen fruits. It's still not an actual meal, but it was better than living off of crackers and nothing. I definitely didn't have time for anything with multiple prep steps, but "add whatever I have to a blender" was just about doable.
posted by pemberkins at 6:24 PM on September 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

This yellow dal from Trader Joes is pretty good, and it is in a shelf stable microwaveable pouch. I either eat it plain, mix it with rice or mix it with an avocado at least 2 to 3 times a week. As long as you have access to a microwave, it is pretty much no work and pretty tasty.
posted by mjcon at 6:57 PM on September 22, 2018

Tasty bite has room temperature pouches of Indian food. You can order online or get it at your local market, if they have a good International section. High sodium, but little to no junk ingredients. Squeeze out into a bowl and microwave.
posted by vivzan at 7:08 PM on September 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

since you're in chapel hill, the paneer mahkani at tandoor is heaven and i miss it so. if there was ever sauce leftover i'd make more rice just to eat it...
posted by noloveforned at 7:58 PM on September 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

another yummy chapel hill restaurant that'd be good for packable prepared meals is mediterranean deli. they've got all sorts of great stuff you can buy by the pound.
posted by noloveforned at 8:07 PM on September 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am literally eating an Amy's bean and rice and cheese burrito as I type this. I take them into work often for lunch and don't bother to refrigerate (they're frozen).

TJ's Indian (perhaps "Indian" would be more accurate) frozen meals are pretty tasty, fairly inexpensive (though I know about grad school economics) and, again, starting from frozen, are still cool at my lunchtime (maybe if it were very hot I'd put an ice pack in). Calorie count varies but is not (to my mind) crazy excessive. The one drawback is that if you are limiting sodium, they can run high.
posted by praemunire at 8:44 PM on September 22, 2018

oh god i remember this part of grad school and it is the worst. it gets better? well, it gets different, anyway, but part of that is that you will, eventually, have time to cook again, at least a little. i know you probably have zero time right now, but if you're not commuting 7 days a week, finding the time to do even a half hour of meal prep can save you a lot. sometimes it's even stuff you can do while working.

- this granola bar recipe takes literally 15 minutes and will give you almost two weeks of grab-and-go breakfasts. and it's cheapish, and vaguely healthy, and only five ingredients (all available at TJs). you can do bigger batches and freeze them, if it's easier to carve out the time to do one big batch and you have the freezer space.

- the shelf-stable "indian" meals at TJs are equivalent to Tasty Bite (made in the same factory, or used to be) and are not terrible, as mentioned upthread. if you have an office or storage space on campus, it's great to store a few for emergency days when you forget your lunch or get stuck working late. those shelf-stable vegan noodle boxes at TJs are also not bad. one of those and a pre-made naan or some breadform is a fine lunch.

- it's boring, but at least it involves protein and veg: get a couple small containers of hummus at TJs and a pack of the mini cucumbers and a couple boxes of Ak-Mak crackers. keep a box of the crackers in your backpack. when you leave in the morning, grab a hummus tub and a couple cucumbers. when it's lunchtime, use one of the cucumbers to thickly slather hummus onto a sheet of Ak-Mak. slice up the cucumber, fold all over, and you have an instant sandwich! if you don't have time for a sandwich, just dip the whole cucumbers and crackers into the hummus tub.

- again, it's a little prep, but here's what i used to do for lunches every sunday: acquire (either roast or buy, but roasting is cheaper and you can do it while you're reading) a chicken. eat part of the chicken for dinner. make five cups of quinoa. stick quinoa in tupperware. rip up the rest of the chicken, add on top of quinoa. chop up a bell pepper real quick and throw it on top of the chicken. halve some cherry tomatoes and throw those in too. drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper. put in fridge. grab one out of fridge every morning. when you finally get to eat it, throw a handful of the nut/seed/dried fruit trail mix you keep in your backpack on top, for interesting texture. i know, i know, it's prep, but it's a pretty high reward for the work involved, and if it's a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, it's just 15 minutes to cook the quinoa and maybe 5 minutes to assemble, and that's a meal a day handled for the workweek. if you wanna get real fancy, throw some frozen broccoli in with the quinoa for an extra serving of veg, just add it about 5min before the quinoa is done. if you get tired of chicken or if it's too much time, you can use chickpeas or pretty much anything else you like, or just throw feta cheese on top.

