By Sarah LeVesque, Recent Arizona State University Nutrition Student
As college students, we can wear many hats. While some are just students, there are plenty of us that must be mothers and/or spouses, full time or part time job holders, and some are just plain busy. If you’re like me, how long I spend in the kitchen determines how much homework I can complete! To maximize my time and money, I’ve learned a few things over the past few years I’d like to share with you.
Last year I was planning a wedding, making it to the gym five days a week, and working full time, all while trying to maintain my classes and somewhat of a social life. I would make time on Sundays to meal prep for the week for my snacks and lunches outside of the house. I leave the house at 6 o’clock in the morning, Monday through Friday. By the time I get home it’s usually 6 o’clock at night, and I have homework to finished and need to make dinner. I learned a few tips and tricks in the kitchen throughout that trying time as a college student, wedding planner, barista, friend, daughter, and soon to be wife.
- Less is more.
When I say less is more, I’m not talking about eating less! What I mean is dinners don’t have to be complicated and riddled with ten different steps to make an amazing dinner. Most of my dinners involve four ingredients: olive oil, garlic, and salt and pepper. Whether it’s chicken, steak, or turkey (the main protein consumed in my house) I am usually adding these basic ingredients. Sometimes I’ll add some heat with a chili powder or cayenne pepper.
My side dishes are simple also. Instead of a grabbing a can of green beans, I buy big bags of frozen vegetables. I invested in a BPA free, silicon basket that allows you to steam food in the microwave, and that was a life changer! They also started selling bags of vegetables (my favorite is the shredded Brussel sprouts) that you can just open, season, reseal, and throw back into the microwave. When life gets busy, taking these short cuts, and paying attention to serving sizes can save time and money.
- We don’t’ need to eat a slice of steak the size of our heads.
Often when we order at a restaurant, we end up with a giant plate filled with protein. When we cook at home, we can stretch our meals a little further. Instead of eating an entire breast of chicken each, I usually take a boneless, skinless chicken breast and slice it into two equal parts. I do the same with steaks! It can get expensive trying to eat two ribeye’s. Instead I opt for a leaner slice, and make sure to cut it in half.
A single serving of lean meats for adults is about 3 oz. which is about the size of your fist. This brings into perspective how much food we consume! An economy size package of boneless, skinless chicken breast which contains about 10 breasts can last this family two weeks’ worth of dinners. Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs.
- Prepping what I can makes it easy.
Sometimes when we get home, I’m not making dinner immediately. We’ll both take our turns opening the pantry and fridge, convincing ourselves that we don’t need to eat potato chips. So, to stop the obvious boredom eating and snacking, I decided that when I actually get into the kitchen, pull out the cutting board and start chopping things, I’m going to just chop it all and get it over with! If on Monday, I want a chicken breast atop a salad, I’ll go ahead and just keep chopping for the rest of the week. I usually chop the cucumbers, onions, and throw cherry tomatoes into a bowl of spinach and baby kale (my favorite lately) and keep it in the fridge. I also like to buy extra cucumbers and cut them into sticks. I also always have a bag of baby carrots in my fridge.
Precutting veggies is the best way to snack healthy! I like to consolidate my steps. If I’m in the kitchen and chopping a salad for dinner, why not just cut all the veggies quick to help make the healthier choices easier.
Just like I do with salads and veggies, I like to consolidate my cooking. If I know tomorrow is a busy night full of homework and housework, I’ll go ahead and cook for the next day. I like to portion out my meats prior to cooking to cut my cooking time down. Once the meats are done, I’ll put them in a food container and store it in the fridge. Then for dinner the next day, I’m warming up the chicken in the microwave and shredding it on top of the salad I prepared. It takes all but 10 minutes with clean up and I can get right to my homework.
- I don’t like scrubbing pans or pots.
Before I learned how amazing foil is, I always cooked meats in my oven directly on the pans. I’d find myself scrubbing or soaking dishes for longer than expected. Then I shared a kitchen with friends over the holiday. One of the ladies I cooked with pulled out a roll of foil, covered the pan, and cooked our food on it. After we ate, she went into the kitchen and peeled it off. She washed off what she could and put the clean pieces into recycling. The pan looked like it was never used and I looked like I saw fire for the first time! I don’t use it every time, but I do use it on my favorite pans, especially when I’ve been working all day. It makes clean up a breeze.
