Cooking for Students: A Beginners’ Guide : Part 1 – Equipment, Ingredients and Basic Meals

This is a guide for new students on some of the basics of how to cook tasty, nutritious meals on a budget.

When I had to take a year off from Oxford, there was a period of a few months where my budget was £280 per month. Of that £280, £160 went on rent (I was renting a room in a cheap city in N.Ireland), which left me with only £120 for everything else. I tried to restrict my food budget to £10 per week. I would not recommend trying to do this if you can afford to budget a bit more (£20-£30 p/w should be enough for an individual), but the experience taught me a lot about resourcefulness, and making the most of limited ingredients. So here goes: my advice for cooking on a limited budget.

Equipment

Any cooking requires you to have access to some equipment. Here is what I consider to be the absolute minimum:

– large pot (with a lid if possible)
– sharp knife
– chopping board

If you have a restricted budget, I would acquire these three items in the first instance and then try to buy other items cumulatively over time. Useful equipment for budget cooking includes:

– second pot
– frying pan
– measuring jug & cup
– grater
– rolling pin

As a student, unfortunately a lot of the equipment and gadgets I would like to buy (such as a food processor) are out of my budget. Nevertheless, I am still able to cook nearly all  of my meals and am able to eat well.

Ingredients

If you are on a limited budget, the secret to cooking nutritious food is to include one of each food group in each meal: fruit and veg, protein, carbohydrates, fat and sugar while using cheap, easy to find ingredients. A simple and nutritious meal can be made using ingredients from each of these categories, and leftovers can be refrigerated and eaten the next day, or frozen to eat later. Obviously, buying all of what follows would be reasonably expensive: my advice would be to buy the items emboldened below on your first shop, and build up your store cupboard in subsequent weeks with the rest (depending on what you like!)

Protein

Red lentils
Chickpeas
Kidney beans
Green lentils
Butter beans
Turkey
Chicken
Eggs

Vegetables

Onions
Garlic
Carrots
Leeks
Peppers
Tomatoes
Aubergine
Squash

Carbohydrates

Potato
Sweet Potato
Rice
Breads 

Sugar

Oranges
Grapes
Chocolate

Fat

Vegetable oil
Olive oil
Margarine
Butter
Ghee
Coconut oil
Coconut milk
Yoghurt

The next ingredient in making a tasty stew is flavour. For this you can pick up spices and herbs as your budget allows. Reliable combinations include turmeric, cumin and coriander powder, or turmeric, garam masala, coriander leaf and cumin (the latter was taught to me by a good friend).

Meals

A basic stew or curry (albeit a problematic term) can be made in a formulaic manner using these kind of ingredients by following these steps:

1. Heat oil in large pot and add whole spices, if using (cinnamon sticks, bay leaves etc)
2. Add chopped onions and garlic and fry for a few minutes
3. Add any dry powdered spices and/or herbs you are using (NB – garam masala is usually added at the end)
4. Add a protein source such as lentils, chickpeas, or, if you eat meat, a cheap meat option such as turkey or chicken.
5. Add vegetables: tinned tomatoes, chopped peppers, chopped courgettes, whatever your preference.
6. Cover with water, bring to the boil and then let simmer until the ingredients are cooked. (NB – If using dried chickpeas, lentils etc, make sure to check the cooking instructions and soak the night before if necessary)
7. Return to a low heat and add natural yoghurt, coconut milk, red wine, fresh herbs, and so on, if desired.
8. Eat with a source of carbohydrate, such as toast or boiled rice.
9. If desired, have a “dessert” of a piece of fruit, yoghurt or piece of chocolate.

This formula will allow you to make a tasty, nutritious meal out of what you have available, and allows you to get started on a minimal budget without having to rush out and buy dozens of ingredients. I have also found sticking to this very useful while travelling, as it can almost always be achieved even when using the limited cooking facilities available in hostels, and doesn’t require you to hunt out particular ingredients which may be difficult to find in certain countries.

In the next parts, I will give a run down of some of my favourite, easy to make and cheap vegetarian recipes.

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