Who needs a dining hall when you've got a dorm kitchen available? Even if you don't, make it happen with a few basic tools and skills.
A new school year has begun, and with it, a new contingent of young adults is figuring out how to be independent from their parents. No longer is there a fully stocked kitchen at their disposal, replete with ingredients and tools, nor is somebody else churning out fresh, delicious meals at regular times each day. It can be a real wake-up call for kids.
While school meal plans have come a long way in recent years, with healthier, vegetarian and gluten-free options available, college students should not be entirely dependent on the dining hall. It’s important to develop the self-sufficient skills of cooking for oneself on a budget and in tight quarters, and there’s no better time to learn than in college. In the words of 30-year-old food blogger Phoebe Lapine:
“It’s an important part of your pre-real-world education. The first year out of college is one of the hardest for a 20-something. Many are moving to new cities, working long hours at entry-level jobs and learning to take care of basic needs on limited salaries. Knowing how to cook is a huge leg up.”
In order to make this happen, college students should understand a few basic concepts.
1. You don’t need a kitchen that looks like your parents’.
All you need are a few very basic tools – a cutting board, a sharp knife (don’t skimp on this!), a frying pan, stockpot, electric blender, toaster oven. A slow cooker, rice cooker, and water kettle are helpful, too. All of these items are easy to find second-hand.
2. Learn to cook with humble, shelf-stable ingredients.
Lapine told the Washington Post that this “gave me a real appreciation for the simple act of throwing together a meal from cans, jars and freezer bags. It was very different from the meals I saw going down on Food Network, yet just as satisfying.” Cans of beans and coconut milk, diced tomatoes, vegetable stock, bags of nuts, and grains such as rice and quinoa can do a lot.
3. Buy some important flavor boosters and condiments.
You don’t need a fully stocked spice rack. If you’ve got Sriracha, soy sauce, peanut butter, curry paste or powder, olive oil, vinegar, dried oregano, and ground cinnamon in the cupboard, you’re set. You can season curry, stir-fry, salad, noodles, fried rice, tomato sauce, apple crisp, granola, muffins, oatmeal and toast, etc.
4. Know which fresh ingredients can be stored for a long time.
Potatoes, onions, garlic, lemons, and limes can be kept for a while, making it easy to stock up whenever you go shopping. Keep potatoes, onions, and garlic in the dark, away from direct sunlight. Lemons and limes like the crisper drawer in the fridge. Root vegetables like carrots and beets stay good in the fridge for weeks, and fruits such as apples and pears are long-lasting, too. If the veggies go soft, turn them into soup; if fruit starts to go, turn it into muffins or crisp. If you've got a freezer, then you're really lucky; stock up on frozen veggies and fruit for smoothies, soups, and steamed sides.
5. Cook the simplest one-pot meals.
It’s better to eat simply on a daily basis than cook extravagantly once a week. Master a few basic concepts and you’ll be fine. The Washington Post recommends five sauces – red wine vinaigrette, coconut curry sauce, cashew cream, stir-fry sauce, and quick marinara sauce – that can be used for almost anything. If you know those, you can always have food on the table quickly.
I’d add real cream sauce, which I use all the time for quick pasta meals, sometimes mixed with sautéed vegetables or pesto. If you have a slow cooker, you can pull together a delicious vegetarian chili using nothing but chopped onion, a few cans of beans, diced tomatoes, and chili powder.
6. You can work with a meal plan, too.
Follow the advice of Priya Krishna, a student from Dartmouth University, who wrote a cookbook called “Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks,” which shows you how to use the ingredients available in the dining hall and transform them into something better, tastier, and more satisfying.
7. Think about nutrition.
Before you pick up the “freshman 15” and then have to deal with it later, take nutrition into consideration at the start of the year. Know which foods fill you up, ahead of long lectures, and keep you feeling satisfied, i.e. a high protein breakfast instead of cereal, good fatty snacks like nuts and seeds instead of muffins or chips. Avoid sugary drinks and coffee shop concoctions, sticking with water whenever possible. See if you can take a nutrition course at school.
While it may seem like an enormous inconvenience having to cook for yourself while studying and attending classes, it’s a crash course in being an adult, and adjusting to post-university life will be much easier if you put in some effort now. Plus, think how popular you'll be as the scent of simmering chili wafts out into the hallway…