What do us students eat and drink? Now that’s an interesting question. Luckily, it’s easy to answer: takeouts and cheap alcohol. If you’re currently at university or have been in the past, you can’t deny this. Getting a pizza delivered to your door is far more convenient than slaving away in the kitchen, and when paired with drinking games and a group of good mates, it’s actually quite fun.
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However, you can’t live like this on a daily basis for the rest of your life. Not only is it unhealthy, but it’s also expensive. For a takeaway meal with all the trimmings, you’re looking at a good ten to 15 dollars, which isn’t feasible in the long-term when you’re trying to watch your pennies. But there is a solution, and it’s doing your own cooking.
Unless you’re an aspiring Jamie Oliver, that can be quite scary. But if you’re willing to teach yourself the basics and get your hands dirty, it’s possible and can make your life much easier. Whether you’re a student or have somehow managed to coast into your 30s on ready meals and takeaways, it’s an important life skill to learn, so let’s look at how to teach yourself to cook in a bit more detail.
Overcoming the Mental Roadblock
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Let’s be honest: cooking doesn’t come naturally to many of us. For most students, even putting together a relatively simple meal such as spag bol seems like climbing a mountain. I know, because I’m one of those students.
I started my degree last September and have been living at home, so I’ve been lucky in that I usually have meals with my family. But with plans to move in with a group of close student friends next year, I’ve had to come to terms with the reality that I won’t have my parents to cook for me forever. I’m going to have to become a proper adult, and with that being the case, I’ll be responsible for my own cooking.
That generally does give me nightmares – the whole ‘learn to cook or starve’ scenario. I can barely even make myself a decent slice of toast and once tried cooking eggs in my mum’s expensive toaster (don’t ask), so how would I ever be able to make a tidy meal? Well, the first thing learnt was that I couldn’t think like that.
All the self-doubting and questioning kills the confidence you’re trying to build up. Instead, slowly embrace the idea of learning to cook, and then becoming a vaguely competent cook (which is where I’m at now). You’ll stumble along the way, burn pretty much everything in sight, and be tempted to call the local curry house every time you fail, but don’t: overcome your fear of failure and you’ll be grateful in the long run.
Here are some of the steps I took to learn how to cook.
Seek Inspiration From Family and Friends
We’ve all got that one family member or friend who’s a bit of a whiz in the kitchen. And whenever you pay them a visit, you know you’re going to end up munching something very tasty. Next time, why not ask them for some culinary advice at the same time? My mum’s family is Italian, so I’ve been around good cooking all my life. While I never inherited the cooking gene, I’m the type of person who’s always up for a challenge, so when I decided to teach myself how to cook (decently), I went straight to my mother.
It started with the basics: she taught me how to use the cooker (yes, I know that’s shocking – but I am a student!) and showed me how to make our family’s scrumptious bolognese sauce. We went up the attic to get my grandmother’s super secret recipe book, which I never knew existed but has become a huge asset in my life. Again, you may be scared to ask for help, but don’t be. Most people actually enjoy passing on their knowledge, and if you don’t have family to ask, try latching on to a vaguely competent friend instead – at the very least, they’ll be grateful for the helping with the washing up!
Find your Bible
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Once you’ve learnt a few basic skills (like actually operating ovens, and chopping vegetables without ending up in A&E…), the next thing you need to do is buy a good cookbook. Cookbooks are like bibles and can help you get to the next level, or get you started in the first place if everyone you know is just as culinarily inept as you are. Obviously, choosing the right one for you depends on the type of food you want to cook and your situation. Busy with my studies and work life, I have trouble finding the time to get into the kitchen, so I wanted something that would teach me how to cook fast and easy food. In the end, I found Jamie’s 15-Minute Meals and haven’t looked back since.
