The Ultimate Student Survival Guide – Making the most of your College Kitchen!

Kitchen Advice | September 4, 2015 | By

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September is upon us, and that means some big changes for some people!

Making the big move to college or university can be pretty scary. New surroundings, new people, and a whole lot of independence – there’s not too many who wouldn’t be intimidated! There’s a few things that can help you keep on top of atleast a few new aspects of independent life.

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I remember my move to college perfectly. 6 years ago, I jumped into the deep end and moved from my small hometown in the midlands of Ireland to (what seemed at the time to be) to study in a Conservatory of Music in the bustling city of Dublin. I came armed with a few of the basics for cooking in college – a wok (the holy grail of student cooking), some basic cutlery and utensils, plates, and not a whole lot else. If I were to do it over, there are plenty things I’d do very differently!

It’s not like you asked, but just incase you’re a little lost in your first year out of home, I’m going to share as much of the kitchen wisdom I gained in college as I can. 

And by wisdom, it’s really all based in the things I did wrong.

The many, many things.

Here’s Our Top Tips For The First-Time-Student Kitchen:

Get the Right Gear

There’s a few things that are essential to a kitchen, and a few things that are probably better off left at home (or on the store shelf!). I’m an experienced impulse buyer. I have SO many kitchen gadgets and gizmos that I literally never use. These are not things you want in your student kitchen. This goes mostly for the less experienced chefs, and those with tiny kitchens.

Although I have a tiny kitchen, and it didn’t stop me buying plenty useless kitchen gadgets.

Anyway, on to the good stuff! There’s a couple of things I couldn’t live without in the kitchen, which are essential for any student who plans on cooking for themselves. These are the key elements of your culinary armoury:

  1. A decent non-stick frying pan – This is a very important part of any kitchen. Invest in a large non-stick pan of reasonable quality that will ideally see you through your college years at the very least. This means using less oil, producing healthier meals, and easier cooking. Larger is definitely better here. A larger pan is more versatile, and can be used for making pasta sauce just as easily as for scrambled eggs.
  2. Atleast one large saucepan – Preferable you’d have a few different sizes for different job, but the large one is essential. You can use a large saucepan for poaching an egg if you have to, but you can use a small one for making a big load of soup or chilli for eating/freezing/saving the day! 
  3. A wok – When I was a student, stir fries made up about 70% of my diet. They’re quick, they’re simple, and (if you do them right) they’re healthy! If you’re just cooking for yourself, you don’t need a huge wok, a small to medium one will do fine. 
  4. The basic utensils – Here’s where we really separate the essential for the utterly useless. What you need: two spatulas (one metal and one plastic), a slotted spoon, a large serving spoon, a ladel, a grater, and a pair of metal tongs. If you venture outside this list, you need to have a think about whether you’re making a sensible investment or wasting valuable kitchen space. Sometimes it’s better to see if you miss something in the kitchen before you splurge!
  5. A decent set of knives – and learn how to use them! This didn’t even occur to me until I was taking about this piece with my best friend (and former first year flatmate) and she highlighted how useful it would have been to have a reasonable chopping knife and to actually know how to use it! You don’t need to be fast, but just having the basics will make a big difference to your food prep. Here’s a great video guide on what knives to buy, and how to use them:

Look After your Gear

I cannot stress this one enough. Laziness is not a good excuse to ruin your equipment. I learned that one the hard way. 

If you’re lucky enough to have a dishwasher in your student accommodation, please note that this is for plates, forks, and maybe the odd metal saucepan. This is NOT for anything non-stick! Dishwashers can remove the non-stick coating from pans and make them unsafe and unhealthy for cooking. Hand wash your frying pans, wok, and good knives using a sponge. Keep anything sharp and metal that could damage the surface away from your gear!

It’s not just dishwashers and sharp metals things that are out to get your gear. Your flatmates probably are too. If I had a euro for every time someone moaned about their flatmates using their stuff, breaking something, or eating their food, I’d be eating out every night. And I’m not innocent. When you arrive in college straight out of home life, it’s easy to forget that the rules have changed. You can’t just eat whatever’s in the fridge, use whatever you want, or treat things (or your flatmates) in a disrespectful way. 

