Beyond Baked Beans

31st August 2018

Are you or someone in your family off to college or university for the first time this term? Jennifer Lipman offers tips and suggestions for culinary life…

The stereotypes surrounding student cooking are legendary… and, when you think about it, limited: beans on toast, pot noodles, takeaways, all washed down with cheap wine. For some, that’s probably accurate. But others embark on their degrees with a hunger not just for learning but for learning to cook, away from home for probably the first time. Given the budgetary pressures on students, often operating in crammed kitchens, what are the top tips?

First up, the kit. Every student should have the basics, including a selection of reusable containers for leftovers. Greaseproof paper, foil and cling film are also helpful for food preservation, while a refillable bottle and reusable coffee cup will save on spending when out and about.

Sarah Rainey, author of the cookbook Three Ingredient Meals, says you don’t need many utensils. Her musts include two saucepans (one small, one large) with lids, one frying pan, a wooden spoon, a fish slice, a few sharp knives, chopping boards, potato masher, vegetable peeler, slotted spoon, can opener, baking sheet, baking tray. She also adds a 20cm round cake tin, for baking but also for making pies, pastries or quiches.

These investment purchases will help students save in the long term. As for gadgets – no undergraduate really needs a spiralizer, but for those with limited facilities, a George Foreman can be used for grilling meat and fish. Sarah recommends the mini Zyliss kitchen chopper. “It makes light work of chopping any sort of veg. You can even use it to blend fruit into a smoothie, make your own pesto or turn nuts into nut butter.”

For students unsure how much they’ll actually cook, Jake Butler, from moneysaving website Save the Student, suggests heading to campus with the essentials, then identifying what’s missing. He advises taking a long-term view. “It’s better to spend more on a good big trusty pan than have to replace a cheap one numerous times,” he says. “Tongs are also a godsend as they can be used for mixing dishes as well as picking up hot items.”

As for what you cook, it’s not about becoming a Masterchef-style gourmand on day one. “Don’t be over-ambitious,” stresses Sarah. “Learn two or three simple dishes that you like to eat, and learn how to cook them well.”

Lesley Negus, who blogs at Thrifty Lesley, recommends mastering half a dozen basics before Freshers’ Week: things like shepherd’s pie, risotto, soup and stir fry. “Once you have these under your belt, you can include all types of bits and pieces in them, whatever is around in the communal fridge,” she explains. Helpfully, these dishes generally freeze well.

Nor should students worry about kitchen disasters. “Do you think Gordon Ramsey was born being able to perfectly cook a steak?” asks Jake. “Start off by keeping things simple but be brave to experiment and add twists. Before you know it you’ll be able to cook a handful of meals.” He suggests using a bolognese as a base and experimenting with flavours or spices. “It can be the start of hundreds of dishes.”

Kate Doran, who blogs at thelittleloaf.com and is the author of the cookbook, Homemade Memories, echoes this. “Practice makes perfect and you won’t learn anything unless you get into the kitchen and experiment,” she says. She emphasises that it’s about making cooking a shared experience with housemates. “Not only does it make mealtimes much more rewarding, it will save you money and you’re less likely to be left with waste.”

With budget usually a top priority, one important pointer is that scratch cooking will save cash and often taste better. Equally, says Miguel Barclay, author of the cookbook Super Easy One Pound Meals, it’s about avoiding short cuts. He points out that it’s cheaper to buy blocks of ungrated cheese and warns against pre-cut vegetables, while Kate suggests eating produce “in season” as it tends to reduce the price.

Saving money doesn’t have to be at the expense of taste, however. Penny Ritson, the blogger behind Penny’s Recipes, says that students should have mixed herbs, garlic and chilli in their cupboards to liven up a simple dish. And recipes should only be taken as guidelines. “You don’t have to follow it to the letter. If you don’t have all the spices, use chilli and garlic. It will still taste good!”

For the best savings, thinking about meals ahead of time is vital, as this allows for overlapping ingredients. Students should write a weekly meal plan, then work out their shopping list to stay focused on purchasing the necessities.

Importantly, they shouldn’t just mirror the shopping habits of their parents; buying for one is different than for a family. “If you can, shop locally. Weekend farmers’ markets are great for bargains,” says Sarah. Likewise, Miguel warns that “small local supermarkets are more expensive than the same out of town supermarkets” and advises students to compare prices between them.

Even in the supermarkets, there are bargains to be had. Miguel points to own brand substitutes, while Sarah suggests shopping around to determine the best time to pick up discounted fresh food. “It can be as early as 1.30pm in Sainsbury’s,” she reveals, and Jake notes that this can be particularly helpful for buying meat.

Cheap doesn’t have to equate to unhealthy, either – even clean eating is feasible on a student budget. “There’s a myth that healthy food is more expensive,” says Jake, adding that for those who do their homework, it doesn’t have to be, whether it’s switching meat for cheaper protein like eggs or nuts, or browsing the freezer aisle. “Things like frozen fish and frozen veg can be much cheaper than the fresh versions and in some cases fresher.”

To cut costs, Lesley advises “packing in those veg”. She has a recipe for vegetable hummus that is “full of veg and wonderful on toast” that works out at just 20p per 100g. Going fully vegetarian – or at least cutting back on meat – could save even more. Penny reiterates this, advising students to “get to know how to cook lentils, chick peas and other pulses,” as they can be substituted for mince, or used in curries.

Eschewing meat isn’t vital, however. As Lesley points out, stretch a free-range chicken and you can get 28 portions. But it could just mean eating less but better-quality meat. “Talk to your local butcher or fishmonger about less expensive cuts,” Kate advises.

Either way, students should get to grips with how to make meals go further – Miguel points out that you can bulk out many dishes with rice or pasta. “Learn to make risottos and pastas to use up small amounts of leftovers,” he says.

There’s room for treats in the student repertoire too – fuel for those 3am essay crises – and they don’t have to cost the earth. “Get to grips with a few sweet recipes,” suggests Sarah, who has super simple recipes for Nutella brownies or Oreo fudge. “You could bake them with your eyes closed.” Lesley’s raisin pancakes, meanwhile, cost just eight pence each.

Another tip is to avoid the takeaway temptation – by making pizzas or Indian and Thai dishes from scratch. “Not only will you save money, but you can control how much fat and sugar goes in, and they’re not complicated,” says Sarah. “Get your friends involved and it’s a fun night in, rather than haemorrhaging unnecessary cash at the end of a night out.”

Ultimately, student cooking doesn’t have to be complicated. “It takes work,” says Jake. “However, once you’re in a groove it can become an easy routine. You’ll reap the rewards in the long run.”

As for nervous parents, sending their offspring out of the nest for the first time, it’s worth using the run-up to their departure to teach them to make a few family favourites. And Penny suggests starting them off on a good note, stocked up with some packets of pasta and rice, commonly used herbs and spices, a few tins such as chopped tomatoes, and some frozen vegetables.

Ideally, these ingredients won’t be entirely new to them – and they won’t stay in the box through the entire autumn term. And if they do, there’s always Christmas dinner for students to look forward to. Or maybe they’ll be offering to cook the festive meal themselves...

Find Your Local