Welcome to College—Here's How to Cook

Girl In College Dorm Room

When I try to remember how I fed myself through four years of college, the best I can come up with is Cinnamon Toast Crunch, cans of chickpeas, and one particular evening when, after coming back from working in India for a summer, I prepared a curry that was so hot all my friends ate it in total silence, sweating. On a day-to-day basis, it was mostly tuna melts and late night pizza slices that sustained me. And listen: I'm here today, almost 15 years later, a grown adult with pretty normal bone density and a bachelor's degree, even though, yes, I ate many meals out of a basement vending machine.

The first thing to know about trying to cook for yourself in college or your first apartment, or whenever you start cooking for yourself regularly, is that there's no wrong way to feed yourself. Yes, there's a ton of advice out there on what you should learn, or expectations that you have to know certain skills by certain ages. Yes, I know this is sort of one of those pieces, but I promise—ignore anything that makes you feel panicky and inadequate about how you eat or cook. Do what you can to get by and get through, and it's all fine, I promise. You don't need to be cooking coq au vin before your chemistry final unless that's what you want to do. 

Cooking dinner shouldn't be complicated

But there are some pretty simple ways to get yourself started, whether that's having the right gear or having some easy recipes on hand. Here's a simple guide to how to cook for yourself in college.

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Assess Your Situation

Before you go nuts trying to recreate The Art of French Cooking, it's worth thinking about what your living situation looks like. That might sound pretty obvious, but sometimes you don't have a good idea about what your kitchen or meal plan or whatever else you're working with until you get there. Do you have a kitchen? If so, are you sharing it with a lot of other people, or is it just you? How about a refrigerator? How much space do you have for things like pots and pans? Do you have a dishwasher, or will you be doing your dishes by hand?

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Are you one a meal plan of any kind, or are you responsible for all your groceries and cooking? What does your budget look like? Where's the nearest grocery store? All that stuff is crucial information, and it may take you a while to piece together. That's OK. You can do a lot with a toaster oven (if you can have one), a rice cooker, and a mini fridge, but first figure out what your life is going to look like, and how much time and resources you can commit to cooking at all. 

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Get a Few Pieces of Essential Gear

Let's assume that at this point you own very little cookware. That's overwhelming because, dang, there's so much out there you could obtain, from butcher blocks to sous vide machines to chef's knives. There's a sea of stylish ceramics and specailty fruit knives out there. You don't need them. Grab some essential cooking tools: a chef's knife, a cutting board, some mixing bowls, a pot and a pan. Get them cheaply, either from the internet or from a restaurant supply store. Plenty of fancy restaurant kitchens turn out unbelievable food on very cheap pans. Don't spend a lot here, just grab some functional things and assume that they're probably going to be slowly destroyed, and that's OK.

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You can upgrade as you get a feel for what works for you in the kitchen, and as you have the money for it. An electric kettle is great for making tea or ramen, but if you can't afford one or don't have one, heating water in a pot works fine. Don't overextend yourself at the beginning. It's easier to master using a few tools and build onto it. 

Watch: 8 Knife Skills Every Beginner Cook Should Know

Make a Basic Plan and a Budget

Figuring out how much money you have to go towards food and groceries every month, or every week, will help you a lot. If you have a meal plan, in whatever capacity, you can use it to your advantage. You can make hard-boiled eggs into egg salad later, and repurpose leftovers into another quick meal. If you don't have a cafeteria or a cafeteria plan, think about the things you like to eat and what your nutritional needs are. There's no sense buying a ton of aspirational vegetables and letting them rot in the fridge if what you have the capacity for is mac and cheese with a tomato cut into it. Fruit and vegetables are good, for sure, but you don't need to make a full meal from farmer's market produce unless you have the time or money. If you can throw celery into a peanut butter sandwich, that counts. If you can have a handful of baby carrots, that counts too. Be as realistic as you can, and adjust as you go.

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Kitchen Burn

Figure Out How to Make Something You Love Eating

I often think that when people start cooking, they get discouraged because they're making meals they should like and not what they do like. Cooking for yourself isn't always a joy, but it sure can be, and accessing joy and curiosity in your cooking is something that will help turn it from a scary chore into something you enjoy, even just a little. Write down what you like to eat. It seems like a silly exercise, but it's not. Maybe you love burgers. Great! There are all kinds of recipes for how to make a simple, delicious hamburger. Find one—read it all the way through to make sure you have the gear and time it requires—and go for it. Ditto if you love fried rice or noodles or eggs. Make sometihnig you know you like eating, and make it until you have a feel for how it operates. Then make something else you love. It doesn't have to be a whole turkey, it can be something like a very good BLT, say, or a nice piece of fish. Ambition is great, and getting it wrong is also OK. If you need to resort to a back-up jar of peanut butter and crackers, chalk it up to experience and try again when you can. 

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If You Have A Question, Ask

Even seasoned home cooks and high-end chefs need to look up things. If there's an ingredient you're not sure about, or a technique you don't know, look it up. No knife skills? Why look, there's an article for that. Don't feel like you have to muddle through without stopping to Google things. The internet has a lot of great resources. Calling a friend is good, too! Don't feel embarrassed if you don't just intrinsically know how to core a cabbage or hull a strawberry. No one was born knowing how to cook. Ask. 


Have Some Easy Meal Recipes In Your Back Pocket

No matter your intentions and plans, there are going to be days where it all falls apart. It's helpful to have a little mental library of basic recipes and techniques for times like these. There are instant ramen hacks you can make, and grilled cheese you can make with an iron, and heck, boxed mac and cheese too. There are salads that are just a can of beans, olive oil, Parmesan, and some hope. have a few helpful collections of easy, filling meals tucked away for when your mind goes blank.  And also if the answer is fast food or pizza or a deli sandwich look, that's the answer. There's nothing in the world wrong with it. Be gentle with yourself as you learn, whether that's in school or in cooking. You can do this. 

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