The student kitchen

guitar4It’s getting a nip in the air in the morning and at the University where I work workmen are frantically trying to finish off new buildings, groundsmen are sprucing up the campus, new signs are going up, early international students are looking lost and staring at maps and . It can only mean one thing; it’s fresher’s week soon.

This year it’s different for me… I’ve worked in this Uni for 14 year, and at a previous Uni for 3 years before that, seeing many new students arrive. Of course a long time ago I was a student myself (very freshfaced and completely clueless). This year though, my twin sons are going to be freshers themselves. Yes, that’s two disappearing all at once and no, don’t ask me if I’m coping…

It’s not about me though – it’s about them getting the fun and opportunities they deserve and of course I’m immensely proud of them and I want them to have an amazing time. Being someone who does like to over prepare (not just lists, but lists of lists!) I’ve got a good handle on what they need for a basic kitchen in their first year of Uni. Both can cook, thankfully, but their ‘Red Cross parcel’ had to account for the fact that they’re probably going to do the basics and only occasionally cook something complex (one is in part-catered halls, the other is in self catering).

So this post is an ode to my sons and to all new students. It’s not ‘cooking 101’ – there’s enough of that availabel already. This is advice on your basic kitchen kit, your basic food cupboard and some tricks and hints for buying/eating/preparing cleverly on a student budget.

Good luck, have fun, be safe and eat healthy at least sometimes.

guitar3

First week treat

I know you’re going to be drinking enough and its possibly not great advocating more alcohol, but I’ve packed my lads off with a bottle of drink with the purpose of it being a way to help break the ice with the other students in their apartment. A bottle or two of Prosecco, a bottle of posh gin like Brockmans or Sipsmiths with some tonic or Barcardi with some diet coke for instance (or whatever their tipple of choice is). They can toast themselves for getting to Uni in one piece as well as introducing themselves.

Equipment basics – assuming self catering

  • Medium – large deep fry pan which can double as a wok or saute pan. Ideally with lid. Non-stick preferably. Perfect for stir-fries, Bolognese, chill, curries, stews etc. Don’t go too cheap with these as the non-stick isn’t that non-stick and frankly who wants to be eating bits of Teflon in their food? I purchased some reasonably for my sons from TK Maxx
  • Medium saucepan, preferably with lid, solid base and you don’t need non-stick. Go for one with an insulated handle (saves getting burnt or setting fire to a tea towel on the hob). For everything from soup, to peas, to boiling an egg, to rice and pasta, to packet noodles. These you can get anywhere, but beware of those with the bottom of the saucepan as thin as the sides: you need a thicker, heavier base or your food is likely to catch and burn as it will not distribute the heat well. Again, I bought saucepans from TK Maxx, as actually they have such an array of makes and sizes you can get the perfect one for you. I’ve suggested getting one with a long insulated handle, but you may prefer one with two shorter handles: entirely your preference
  • Additionally, you may want a small non-stick shallow fry-pan for a single-serving omelette, fried eggs, mushrooms etc. See notes about the larger saute pan above and the false economy of buying too cheaply
  • Medium/large-sized baking tray. For bacon or baking potatoes etc and large enough so a medium pizza can be put on it too (no need for a separate pizza tray then). The cheap ones buckle in the oven, but frankly it doesn’t stop them working (it’s only a problem if you want to make something that needs to level out, like a sponge: I’m sure you’re probably not going to be making those. If you are, then buy a rugged expensive one)
  • Wooden spatula, or two…
  • Sieve. or better yet a colander with ‘feet’. Get to a market stall for little bits and pieces like this and don’t buy too small a sieve as it’s easier to balance or stand one in the sink for draining and to balance over your saucepan
  • Can opener and bottle opener (a waiter’s friend is ideal)
  • Tongs or slotted ladle
  • Large spoon/solid ladle
  • Click-lock storage box for fridge or freezer storage of left overs
  • 1/2 cup measure or mark a real cup in permanent marker where 1/2 cup measure sits – a half cup is the perfect size for a single serving of dried rice for cooking up
  • Cutting board, ideally two if you’re a carnivore – one specifically for meat (or at least mark one side of the board for meat only)
  • Sharp, mid sized chefs knife. Possibly also a bread knife if you think you’ll be eating a lot of bread. A mid-sized chefs knife is versatile enough for all your jobs (you can always get a small veg and a larger chefs knife later)
  • Tea towels. They dry (! yes, you will have to wash up eventually) and are a replacement for oven gloves when folded over
  • Cheese grater. What student isn’t going to eat cheese on toast?
  • Plastic bowl – might be useful for mixing up omeletttes etc, but you can just do it in your saucepan and save on the washing up
  • Stuff to eat and drink out of/on: don’t forget a plate, a bowl, a mug, a glass/beaker and cutlery at the bare minimum. You can get all these incredibly cheaply from a second hand store, raiding your parents’ cupboards, pound shops or if you want something a little nicer, then it’s still affordable at Ikea, Tiger, market stalls and supermarkets.

