For many college students, the hardest part about cooking regularly is getting started. Fear of the unknown keeps them from saving money (up to $1,260 per semester) and eating healthier on a regular basis.
Here are 15 beginner college student cooking tips that’ll help students overcome this fear and get started.
1. Emphasize Cooking Safety
College is a funny place to learn how to cook, especially if you or your roommates like to party or leave the common area messy. Still, as a beginner cook, there are some safety techniques you’ll want to adopt when starting out.
- Always wash your hands
- Don’t leave food unattended
- Clean surfaces thoroughly after cooking (to ensure grease, which can catch fire, doesn’t accumulate on your stove)
- Clean your tools and storage containers thoroughly between uses
- Avoid eating certain undercooked foods (i.e. chicken, seafood)
These are the bare bones. Failure to follow these could result in you or your roommates getting sick, or an accidental cooking fire.
2. Don’t Fear Cheaper Cuts of Meat
If you eat meat, the cheaper cuts will save you money in college as you learn to cook. In some cases, they offer better nutritional benefits. (Dark meat chicken, for example, has more minerals and B vitamins in it than white breast meat.)
Tasty, affordable cuts of meat include:
- Whole chicken and whole turkey
- Bone-in chicken thighs
- Chicken drumsticks
- Pork ribs
- Pork shoulder
- Chuck steak
- Hangar steak
Your CrockPot or Instant Pot can make meal prepping any of these items a breeze. Many can be prepared as a one-dish meal in the oven, too.
3. Use Healthier Cooking Oils
Ditch the canola and vegetable oil. Both are linked to increased inflammation in the body, and canola oil can even contain trace amounts of trans fat.
They cost a little more, but along with the foods college students should be eating, cooking with extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil are your best bets. Each offers heart healthy benefits, and they can each be used for different cooking purposes. For example, EVOO is great for homemade salad dressings. Coconut oil has a higher smoke point, meaning it stands up to high heat without burning, and works great for stir fries and other hot pan dishes.
4. Use Parchment Paper for Easy Cleanup
Some college students hesitate to cook in their dorm because of the mess it makes. Parchment paper eliminates that issue.
Line baking dishes with a sheet of parchment paper before loading veggies, meat, or whatever you’re cooking onto it. When you’re done, simply crumble up the paper and put it in the trash. Your baking dish might need a light rinse, but that’s it.
You can also wrap chicken, salmon, and pork chops in parchment paper. This helps steam it, which cooks it faster. Simply toss it when you’re done.
200 pieces of baking-dish-sized parchment paper costs under $15. If you meal prep twice a week, you’ll only need to buy once roll of paper per year.
5. Clean Up As You Go
College cooking cleanup is much easier when you do it as you go. Instead of waiting until the sink is full of dishes, tackle each item individually along the way. If counter space is limited in your dorm, put some paper towels or a dish rag nearby to dry and store things as you go. Mentally, this makes the process of cooking in college much less stressful.
6. Freeze Soups/Stews for Low Cost Meal prep
Soups and stews make bulk meal prep a reality for even the least motivated college chef. A simple chili or chicken noodle soup recipe can yield eight to 12 meals easily, not to mention drop your per-meal dollar cost average down significantly.
Assuming your college freezer isn’t huge (and you’re sharing it with at least one other person), space could be an issue. Putting leftovers in freezer bags and removing all the air from them is space-effective and cheap. Gallon-sized freezer bags cost under $.17 each. Just make sure you cool the food before putting it in bags.
7. One Base Salad Per Week Makes Cooking In College Easy
As far as healthy college student cooking tips go, here’s one that’ll save you money, too. Make one giant salad each week, store it in the fridge, then aim to eat one salad each day.
Salad lasts up to five days in the fridge. The key to preserving it is to make sure your lettuce isn’t overly damp when you put it in the bowl. A low-cost salad spinner alleviates this issue, or you can just use paper towels to dry it before chopping.
