The Not-So Starving Student – Cooking Independently 101

Recently I moved from living in the comforts of my parents’ home to a new home closer to school, work, and downtown Edmonton. The first week navigating the freedom of cooking my own meals has been a rocky start. Not knowing where to begin, I scrambled to purchase ingredients, eliminate ingredients (from the mold!) and finally achieving the optimal balance in the fridge inventory. For many of you who are independent cooking gurus, this one’s for you. These are the top things I wish I had known while learning to cook independently.

Plan your meals:
I made the mistake of going grocery shopping without knowing exactly what I wanted to eat the next week. The process would be less time-consuming and more enjoyable had I created a master plan. With the help of technology, there’s thousands of cooking apps on your phone, do yourself the favour of downloading one to give yourself plenty of fresh ideas. With those ideas, walk into the grocery store with confidence, find the ingredients and save yourself the headache of pondering what’s for dinner.

Pack up on condiments
Even if you had a favourite dish you swore you could eat everyday, by midweek your palate would be craving some diversity. Most students don’t have the luxury of fine dining, but you can certainly spice up your meal prep (literally) by stocking up on versatile condiments. My top picks are chilli paste (Frank’s Red Hot, Sriracha, Buffalo wing sauce), Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, garlic powder, cilantro flakes, ground cumin, paprika, ground peppercorn and Dijon mustard. Even for the amateur cook, these seasonings will make your homemade meals taste gourmet.

Portion, portion, portion
Cooking protein is often a headache for beginner cooks. They come in bulk and as a single student with the occasional roommate, the portion sizes are simply too big. When I first purchased a pack of 30 chicken breasts, I would freeze, thaw and re-freeze then re-thaw the entire package. Not only do these frequent cycles of freeze-thaw destroy the protein texture but also reduce the tenderness of the meat. Accordingly, my curry chicken no longer tasted fresh. I learned quickly that portioning was the best solution to maintaining freshness while saving time. When you first purchase your favourite protein (beef, chicken, fish, lamb) portion the protein into small packets. Now, you only need to thaw the package when you begin to cook. To kick your cooking game up a notch, try adding seasoning to each packet of protein and voila! You’ve portioned and marinated in one step.

Meals on standby
The beginning of the school year comes with a certain sense of confidence, confidence that you can budget your time from school, work, and take on extracurricular or volunteering commitments, but as the term progresses, the responsibilities are not always manageable. To ensure that you at least consume three meals a day, purchase standby meals for the inevitable exam seasons. For myself, I have a pantry full of instant mashed potatoes, heat-and-drink soup cups, and a fridge packed with yoghurt, hemp seeds, and fruits. For times when you’re struggling to self-care, these meals will save your routine. We’re not saying that the selection is healthy, but at least you’re fed.

Xin Xu is a post-graduate health-science AU student, aspiring clinician, globe-trotter, parrot-breeder and tea-connoisseur.

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