Ingredients

  • Salt – the cheap, fine stuff in a big pack will do (you maybe want to cut down on salt intake, but you’ll still need quite a lot for putting in with pasta, rice and similar). You can always go for LoSalt, but this is a little dearer and it’s difficult to cut out salt completely
  • Pepper, although actually you can get away without pepper if you’re not that fond of it and are cooking basic foods: I find I reach for paprika more than pepper as a seasoning
  • Paprika, onion granules, garlic granules, dried chillies/piri piri seasoning – these all make great additions to flavour your food and all are also good when sprinkled on food afterwards. (I recommend you don’t get garlic ‘salt’ or garlic ‘powder’, these just don’t go on the same, don’t have the same texture and you don’t need additional salt). You can buy these in larger packs from the world food aisle or an Asian or Middle-Eastern supermarket, however you’ll find these in most supermarkets in own-label or Schwarz jars. (You might expect me to suggest some dried herbs here, but I think you can get away without them)
  • Stock cubes. You can get these cheap – for instance we’ve bought a pack of 16 for £1 in Lidl (Sept 2018). Go for your preference of beef, chicken or veg (or even get one of each!). Crumble a stock cube into an instant noodle pack, enliven your large dishes like Bolognese or curry or crush and sprinkle over the top of your meal as seasoning instead of additional salt and pepper
  • Soy sauce, sriracha, Worcester sauce, Tabasco – your favourite to enliven your dishes
  • Tomato, brown, HP or hoisin – your choice of favourite condiment, but these are thickened sauces so are also useful in dishes to flavour and to thicken them slightly
  • A jar of your preference of Vegemite, Marmite or Bovril. They replace stock cubes, go on toast, pep up a cheese sandwich and make a great hot drink
  • Tinned tomatoes: you can buy tins of chopped tomatoes, but these are a few pence more and you can chop them yourself easily enough. A great thing to make with tinned tomatoes is a cheap soup: add in a tablespoon of curry paste or seasoning. Check the world food aisle as often a tin of tomatoes from there is a few pence less than even the plain supermarket brand from the tinned veg aisle
  • Rice – get a giant bag from the world food aisle or a local Chinese supermarket. Basmati/long grain is the most versatile. A 5kg bag can be anything from about £4 – £10 so shop about. Once person will get about 30 – 35 meals out of this bag
  • Pasta – again, you can buy a giant 5kg bag for about £3
  • Porridge oats. Please don’t buy the branded ones, these are extortionate and are no different whatsoever. Even worse are those single pots! Over a £1 for about 5p’s worth of oats – what a rip-off. Every supermarket will sell a plain, unbranded large bag for about 70p
  • Coffee creamer. Yes, even if you don’t drink coffee. This is a great milk substitute. If you run out of milk you can make your porridge (for example) with water and stir in a few spoonfuls instead. It also thickens instant hot chocolate, creamy curries/cheesy sauces etc
  • Sugar or low-sugar substitute, unless of course you’re sure you don’t need it for cereal or tea/coffee
  • Tea bags/coffee/squash
  • Oil – rapeseed or a ‘standard’ olive oil will do for a variety of jobs and both keep well (even a basic [non-virgin] olive oil isn’t that expensive and will last). Also look at the cheap “Vegetable oils”: many will say the ingredient is rapeseed oil anyway and so it will be a fraction of the price of the bottle that is actually labelled up as rapeseed