After you’ve invested money in all that lovely kitchen stuff, and you’ve managed to restrain yourself in the face of dishwasher temptation, you’ve got to make sure someone else doesn’t take your your precious non-stick gear with scary sharp metal things. You’ve got two options here, both of which I’ve known people to do. You can keep your gear in your room or some other private space, or you can educate your flatmates on how to use them, should they ask to borrow them. Do this in a respectful and friendly way, and you’re on to a winner!

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Find Your Local “Produce Gems”

Every city has atleast one. For me, this was discovering a large Asian supermarket in Dublin’s city centre. 

I know as well as anyone that when you’re a student, buying good ingredients isn’t always a priority. Eventually, social life takes over and the grocery budget starts getting smaller and smaller. When this starts happening, you need to start shopping smarter. Here’s how:

  1. Coupons! Lots of supermarkets will offer club cards or loyalty cards, that come with a delivery of coupons every now and then. These are small savings, but all those small savings add up. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for good upcoming deals in various stores. Many run certain deals for a week and change them on particular days, so it’s worth knowing what stores run the best deals!
  2. Find the best place to pick up fruit and veg. For me, this was my local Asian Market. No only did they have a great range of very fresh fruit and veg, they were more affordable than most other supermarkets, and also had some really unusual options. Some will run tours of the store, showing you what everything is, with some tips on how to use them. They also have countless ready made sauces for stir-frys and curry’s, along with really affordable pantry staples and spices.
  3. Having a ‘flat kitty’ is a great way to save cash if you’re living with a group of friends. Stuff like butter, milk, bread (as well as non-food items like toilet paper and cleaning gear) will be needed by pretty much everyone, so it’s worth buying in bulk and sharing, with everyone throwing a couple of quid into the kitty every week to cover costs.

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Getting Down To Business

So, you’ve got the gear, you’ve got the ingredients, now it’s time to get your hands dirty! But what do you make?

One thing I was always sorry that I never did was learn to make my favourite family recipes that I grew up eating. I spent the first couple of years of college not knowing how to make much beyond basic pastas, stir-frys and pouring milk on cereal. And that’s no way to live. 

Of course, as well I know, the internet is a great source of recipes, but somehow it never tastes quite the same as how Mum or Dad made it. So book in some time for that cooking lesson, get in the kitchen with the chef in your life, and learn how to make some of your childhood favourites. You’ll be so so glad that you did!

In addition, some basic staples like tomato sauce for pasta and vegetable soup can be absolute life savers. You can make ahead and freeze, ready to defrost and eat on a moment’s notice. You’ll be thankful for it during those weeks when you maaaybe (not pointing any fingers) partied a little too hard and have enough moolah left for a couple of ramen noodles and a sliced pan. Picture it: you’re tired, have plenty study to do, all you need to do is pop your frozen pasta sauce in the microwave to defrost, boil the pasta, stir the sauce through and you’re ready to go!

food-lunch-meal-pastaThis could be your pasta-yielding hand!

What about some other food fanatics? I asked a few foodie friends for their tips culinary tips for first time students:

Katia over at Recession Bites suggests ‘Sharpen your knives regularly, taste your food as you go, & trust your nose!’, a great tip for newbies in the kitchen. Tasting lets you balance flavours, and avoids any nasty surprises when you sit down to your meal!  Ruth from My Life, Loves and Family suggests ‘Buy the jars of prechopped chilli and garlic. Use flavoured oils too. Very simple and will make you look like you know what you’re doing’. Flavoured oils are a personal favourite of mine, and are a great way of adding some extra flavour to your meals.

What about some advice from non-foodie friends though? It’s easy for foodies to give some advice, but what about some hindsight from those ramen-scoffing, pizza-ordering students of yesteryear. Ros from GoldenPlec.com Music News relives his initial college years, suggesting that ‘making your own curry and pasta sauce is not only cheaper but tastes better. Pre-made stuff is nasty and expensive.’ Learning to make the basics yourself, especially stuff like pasta sauces and soups, is so much better than buying the jarred and tinned stuff.

There’s no other way to say it; It’s not gonna be easy. You’re going to end up blowing your entire food budget on parties, inflatable furniture, and pointless tat, but hopefully a couple of these tips will keep you going in the kitchen department.

After all, that is the most important department. 

Getting into a habit of eating well while you’re in college will lead to better health, a fatter wallet, and a better lifestyle. Relying on processed foods will only hurt your body, bank account and waistline, so where possible learn to make basics yourself, using fresh ingredients, without all the additives! Soon enough, you’ll have all your friends popping round for cooking tips – or, more likely, to lick the bowl!

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