Surviving independence: cooking tips for students

Going to university is an exciting step for any student. You can look forward to spending more time with your friends, the independence of living alone for the first time, hours of partying… and having to cook your own meals.

For some, the prospect of cooking your own food is a fun one, but for others who manage to burn water (an amazing feat), having to cook for yourself is scary and unappetising. There are some basic tips and tricks to follow, however, to make your first culinary expedition an exciting and successful one.

Practice before you leave home

This is important for those who do not have much experience in the kitchen. You should practice as many cooking techniques as possible before you leave home, so you at least have an idea of basic cooking methods for when you arrive at your new residence.

Ask your mother, father, sister, brother or even grandmother to teach you how to cook, and don’t be embarrassed to ask for help with basics such as boiling or frying an egg. Cooking for yourself means you are responsible for making sure the food you prepare is properly cooked, in order to avoid food poisoning.

Get a cooking kit together

Before you even start cooking, you will need the tools and appliances that make it possible. Invest in a two-plate stove, either gas or electric but make sure this is allowed in your place of residence on the university grounds. If you are living off-campus, then you may have more room for a full stove, so ask your parents or guardian for help in making this purchase.

You will also need good quality non-stick or stainless steel cookware to cook on. Both are easy to clean and provide adequate heat distribution, so it is down to personal choice when deciding upon which. The next set of tools you will need is cooking utensils, such as a spatula, tongs and a mixing spoon. Be sure that everything you buy is of good quality so they will last you throughout your university years.

Become the master or mistress of spices

Sometimes you may only be able to afford a few cans of beans or a packet of two-minute noodles, which can be unappetising. However, if you master the art of seasoning and spicing your food, you can make even beans on toast taste good. Salt and pepper are always good go-to spices; don’t be afraid to buy more exotic spices such as cayenne pepper, turmeric and chilli powder.

A touch of chilli powder or paprika can bring a nice kick to what could otherwise be a bland meal, and using herbs (fresh or dried) in pasta dishes can elevate a mac and cheese from simple to delicious. You could look into the combo shakers at your supermarkets, such as garlic and herb salt or other herb mixes.

Buy basics in bulk

As you become more accustomed to cooking, you will notice that many recipes use the same base ingredients. It is much easier to stock up on these ingredients than having to run to the store when you need something like pasta, tomatoes or onions. If you’re feeling lazy, it also helps to have these ingredients ready to put together a quick and easy meal.

Remember, however, that fresh ingredients have limited shelf life, so do not buy a kilogram of onions if you only use two a week, and be sure to keep fruit and vegetables in the fridge if necessary. Canned and dried ingredients last longer, but always check cans for rust and make sure that pastas are not in a wet or damp cupboard as this can encourage weevils and mould.

Learn a foolproof base sauce

Knowing how to make one delicious sauce can save you from ever having a bland meal. The easiest sauces to make are usually tomato-based and can be improved and changed with the addition of herbs, spices and other ingredients. You can use this tomato-based sauce for pastas, stews and even for marinating braai meat.

Everyone has a different way of making a sauce, but once you have perfected it you can use it for almost anything. Add whatever meat, veg or starch you want to your sauce and you will have a simple and delicious meal with minimal effort.

Don’t be afraid

Cooking should be an exciting learning experience, so don’t go into it feeling apprehensive. Ask for help when you need it, and once you do start creating your own dishes, you will see just how fun standing over a stove can really be. But don’t throw out the takeaway menus…. You know, just in case.

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