herbs

Affordable store cupboard treats

  • Instant hot chocolate – you can get budget brands. They only need water so don’t use up costly milk, plus if you bought coffee creamer this will thicken it and make it milkier. They may be a few quid, but it’s a treat when you need something comforting so should last you
  • Choc spread, again you don’t have to go for the usual brands, the cheaper supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi do nice tasting ones. A pick-me-up, just don’t live off it please, ok??
  • Dried fruit and tinned fruits – get some vitamins! Look in the baking aisle for cheaper, larger packs of dried fruit than there are in the snack or fresh fruit aisle. Also, the non-branded tins of fruit are not much different (some maybe are chopped up less, have cheaper juice or maybe aren’t quite so perfect) but they’re still good. A tin of peaches is a great treat
  • Tinned veg, or ideally frozen veg (if you have access to a freezer). Cheaper than fresh quite often and clearly it’ll last to you need it, as with fresh fruit and veg there’s a danger it’ll go off before you eat it (let’s be realistic here) and that means if you throw it away you’re throwing your money away. If you have a freezer, this is awesome, as you can take only what you need each time from a pack (with a tin, you’ll need to eat the contents within 24-48 hours)
  • Snacks – you may be worried about fat intake, living by a healthy diet gaining weight etc but your student years are the most active you’ll ever be so you can worry a bit less about these things. Do get yourself some snacky, high calorie treats as there will be times when you’re feeling a bit poorly and don’t want to go out and need some sugar, for the late night treats (especially post alcohol) and to avoid any chance of getting hangry and stressed while studying because you’ve forgotten to eat. You need to look after yourself as a student and sometimes this does mean you may need additional calories – I’m far from advocating high sugar high fat treats as a staple food group, but one or two occasionally is not going to affect you too much during such an active time in your life. It doesn’t have to be bars of chocolate or crisps: try cereal bars, dried fruits, trail mix, mixed nuts or things like Bombay mix, Japanese seaweed crackers or raw fruit bars

 

Cleaning basics – don’t forget these! With some of the kitchen items you could buy them with the others in your apartment by using a kitty of money that you put in equally:

  • Bin bags
  • Kitchen plastic drainer
  • Washing up brush, scourer pads, sponge or J-cloth wipes
  • Washing up liquid
  • Clothes wahs and conditioner – it’s actually easier to buy those 3-in-1 pods. It’s more expensive but saves time, faff and possibly you’re not going to wash stuff as often as you should (and take things home!) so a pack should last you a long time
  • Tea towels (yes I know I’ve mentioned these but you could buy together)
  • Kitchen roll
  • Anti-bac spray/anti-bac wipes, dettol, bleach
  • Toilet roll

