Surviving the midterm munchies

Pre-made grocery store meals run my busy weeks.

Trader Joe’s in USC Village provides a wide variety of pre-made meals, including the turkey club wrap and Mediterranean orzo pasta salad that fueled columnist Jason Pham’s long days of studying. (Jason Pham / Daily Trojan)

I’m ashamed to admit that I struggle to find time to cook — or even eat — as a college student.

Between taking back-to-back classes and living a decent 20-minute walk away from campus, I’m typically bound to eat a $17 salmon bowl from the Law School Café or wait until I get home to eat if I want to save money. My busy schedule and commute inhibit a lot of what I can do in terms of finding affordable ways to eat throughout the day. Especially for those with no access to a kitchen on campus, surviving the school day without buying into USC’s costly food options can be challenging.

So, as we enter midterms and our schedules might be getting too hectic to pack lunches or meal prep, I want to celebrate the affordable foods that fueled me during midterm season over and over again: pre-made grocery store meals.

Now, I’m not talking about the Trader Joe’s frozen meals that deserve a dedicated “Dining Dollars” column at a later date, but the fresh wraps, salad bowls and pre-built meals that are replaced daily at grocery stores.

Flashback to peak midterm season of Fall 2022: I rushed out the doors of Troy Hall en route to my midterm exams at noon. I remember vividly the slight grogginess from studying late the night before combined with the early morning munchies. The thought of Panda Express or a bowl from Seeds first thing in the morning made my stomach churn, so I ventured out into USC Village for something fresh and on the go so I could make my final in time.

After not vibing with USC Village restaurants’ prices or selection, I popped into Trader Joe’s to see if I could quickly craft something up or find a way to microwave a frozen meal on my way to a final.

There, I unexpectedly fell in love with the Trader Joe’s cold section. Next to the produce is the most glorious array of wraps and pasta salads that checked all the boxes for me. As someone who never really shopped at Trader Joe’s until college, the consistent $4 to $6 pricing and fresh options quickly became an obsession. 

Priced at a flirtatious $5 per meal, I was instantly attracted to the Mediterranean style orzo pasta salad and the turkey club wrap during my sophomore year at USC.

The Mediterranean style orzo pasta salad offers a fresh yet subtle salad dressing with a zing of sundried tomatoes and an ample amount of orzo pasta that quickly filled me up before my final exam that fateful day. As my obsession grew, I ventured out within the cold section and eventually fell in love with the turkey club wrap for its same subtle dressing and hearty size that slipped perfectly into my bag when on my way to class.

What I enjoy most about pre-built meals is not only their portability and affordability but also how different grocery stores have their own unique versions of dishes that they offer.

Strangely enough, Trader Joe’s sent me down a rabbit hole of sampling pre-cooked grocery store meals from different parts of Los Angeles. From H Mart to California Market, I’d spend my Sundays in Koreatown grocery shopping and stocking up on pre-cooked meals if I knew I had tests that same week and couldn’t cook.

I quickly moved my obsession from the Trader Joe’s orzo pasta and various wraps to H Mart’s rice gyu don bowls and pork buns. Priced a little higher than Trader Joe’s at around $10, H Mart and California Market offer pre-built Asian meals and sides that are well worth the travel off-campus.

H Mart’s rice gyu don bowls are quite hefty meals with ribbons of beef over an ample amount of rice to make for a perfect comfort meal. The spam musubis and pork buns wrapped in plastic wrap are a bit pricey for being mostly rice and bread — but delicious nonetheless and easy hand foods to eat on the go.

Now, finishing up my junior year at USC, I’m eager to branch out to new neighborhoods like Little Tokyo and specifically Marukai Market, which serves egg sandwiches and onigiri — Japanese delicacies impossible to find back in my home state of Oregon.

With so many different communities so physically close together in L.A., the abundance of varied cultural markets and grocery stores is a food scene difficult to find elsewhere. Especially during midterms and when my weeks feel too busy to even find time to cook or eat, the vast variety of to-go meals at local supermarkets is an offer I believe all college students should take full advantage of.

As absurd as it may be to buy pre-made meals at a grocery store full of ingredients, sometimes, I simply don’t have time. Speaking from my college experience, we need to normalize finding accessible and affordable ways to eat during busy weeks without having to buy expensive food on campus.

Jason Pham is a junior writing about affordable eating and restaurants in his column, “Dining Dollars,” which runs every other Tuesday. He is also the features editor at the Daily Trojan.

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