- Timing is everything.
When I first started cooking, I would find myself running around the kitchen trying to keep things warm until the entire meal was ready to plate. Now, I’ve gotten to the point where I can have my vegetables, protein, and grains finish at the same time.
- I start with my carbs! I have found that my grains or complex carbohydrates are always the longest to prepare. I’ll usually preheat my oven, cut my sweet potatoes into little cubes, season them, and put them on the pan and in the oven first.
- I’ll then cut and season my chicken and place them in the center of the pan about 10 minutes after I’ve put the sweet potatoes (or any potatoes of your choice) in the oven.
- While I’m waiting for the chicken and sweet potatoes to cook, usually about 15 minutes, I’ll utilize that time to clean up and prepare my side dishes.
- Since I am a believer of steaming my veggies in the microwave, it’s quick and I save it for last. Once my side dishes are done, I’ll turn off my oven and begin plating my dishes. Typically, I am able to pull out a food container and immediately put away the leftover food that I have prepped for the next day.
After all that work, I’ll finally get to sit down and enjoy dinner!
It usually takes me about 45 minutes from beginning to end when I cook an entire meal. Taking the time to think about my cooking plan, portioning out my foods, preparing the veggies, and consolidating my steps, that 45 minutes is for two dinners, and the next day all I must do is warm up the food.
My friends always ask me how I can make such delicious dinners every night. Well the truth is sometimes I am cooking for multiple nights and I’ve taken shortcuts that I’ve learned over time to help! Cooking doesn’t have to be difficult. I don’t need to have a balsamic reduction over my chicken every night. I just want a healthy, fast, dinner.
Below are some of my favorite and effortless ways to marinate my proteins so that they’re moist and delicious and take barely any time at all.
Lemon garlic chicken:
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast
Olive oil to coat the chicken
2 tablespoons of garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 425F.
- While the oven is preheating, throw the chicken into a plastic bag or bowl. I’ll cover the chicken in olive oil, toss in the garlic, squeeze two lemons over the chicken, and salt and pepper them. I’ll toss the chicken breasts a few times in the mixture and cover in the fridge until the oven is ready.
- Place on a lined baking sheet and cook for 15-20 minutes. I like to cut open my chicken breasts about halfway through cooking to gauge the cooking time. Sometimes I’ll squeeze any lemon juice I have leftover.
Easy Steak recipe:
2 petite sirloin steaks
Tablespoon or two of garlic
Two cloves of garlic
Salt and pepper
- I prefer to grill my steaks. I’ll usually turn on the grill prior to marinating the steaks if I don’t have time.
- Take the petite steaks out of the package and into a bowl and lightly cover with salt.
- Next, I’ll mince the garlic cloves, and smother them on the steaks leaving chunks smashed in.
- I’ll then lightly cover with olive oil and rub in the garlic and salt.
- Right before I cover the bowl, I’ll splash some worsterschire sauce on the steaks. Just enough to cover them lightly. I’ll sprinkle some fresh cracked pepper on top (don’t be shy with the garlic or pepper!), cover, and let chill in the fridge until my grill or oven is ready.
- While the grill is heating up I’ll throw together a quick salad and leave in the fridge until it is ready. Typically, I’m done with the salad and clean up, the grill should be ready.
- I place the steaks in the center of the grill and close the lid. I’ll bring the heat down from a level 10, to about a 6 and let the grill work its magic for about 7 minutes.
- I’ll flip the steaks only once. I don’t push down on the steaks in fear of losing the juices and flavor of the steak. In pieces that are fattier (like ribeye) it’s okay to push down a bit to release some of the juices, but with leaner cuts, it’s best to let them be!
- After about another 7 minutes on the other side of the steaks, I’ll turn off the grill and plate our salads or sides. Once that’s complete, I’ll open the grill and remove the steaks and they’re usually a perfect medium color in the center!
I’ve been cooking for about 6 years now and this is my go to recipe for steaks! It takes no time, no fancy sauces, and I’ve never had a dry steak! When in doubt, I’ll always cut into the steak to gauge how the well the steaks are cooking and adjust.
For more delicious main dish, side dish, and even dessert recipes, head over to Fill Your Plate and meal prep for your entire week!