Tricks

  • Got a freezer? buy some cheap ice cube trays and put in any excess ingredients that you don’t use in one go, like tomato puree
  • Batch cook – always freeze at least half. Convenient and cost effective. Besides, if you’re using a whole tin of one thing and a whole tin of that it’s probably too much for a single person’s meal
  • Buying bread and only want a few slices? Bread freezes well, and you can ‘peel off’ a slice or two direct from the freezer (either buy pre-sliced or cut it yourself all the way down before slicing). Then, most toasters have a defrost option, or you can leave for a while to defrost (bread doesn’t take long)
  • Baking paper is cheaper than foil usually, and can be used for most of the jobs you’d expect foil to do. Also the paper is less likely to stick to things like pizza, fish fingers etc (ever had to peel off little bits of foil from the crispy cheese edges on a pizza? This is easier). And another bargain: it can often be wiped down and dried for re-use, where foil often rips and spoils
  • Save the small plastic bags from supermarkets and the brown paper bags from the market for re-use. Both can be used to store food in for either fridge or freezer
  • Want a stock cube but run out? A spoonful of Vegemite, Marmite or Bovril is just as good
  • Double up with a room mate – no, not that way. You cook a meal big enough for both of you for two nights, reheating half the next day. On the third day they cook something and day four you reheat half of that. This means you both have three nights off in four from cooking (how cool is that?) and planning meals together is cheaper on ingredients. Imagine if there’s three of you… that’s the whole week bar one day where you get six meals having cooked only once
  • Save on electricity/washing up when cooking noodles and pasta (works best on thin stuff like spaghetti and udon): break up your noodles into your bowl and pour on boiling water. Cover the bowl with a plate or pan lid. Leave for 8-10 minutes and they should be soft and ready, no cooking apart from boiling a kettle required
  • A large spoonful of pesto makes a meal when mixed into cooked spaghetti (I know pesto isn’t ‘that’ cheap but it will make six + meals from one jar this way, just make sure you close the jar tightly and refrigerate (as they’ll spoil easily otherwise)
  • Can’t be arsed with two pans? If you’re cooking rice, pasta or noodles (or even baby potatoes for that matter) you can chop up your veg and add it to the same pan to cook together. Examples are adding frozen peas to spaghetti, a tin of sweetcorn to noodles or chopped carrot to rice. Just bear in mind that the veggies will need to cook for less time in the pasta and rice so pop them in after a couple of minutes (noodles tend to cook quicker so put the veg in straightaway)
  • Look for non-branded, cheap range foods. All supermarkets do a plain label food range now (called something like basics or essentials). These are not vastly inferior, what they’ll be is less prepared or the slightly wonkier pieces. For example, tinned cheap tomatoes will be those where the skin’s not all been taken off compared to the normal tin of toms. Also look for things like tuna pieces or chunks instead of tuna steak in tins, these are perfectly good pieces of tuna, just the broken up bits
  • Don’t buy a student recipe book: save your money. These all say the same things and this stuff can be found online. Better go read the recipe’s on Jack Monroe’s website ‘Cooking on a bootstrap’ and buy a secondhand (or request for Christmas) a proper all-round cookery book, something like Delia Smith, so you can learn the full skills and adapt a decent recipe to your budget, rather than yet more recipes for spicy beans on toast that you can guess yourself anyway
  • Buy in bulk, if you’ve got room. Multipacks of things are great to buy in bulk with room mates
  • Do not forget to buy some fresh fruit and veg as well as the cheaper frozen and tinned stuff. Buy in-season from a market stall. If you think an item seems expensive, then it’s probably been flown in from far away and so go look at an alternative. In season suggestions:
    • Spring: carrots, kale and cabbages, cauliflowers, spinach, cheap spring greens, watercress, rhubarb
    • Summer (though you may well be back home!): raddish, beetroot, courgettes, beans, peas, lettuces, onions, tomatoes, herbs, berries, early potatoes
    • Autumn: mushrooms, potatoes, squash and pumpkin (these are awesome – and will last for weeks uncut), corn on the cob, lettuces, plums, apples, soft berries and fruits
    • Winter: Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, fennel, parnsips, carrots, swede, turnips, apples, pears, kale, oranges
  • Unless you have a health condition which precludes this, bulk up on carbs. They’re cheap, filling and (even the ones that some vilify for being ‘white carbs’) are slow to release their energy. This is pasta, rice, noodles, potatoes (baked potatoes, mash, boiled salad spuds rather than chips, though they will do occasionally), bread etc. It’s tempting to buy cheap bread but it’s better to spend some more on bread than other items. See the note above about slicing and freezing. Better loaves will aid digestion, provide slow release energy and are less likely to affect IBS or other bowel problems (for instance, we thought one of my sons might be building up a gluten intolerance, but we discovered his issue was the preservatives in the cheap bread and pittas etc that they served at his school)
  • Find an Asian supermarket. Most Unis are based in or near large towns and cities and each one of those will have an Asian supermarket. These are a godsend for students (and keen cooks alike). Large bottles of soy sauce, packets of flavoured noodles, sacks of rice can all be found here usually much cheaper than anywhere else. I’ve briefed my sons to go to these for their shopping, but I’ve also given them hoisin sauce, soy sauce, rice, noodles, a tub of Thai paste, schichimi togorashi and dried chilli flakes (amongst some other things) in their ‘pack’. These shops are also good for steamers, chopsticks, utensils, dried and tinned fruit and vegetables and things like large cheap jars of pastes that will supply you for many meals
  • Equally go find other regional speciality shops, there’s bound to be at least one locally. Polish/eastern european (particularlt useful for cheap veg tins, flour, drinks etc) Indian/Pakistani (veg, fruit and spices), Turkish/Middle eastern (great veg often a hot food counter) often or West Indian supermarket (fab jerk seasoning, chilli sauces and veg – plaintain is a great strudent staple) plus all will usually have many ‘general’ items as well as unique foods. You’ll find great bargains in here and wonderful, wonderful foods to make your meals much more interesting and provide a variety of ingredients including some difficult to find normally (a good diet is one that encompasses a range of foods), plus you’re supporting local small businesses not large corporates (yay! Go stick it to the man… isn’t that a student ideal??!)
  • If you can be bothered, it’s financially worth it to make your own sandwiches or a boxed salad for lunch (did you know that reheated or cold pasta has an even lower glycaemic index than pasta you’ve just cooked? Bonus points)
  • Like using fresh ginger, turmeric and garlic? You can pop these in the freezer and grate them into your food (a bit fiddly but works), or what takes a little more prep but is easier in the long run: pre-grate/chop, then pack into ice cube trays, using a single “ice cube” straight from the freezer in your cooking (ask someone at home nicely to prep a few bags of frozen ingredients for you!)

Good luck and enjoy yourselves! If there is any advice on food, recipes or equipment that you think I can help with please leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

 

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