Whether you live on campus or off, in a dorm room with no kitchen or with a fully-applianced one, learning to cook regular, nutritious meals for yourself is one of the most important life skills you’ll ever learn.
It’s also a very daunting challenge if you never had to cook for yourself before and have no idea where to start.
I know I can’t be the only person out there who’s struggled with feeding herself regularly, and there are many things I wish I’d learned or thought of earlier. So, some things I’ve picked up over the last few years:
GENERAL TIPS & RESOURCES
- Prioritise nutrition by planning meal times into your schedule. This means at least breakfast, lunch and dinner!
- Eat a high-fibre breakfast. A bowl of cereal with yoghurt or milk gives me a huge boost of energy that keeps my hunger pangs away longer than anything else I’ve tried so far.
- Buy fresh, local produce wherever possible. Not only are these often cheaper, fresh fruits and veggies you don’t have to cook make for make for much healthier snacks. I cheat myself into getting my daily fruit intake by carrying an apple around and gnawing on that when I’m hungry in the middle of the day (at least, when I remember to!).
- Speaking of cheating, an easy way of getting part of your daily vegetable intake is to chop some vegetables to throw in with your uncooked rice (if you like rice, that is). Good vegetables for this purpose include squash and (baby) Shanghainese bak choy, but technically anything can do. Experiment and see what you like.
- The January issue of Student Health 101 @ UBC has a great section on basic cooking in dorms and/or apartments that is worth checking out.
COOKING IN DORMS
By ‘dorms’ here, I mean the traditional sleeping space with no attached kitchen and/or a communal kitchen with limited to no cooking facilities. Think microwave and fridge.
- Introducing my favourite appliance in first year: the Toastess electric multi-purpose pot. This magnificent little kettle doubles as a cooking pot, which allowed me to make mac ‘n’ cheese, ramen and soup. If I’d been into eggs back then, I would have boiled them. Think creatively — whatever you can cook in a regular pot can probably be done here (in smaller portions).
- For those of you who enjoy a rice-based diet and dislike cafeteria rice, it may be worth investing in a small rice cooker. You can bring back your side dishes from the caf in a reuseable container. Fancier brands like Panasonic even have special settings to make banana bread, but recipes claiming you can do this in any old rice cooker abounds on the internet. (I haven’t tried making banana bread in a regular cooker, so don’t take my word for it.)
COOKING IN A KITCHEN
You don’t have the skill or time to make meals out of whatever fresh produce happens to be selling today. Cooking for yourself for the whole week freaks you out. If this sounds like you, read on.
- Invest in a good beginners’ cookbook if you need it. The one I swear by is Starting Out by Julie Van Rosendaal, which I picked up at Book Warehouse when it was on sale. (Regular price maybe around $25.) Targeted towards college student novices in the kitchen, it explains basic cooking terminology, techniques, and different kinds of produce. The recipes I’ve tried are consistently decent and this is my go-to guide when I need to find out how many minutes it takes to cook a fish or boil pasta.
- Learn how to make a few quick, basic meals and go from there. A few things I can count on myself doing include fried rice, fried dumplings, vegetable soup, and pasta.
- Enjoy variety on the limited knowledge you have by creating a schedule for what you’ll eat each day and leave learning new recipes and/or experimentation for the weekend. Sounds pedantic, but it keeps you from worrying about what your next meal is going to be. This is also a good way of making sure you’re covering all the basic food groups in your day/week.
- Make large batches of whatever you’re cooking and freeze or refridgerate the extra portions for another time. Some people like to make enough food for the week, but do note that it is unhealthy to keep cooked food in the fridge for more than two or three days. Leftovers are also my quick and easy solution to tomorrow’s lunch.
- Once a month, I like to bake or make things I can freeze for future meals, e.g. cheese and parsley scones (to go with my soup), Chinese scallion pancakes (烙饼), leek turnovers (韭菜盒子), etc. You’ll thank yourself for planning ahead, especially during exam time. Alternatively you can just buy frozen foods — I need to stock up on dumplings and wonton soon.
- Frozen vegetables like spinach are a good alternative to fresh. Not only do you save on copious rinsing (as anyone who’s dealt with fresh spinach knows) and create space for other, less pesky vegetables in the fridge, frozen spinach is harvested closer to peak ripeness and flash-frozen then, so retains most of its nutrients (so I’m told), instead of fresh spinach which needs to be picked earlier in order to be transported to its final destination before wilting away. (Fresh local produce is obviously the best choice, but not everyone always has time to go to farmers’ markets.)
- Ask friends for tips and simple recipes they use. Take a look at the UBC Wellness Centre’s Guide to A+ Eating. Check out recipe sites and food blogs, but don’t stress if you don’t get it straight away — these are usually targeted towards people already comfortable in the kitchen. And you will be.
Got more tips? I’m always ready to hear tips on eating better!