Cooking: How to eat well at university

Cooking: How to eat well at university

When you go to university, then unless you stay in catered halls you are going to have to feed yourself. This is fantastic news. For possibly the first time in your life, you can eat what you like, when you like, as often as you like. The catch? You will have to cook it yourself (unless you can afford at least three years of takeaways). This requires a bit of effort, but it is the gateway to a lifetime of happiness. Good cooking is a) therapeutic, b) pretty easy, and c) a great way to make friends. This is how to do it.

Step 1: Get some decent cooking equipment

Check what’s provided in your student accommodation. If the things listed below are not included (most of them probably won’t be), take your own.

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• a large saucepan (get a heavy-based one if possible, then your food won’t burn)

• a large frying pan (ditto)

• a sharp, heavy knife with an 18–20cm blade (large knives are quicker to use, even on small ingredients like garlic; sharp knives are safer than blunt ones, because they are less likely to slip)

• a grater

• cling film

• a fish slice (not just for fish) – also known as a cooking spatula

• a chopping board

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  • a small saucepan
  • a small frying pan
  • a large mixing bowl (though if pushed, you can use your big saucepan)
  • a large sieve
  • measuring spoons
  • weighing scales
  • a U-shaped vegetable peeler (they’re the best, and left-handers can use them easily)
  • a measuring jug
  • a wooden spoon
  • a timer (or use the one on your phone)
  • a pepper mill

Step 2: Good cooking begins with good shopping  

You can eat well without spending a lot of money. Supermarkets have lots of tricks to make money out of you. Wise up to them and you will profit from them, not the other way round. It’s good to do most of your shopping in smaller places: Street markets, international shops (especially for spices and herbs), butcher’s shops and greengrocer’s are often better value than supermarkets. If you have a market and small local shops on your doorstep, use them, but only buy what’s in season You can use the BBC’s seasonal foods calendar. It is often cheaper and tastes better.

But supermarkets are still often the most convenient and cost-effective choice, especially in terms of time. To beat supermarkets at their own game, here are my top supermarket shopping strategies:

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1. Don’t pay for packaging

The more packaging food has, the more expensive it will be. So buy loose fruit and veg, big tubs of yoghurt instead of individual ones, whole fruit, not ready-prepared portions.

2. Don’t look at the price on the packet; look at the price per kilo

You will quickly work out that you can’t afford chicken breasts but that chicken thighs are good value; that ready-grated Parmesan is a rip-off compared to a whole chunk; that a £1 packet of biscuits containing 130g is more expensive than a £1.50 pack containing 300g.

3. Don’t be conned by ready meals

Unless you are completely strapped for time, ready meals are not your friend. Mostly you are paying for water, which is invariably their second or third largest ingredient. Speaking of which …

4. Learn to read ingredients lists

By law, ingredients are listed in order of weight. So if you buy a beef curry ready meal and beef is sixth down the list, you’re not getting much beef.

5. Don’t be afraid of raw ingredients

Raw ingredients are cheapest, freshest and (usually) most nutritious. Raw ingredients don’t always look great but they are full of potential. Raw ingredients allow you to make food how you like it instead of the way the supermarket wants you to like it. Raw ingredients teach you how to cook; they are the passport to good food.

6. Shop at the end of the day

At the end of the day, supermarkets often mark down prices of fresh foods such as bread, fish, meat, soft fruit, salads, milk and yoghurt. They will keep in your fridge for a couple of days, even if they’re on the sell-by date – though best stick to the date for fresh fish and meat. If your university accommodation has a freezer, you can also buy things close to their date and freeze them (almost indefinitely) until needed – this will work well for bread, fish, meat, milk, and vegetables (just make sure that they are stored in airtight containers), but delicate food like soft fruit won’t defrost so well. If you’re not sure, google – it’s also a good idea to check food hygiene advice for freezing food.

7. Don’t buy the first thing you see

Supermarkets put expensive treats at the beginning of the shop. They hide the essentials, like milk, at the back, so you have to pass lots of tempting things to get to them. They reckon that the more time you spend in the shop, the more money you will spend. Making a shopping list in advance will stop you from random spending.

8. Duck down …

… so you can see what’s at the bottom of the shelf. Supermarkets usually put the most expensive brands at eye level, the cheaper ones below, where you’re less likely to see them.

9. ‘Buy two, get one free’

You were only going to buy one bag of salad, but getting three for the price of two is a bargain, right? Not if you end up throwing two away. Bogof (buy-one-get-one-free) variants are just a way to make you spend more money. Don’t fall for it…

Step 3: Eat Simple

The way to eat cheaply and well is to build your meals around carbohydrates. Carbohydrates have formed the basis of nutritious diets around the world for centuries. The famously healthy Mediterranean diet, for example, is full of whole grains and beans. The latest medical research shows that we should be getting around half our calories from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are cheap – think pasta, noodles, rice and beans – and they allow you to use more expensive protein foods such as meat, fish and cheese in small quantities, almost like seasonings.

To eat simple, you need to stock up on four different types of ingredients:

1. Carbohydrates

– such as pasta, rice, beans, couscous, polenta, whatever. These are sold in tins and packets and will keep forever. And potatoes. Entire books have been written about potatoes. That’s because potatoes are great. And cheap.

2. Flavour-packed ingredients

– such as bottled anchovies, tinned tuna, chorizo, smoked fish (smoked mackerel is cheap), Parmesan and other strong cheeses, nuts, tinned tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, roasted red peppers (available in jars or roast and peel your own).

Anything in bottles and tins will keep for ages; most other things will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge.

3. Seasonings

– such as garlic, ginger, dried chilli, paprika, curry powder, soy sauce, cumin, lemon, harissa paste (sold in little jars), herbs (to save money, switch out your decorative cactus or fern with herbs grown in pots such as mint and basil – you can buy these in most supermarkets).

4. Basics

– such as olive or vegetable oil, butter, salt and pepper.

These are the building blocks of your cooking. Basically, anything in number 2 and number 3 can be combined with anything from number 1 to make a meal. You can add fresh ingredients such as vegetables, meat, fish and eggs according to what you feel like eating and what you can afford. These building blocks form the basis of most books about cooking on a budget.

There are some great food websites where you can find reliable recipes without having to trawl through the endless pit of Google search results

If you prefer having something you can flick through, here are three of the best cook books. Any one of them will see you through university

The Hungry Student Cookbook – Charlotte Pike

Real Fast Food – Nigel Slater

Cooking on a Bootstrap – Jack Monroe

All this information is useful when you’re starting out, but soon your cooking skills will become instinctual. Once you get to grips with the basics, you’ll be able to confidently make meals that use up what you have in the fridge, without even looking for a recipe.