Cooking in College: A Beginner’s Guide

I grew up with parents who made me breakfast in the morning before school, packed my brown bag lunch and cooked me dinner. So when I came to college as a freshman, and realized what limited choices there were in the cafeteria, I freaked out. How can I cook for myself when I barely know how to boil a pot of water? It was time for me to learn how to make meals on my own, and through making a lot of burnt mac n cheese and undercooked chicken, I got down a few tricks that will help you survive dorm cooking on a tight budget.

Invest in middle-tier cookware

Chances are the pots and pans that they have in the dorms are older and lower quality, and will really inhibit whatever cooking ability you have. You’ll be in college for at least four years- why not start building your cookware collection now? Don’t go out and buy the most expensive stuff though, it will be overused and probably incorrectly used, and your money will not be well spent. Instead, check out some middle-tier cookware (try going to Target, Wal-MART, etc.) that will last you a few years and won’t make you cry if they ever do break.  

Learn spice pairings now 

One of the easiest ways to make a boring dish a little more interesting is to add some spice. Whether it’s a simple salt and pepper shake, or something hot like cayenne, spices can make a badly cooked meal taste a little bit better. Start experimenting with different combinations, and figure out what you like best with what. Don’t forget that you can make pre-made foods more flavorful too- add some oregano to your average canned tomato sauce to make spaghetti sound a little more appealing. The great news is that you won’t run out of anything super quickly, so you can gradually start building a collection.

Be able to work in small spaces

Dorm rooms aren’t the only things that are notorious for being super small- so are their kitchens. If you are ready to jump into cooking and make elaborate dishes, great- but freshman year may not be the best time. You’ll need to adjust to using barely any counter space, especially if there are other people trying to cooking at the same time! If you’re set on making a three-course meal, try calling up a friend in an apartment. You’ll thank yourself later.

Perfect a few favorites

Your first year of college will be demanding on both your school and social life. Some days it might seem that you barely have time to even eat, and the cafeteria food sounds less than appealing. By learning to cook a few of your favorite, easy dishes, you’ll have go-to meals that you can whip up whenever you want. Try making a simple version of favorites from home, or experiment with new flavors. Just keep it simple so you don’t feel overwhelmed when you cook them.

Learn to love leftovers

Next day spaghetti is not the best meal in the world, and almost everyone knows it. But when you’re finally on your own in college, you realize it’s harder to cook for one than you thought. Now the dorm fridge is full of cold, wet noodles that you just want to throw away. DON’T! There are simple and easy ways to re-purpose any leftovers. Most of the time, adding just a little water before microwaving can add moisture and help make the food a little bit tastier. You can even try creating a new dish with your leftovers- add a few new, fresh ingredients and cook away! Leftovers turn into a fast, easy and delicious meal that you’ll love.

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Kimberly Taylor

Kimberly Taylor

Kimberly Taylor is a senior at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo pursuing a degree in journalism with a concentration in public relations. At school, she enjoys her job working for the university's Academic Skills Center, taking part in social and charity events with her sorority, or just reading a book in the sunshine. Outside of school, she enjoys travel, learning to cook, catching up on her favorite TV shows and exploring her coastal college town.