- drink lots of water, take a multivitamin, use all the hand sanitiser. good luck! it does get better.
posted by halation at 11:16 PM on September 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

oh, also, pricier, but worthwhile: some of the premade wraps and salads in the fresh case at TJs (the noodle salad is a good choice if you don't like leaves). you can just buy an armful and grab one out of the fridge every day; a lot of them last long enough to keep a couple days after purchase. the tubs of various chicken salads, egg salad, and eggless egg salad are also reasonably decent/healthyish, and a little cheaper than takeout, especially if you pair them with some crackers.
posted by halation at 11:25 PM on September 22, 2018

I wrote a whole cookbook on ways to eat that involve as little time and effort as possible, but I have to say that my favorite thing for meals like this is chickpeas and couscous. You have to prep it every day, but when I was eating this every day, prep took me *literally* a minute, and most of that time was spent opening a can.

I'd dump 1/4 c couscous (not cooked or anything) into a tupperware, then add 1/3 c broth or water. Usually I added water + a pinch of chicken stock. Dump in half a tin of drained chickpeas, and some frozen spinach. Add a little olive oil, snap on lid, and ignore until it's time to eat. At eating time, you can eat it at room temp or nuke it for a few.

I liked this because it was so fast. The couscous doesn't need to be cooked, just rehydrated, and sitting at room temp for a couple hours will take care of that handily. Same for thawing the frozen spinach that I used. You can use the same measuring cup for couscous and water, just filling it less for the couscous. It's easy to vary some--adding other frozen vegetables, or leftover roasted vegetables, was a good way to change it up if I got bored, which I mostly didn't. If you think you're hungrier than this, adding some crumbled feta or parmesan makes it more filling and only adds a couple seconds, assuming that you buy pre-shredded. You can add lemon juice with the olive oil, or just buy some vinaigrette dressing and use that.
posted by mishafletch at 12:03 AM on September 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

You can get a lot more variety and better nutrition out of your beans and rice dishes by adding a leafy green: collard, mustard, turnip, kale.
I like a Hoppin’ John with roughly equal parts black eyed peas, rice and collards, with a little salt pork or bacon for flavor. It’s a one-pot fish that can feed you for a week.

If you like the prep ahead lifestyle, check out Reddit’s /r/mealprepSunday
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:06 AM on September 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

My go-to is an amy's burrito with a small avocado on the side to fill me up, a snack bar after for my sweet tooth (I like the dark chocolate sweet and salty nut bars from nature's valley).
posted by lafemma at 6:18 AM on September 23, 2018

My current go-to lunch includes a combination of any or all of the following:

- evol burrito (simple, wholefood ingredients, very soft after 4 hours, only needs ~20-30 seconds of microwaving per side, ~15 grams of protein)

- plastic baggie with 1-2 ounces of pre-sliced cheese and a sliced vegetarian Tofurkey sausage (40+ grams of protein, can eat directly from the baggie)

- a granola bar, an apple, a fruit cup, and a box of raisins - all grab and go options straight from the shelf at Harris Teeter

- a bottle of water and a bottle of Fairlife ultra-filtered, low-sugar 2% chocolate milk (~13 grams of protein)

- a cup of either 0% Greek yogurt or Muuna cottage cheese (~15-20 grams of protein)

- a thermos full of hot coffee or tea

This may be a little more graze-y than what you're looking for, but you can combine a couple of these into one sit-down meal. For example, the burrito goes well with the cheese and sausage, and is hot and filling.

Good luck! It's hard to stay nutrified AND satisfied when you're so busy. I hope you find a system that works for you :D
posted by the thought-fox at 12:13 PM on September 23, 2018

Nthing Reddit’s /r/mealprepSunday, also might check out r/EatCheapAndHealthy.
posted by mannyfeefees at 3:12 PM on September 23, 2018

Thank you all for your suggestions. I ended up getting Tandoor this week (and it's just up the street from me). This may become a regular occurrence. I've very familiar with reddit's meal prep subreddits but right now I don't have time for it (something I used to do religiously).

I've realized that there's a Chopt in the shopping center right by me so that, zoe's kitchen, chipotle and trader joes have become my new go to's. It's not ideal, but it's how I'm getting through right now.

Thank you all for your suggestions and help. I really appreciate it.

(for everyone who suggested Amy's burritos- you're absolutely right, I just forgot to mention that I hate flour tortillas. It' a thing for me.)
posted by raccoon409 at 5:25 PM on October 8, 2018

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