The book — and its predecessor, Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals — guides you through recipes in a methodical yet fun way and you’ll learn how to make a wide variety of foods in a short space of time. These include chicken, steak and pasta dishes, as well as more exotic options such as Asian street food. There are also a wide variety of salad recipes, if you’re watching the calories. As well as being quick to knock out in the evening, many of the recipes (my favourite is the sizzling chicken fajitas) are also fantastically portable, so you can start saving a bit of money on lunch too.
Whatever you think of him, Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks are a great place to start for novice cooks — my coworker James told me he learnt how to cook with the help of Cook With Jamie. Other excellent options for when you first hit the kitchen include Jack Monroe’s A Girl Called Jack and Gizzi Erskine’s My Kitchen Table, and of course our food section is packed with tips for easy-to-make recipes and kitchen tricks.
Cooking on a Budget
OK, so you’ve learnt how to not burn everything you throw in a pan. Nice one. Now, the challenge is making all those lovely recipes you’re starting master on a budget. This is something we have some experience with.
While it’s nice to buy branded products (and some, like Heinz tomato sauce, are always going to be king), they tend to be more expensive than own-brand ranges. Some supermarkets are also noticeably dearer than others (hello, Harris Farm), so try to do your food shopping at places like Aldi and Lidl.
You can also keep the food bill down (and support your community) by going to local markets, green grocers, butcher’s shops and so on. More often than not, you can find top quality produce for pennies at these kinds of places. If you don’t have time to hit the streets in search of your food, check out sites like Farmers Direct, which deliver local produce to your door.
Look to buy staples like rice and olive oil in bulk where you can, as it works out cheaper in the long run. Things like spices are also much better value when bought by the tonne. If you have a local ethnic food shop or market, start there and you may never look back!
In terms of meal planning, you want to consider what’s going to taste great and fill you up on the cheap. I find rice and potato-based dishes are best at this, and they’re also easy to cook. A good place to start is by making a herby haddock rice dish. It’s nothing overly complex. You just boil the rice, chuck the haddock into a pan filled with milk, cook it for about 10 minutes, and then put it on top of the rice. The fish should be flaky at this point, and you then have the option of eating it as is, or (my preference) mixing it into the rice with some of your favourite herbs and spices.
Once you nail that, you can progress to slightly fancier dishes, like kedgeree or sweet potato and black bean chilli (swapping the quinoa for plain ol’ rice in the latter recipe to keep it affordable). If you source your ingredients using the methods above, you won’t end up spending more than a few quid on any of these meals, and they can also be made in bulk and saved for easy mid-week suppers or packed lunches.
Cooking in Small Kitchens
Another challenge that students and young professionals face when it comes to cooking is space. In many cases, you’ll end up sharing a relatively small kitchen with a few other people, so it can all get a bit hectic and doesn’t really lend itself to preparing three course meals. But the simple meals we’ve recommended above are totally achievable, just make sure you’re not wasting valuable space with large appliances that only do one thing.
Instead, look to invest in multi-function kitchen gear like all-in-one cookers. While many of these products are pricey, it’s possible to pick up affordable options that still get the job done without the bells and whistles. If you are going to clutter up the kitchen with something fairly bulky, the Tefal OptiGrill is an amazing bit of kit, especially for beginner cooks, as its built-in heat sensors tell you when meat and fish is properly cooked. Check out more cool student tech in guide here.
One final life saver when kitchen space is at a premium is a really simple one: being organised. When you finish with a pan, don’t just leave it by the hobs, wash it up right away. Yes, you love all all the new oils and spices you’ve discovered, but the counter isn’t their home – that’s the cupboard. And if you do have larger appliances that are only used infrequently, try and find a tidy place to stash them away, too. It might sound reductive, but trust me, when you’re just starting out, these things don’t always come naturally.
Well, there you have it. Whether you’re a student like me or have just never slung on an apron before, if you follow the advice above, you’ll be making tasty, nutritious meals in no time without breaking the bank. Got a particular challenge you’re trying to overcome? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll do our very best to help you out!