Economical dinners for students

Now Adam is off to uni in Kent and these wise words are equally applicable to him.  Since he is an able cook, I hope he will cook good fresh foods, keep a store cupboard of useful ingredients (including some pulses) and will avoid the lowest common denominator diet of pot noodles and junk food!

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So Lindsey has flown the nest and is now a student at Bristol University.  More to the point for the purposes of a food blog, she is in a self-catering hall of residence and has to begin that chore faced by all adults in the course of normal working life: cooking for yourself.

Armed with stern advice from mother to eat sensibly and not starve herself, she has gone out equipped and ready for the real world.  Thanks to her mum and me, she has a good range of cooking utensils, pots, pans and crockery, and a store cupboard chock-a-block with good things like rice, pasta, noodles, lentils, stock cubes, canned soups, canned fruit, canned fish, green tea (her favourite), spices, seasonings, muesli and what-not.  To this assortment she has added some fresh and frozen grub from an outing to the local Co-op: some eggs, turkey steaks, fish cakes, fresh veg, cheese, milk and more.

A good starting point, complemented by her GCSE in Food Technology, with a good grounding in hygiene, though wish she would go easier on the very arbitrary and meaningless dates printed on supermarket packaging.  Trust your own senses, not default dates.

It was all slightly different in my first year of university, given that my hall was fully catered, but for Sunday evenings when we were given rations of bacon, eggs, baked beans and bread, then left to get on with it (though some of the residents took to throwing eggs, incurring the wrath of the warden in the process.)  In general, provision of catering facilities meant one less thing to worry about, and since any case the college was on the same site as the halls and the canteen that was easy. By comparison, Lindsey is a brisk 40 minute trot from the uni (albeit armed with a free bus pass if she is tired.)

Canteen food was simple but edible, easy fuel to set us on our way, typical of canteens everywhere, but the real fun came with year 2 and living in private rented accommodation.  Convenience meals of the day were things like pies, this being before the world of easy microwave dinners had hit the supermarket shelves.  Thanks to my mother I could cook, but this being the end of the 70s stir-fries and home-made curries were very much in their infancy.

Stuff we cooked as students included a fair smattering of comfort food dishes, notably macaroni cheese, though my memory has wisely chosen to discard images of most of the dishes we cooked in those days.  There were meat dishes, including experiments with cheaper cuts, though I had not twigged then that brisket was better off pot-roast.  Suffice it to say I would make a far better job of economical cooking nowadays, courtesy of greater knowledge (see budget challenge) and better-equipped supermarkets.

The myth has it that students live off liquid lunches, kebabs, pot noodle, baked beans on toast and cornflakes, which I would deny though we did have fish and chips or Chinese takeaways on more than a few occasions.  Given the presence of a few takeaways near the Co-op store, I would not be surprised if Lindsey and her mates did not do the same every now and again, budget permitting.

But the default standard has to be home-cooked dinners, and rightly so.  As for recipes, there are a few on my recipe pages worth trying, though the resources available to students are far better than the basic cookbooks we had in the days of Internet and free wifi.  For example, here are a variety of sites that will help students learn to love cooking and help with techniques:

For the benefit of my beloved daughter, a few more tips, which I hope she will not consider too patronising.

  • Set a budget and stick to it.  Avoid buying too much alcohol!
  • If you can share cooking time and effort with a flatmate, do; particularly useful when organising a dinner party.
  • Hunt out markets for fresh veg, good butchers, fishmongers, bakers etc. to find great value and better quality, time permitting.  Don’t be afraid to haggle.
  • Trust your eyes, nose and touch to identify which produce is the best quality and in the right state to cook and eat.
  • Bake your own bread on occasions.
  • Eggs are hugely versatile, so go beyond omelettes and fried rice.
  • Shop in supermarkets at the times when they are reducing prices in order to get the best value.
  • One pan dishes – always a great idea!
  • Do the occasional small roast and use the leftovers for further dinners.
  • Try cheaper cuts, the sort you cook long and slow, but avoid false economies like cheap fatty mince.
  • Also experiment with more obscure veg to make interesting veggie dishes.
  • Add to your collection of pulses, grains, herbs and spices to create interesting dishes.
  • Develop your cooking techniques and add to your repertoire all the time.
  • Build a book of your own favourite tasty recipes and work to perfect them – don’t just follow recipes to the letter.
  • Cook in advance.  Make batches so you can freeze some and microwave when ready for a quick dinner.

But most of all – enjoy cooking and make time for it.  Apart from anything else, it’s a break from studying and stands you in good stead for independent living.  Enjoy! 🙂

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