Starting to cook for yourself can be a daunting task. All those appetising meals back home or on TV, it just seems impossible to replicate something so complex that others seem to just waltz through — and no, Jamie Oliver, it does not take 15 minutes to cook pork tacos.
However, feeding yourself all the way through university can be a welcoming challenge. There is so much to learn: how to live on a budget, how to eat healthy, what kitchen gear to get, or how to simply evade the quick but unhealthy snack trap. Here are some tips on how to cook like a boss at university:
This can be useful in two ways. First, your body will thank you if you feed it healthy food. Second, food that is rich in nutrients and vitamins will keep you satisfied over a longer period of time. You’re less likely to constantly feel hungry and therefore you’ll spend less on keeping your stomach full. The result is not only a better physical shape, but also more money in your pockets.
Eating healthy is often confused with just eating green veggies with bland seasoning; this is not the case. In order to give your body what it needs, you also have to take in carbs and proteins. You’d be surprised how diverse a healthy diet can look and how good it can taste. Do yourself the favour and spend some time on it while you’re still learning how to cook for yourself. Those habits you acquire now are more likely to stick with you later in life.
The secret to cooking when hunger strikes is, amongst others, to make quick decisions on meals and not consult a cooking book for hours to come. When you open your fridge, you should know if the ingredients on the shelves are sufficient for a dish you could make or if you need to go to the store.
When you’re on your way home after a long day at university, dropping by a supermarket on the way should be as quick as grabbing a few items with a concrete intention of how to cook them. Otherwise you’ll be tempted to buy some pre-cooked frozen food or takeaway from a local fast food chain, as it doesn’t require much thought and time.
Time is the second important factor here. After a long day, you might not want to spend two hours making a several course meal your grandma would be proud of. You just want to eat, and the faster the process is done, the better. You have your days off or the weekends to start experimenting on your sous-chef career. The rest of the time, be efficient about feeding yourself in the quickest and healthiest way possible.
Unless you’re following directions from a student cookbook that is catered to serving only one eater, most recipes are calculated for three to four people. That can often be useful if you want to pre-cook and freeze, but often it just results in a lot of thrown away food. Because let’s be honest, who wants to eat stew two times a day for the next four to five days?
Downscaling doesn’t require superpowers, it just requires you to divide all the ingredients by the number of people the recipe is intended for. You also shouldn’t worry about buying less ingredients for smaller scale recipes. Dry foods like rice or pasta last for ages. Perishable food products, however, should be calculated more precisely. If you know you’ll be cooking a lot of carrots over the next week, by all means go with the big package at the supermarket. If you only need two for the resized recipe, go to your local farmers market. Not only is it organic, it’s also cheaper and it sells you the items by the quantity you ask for. That way, you can evade any sad leftovers in your fridge that will never get eaten.
Whether you live in a dorm or in an apartment with a mediocre-sized cooking area, or are even the proud owner of a fully-sized kitchen, your gear has to start accumulating somewhere. As a basic rule, don’t start with the smoothie maker; start with the most basic tools you need in order to make yourself a proper meal. The ideal kitchen gear starter package would be a chef’s pan for frying, a saucepan for cooking, a chef’s knife, a spatula, and a wooden spoon.
As a recommendation, don’t buy stuff that is too cheap, but rather invest in good quality products. A sticky pan or a dull knife will ruin any cooking experience and will make you lose interest. If you’re on a budget, though, and have to choose one object that you can invest in, make it the chef’s knife. There is nothing more annoying than not being able to chop up your ingredients. More so, it will double the time of every cooking session.
The time between deciding to cook your own meal or dialling the take-out number can be a matter of a few minutes. That’s how quickly you can go from being slightly hungry to starving. The mistake many people make is to wait until they’re hungry to start preparing food. The thought of spending half an hour to an hour to prepare a dish is more than they’re willing to take at that moment, whereas ironically, having food delivered or popping into a store or restaurant to pick up something pre-done will take just as long.
Knowing your daily schedule and your habits, you should have a pretty good estimate about what time hunger strikes you. Don’t start cooking at the last minute. Plan beforehand, so when you’re finished with preparing your meal the appetite will be there and you don’t need to snack your way around it.
Student food is a big economic market and there are lots of products out there that cater to young adults trying to cook with little time and a small budget. But if you look past all those packaged soups, baking goods and one pot meals you can buy for a few euros, you might realise that buying fresh ingredients and processing them into something tasty is even cheaper.
For example, when making brownies, it might at first seem more expensive to buy the dairy, the eggs, the flour or the chocolate. But you’re not going to use all of those items at once, and you can even integrate the leftover ingredients into other meals.
Just breaking down how many times batches of brownies you can make from the items you bought will show you that making things from scratch is cheaper than buying them pre-mixed in a box. And, of course, it is way healthier (but they’re still brownies, so don’t let them get the best of you!).
Cooking is no sorcery. The most important factor is the learning curve: preparing your own meals, finding joy in eating your own food, defining your own techniques on how to process ingredients, and following the best diet possible. Once you call a fancy kitchen your property, you can always take it up a notch. But most importantly, have fun and enjoy the food!
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Have you been cooking for yourself since starting university? What have you felt made you a better chef? Let us know in the comments. And remember: if you need student accommodation in Europe, you’ll find the perfect student home on Uniplaces.