A lock-and-seal salad bowl for the fridge to store your bulk salad is your best bet for storage, assuming there’s enough room. The option linked comes with a draining tray, which makes it easy to add dressing and eat right out of the bowl if you choose.
If fridge space is an issue, try making one bulk deconstructed salad and storing each ingredient in individual freezer bags, then toss it all together when it’s time to eat.
8. Invest In a Good Chef’s Knife
If you’re going to invest in one thing for cooking in college, make it your chef’s knife. A good knife makes all aspects of cooking—chopping veggies, cutting meat, slicing bread, etc.—easier.
More importantly, it also makes cooking safer. A dull knife is actually more dangerous than a sharp one. Extra pressure is required when a knife’s edge gets dull, increasing the odds that your knife will slip.
Here are two affordable knives for college students to consider:
A $10 knife sharpener will complement your investment. If you don’t want to buy one, see if your parents have a whetstone or knife sharpener at home you can use. Your knife should be sharpened at least once a month. Here’s how to sharpen your knife (4-min video) with the model mentioned above.
9. Follow Food Instagram Accounts for Inspiration
To keep things interesting, try making new dishes from time to time. Find social media accounts that make food you could actually see yourself making, then cherry pick those recipes.
I’ll have a free College Cooking Essentials Guide with 50+ recipes written in early 2022, if you’re interested.
10. Stretch Your Current Abilities
Cooking is supposed to be fun. One way to make it enjoyable is to challenge yourself. Maybe learning how to make Irish Soda Bread for the first time during final exams isn’t advisable. But when you have some free time, why not?
Some ideas include:
- Learning how to bake an easy loaf of bread
- Cooking a new ethnic dish you’ve never tried before
- Making a plant-based or vegan meal, even if you eat meat
- Making breakfast for dinner
Have fun with it!
11. Invest In Good Spices
Salt and pepper should be staples of your college dorm kitchen, but you’ll want others to round it out. Fresh spices make food taste better, as well as make the cooking experience more rewarding.
Along with salt and pepper, I recommend the following spices for any beginner college chef:
- Ground cumin seed
- Chili powder
- Sweet or hot paprika
- Garlic powder
- Onion powder
- Ground ginger
Kamenstein makes this 16-spice rack for under $35 that comes with five years of free refills. Pretty sweet offer, if you ask me.
12. Greek Yogurt Is Good to Have Around
Another tip for the healthy crowd: greek yogurt is a healthy sub you can use in a ton of dishes. If you’re baking, greek yogurt is a protein-packed alternative that helps activate baking powder to make your dough firm and moist. It’s also a healthy sub for sour cream and other dairy products.
Plus, mixed with berries and granola, it’s a simple, tasty breakfast for days when you have early classes.
13. Avoid Overcrowding Your Pan/Baking Dish
Choosing to bulk meal prep is definitely an advantage, but avoid bulk cooking at the expense of dish/pan space. A crowded pan results in uneven cooking, excess moisture (this will steam your food instead of browning it), and adds time to the cooking process.
For baking, a 3-piece ceramic casserole dish will give you plenty of space to cook a week’s worth of food. I prefer ceramic to glass because it takes longer to heat up than metal, resulting in more even cooking. (Be sure you read the next tip before investing in ceramic.)
14. Keep Your Oven Mitts Dry
When oven mitts get wet, heat passes through them quickly and can lead to scald burns on your skin. Never, ever use wet oven mitts to remove a hot pan from the stove or out of the oven. I’m a big fan of Silicone oven mitts that have a grip and cover your whole hand for safety purposes.
15. Go Off-Recipe Sometime (And Don’t Worry If You Mess Up)
Maybe it sounds rah-rah to you, but screwing up sometimes when you’re learning how to cook is okay. Wasting food is annoying, especially if you’re on a budget, but you’ll learn how to cook in college faster if you give yourself some leeway to error. In my experience, you’ll also enjoy the process more as you develop your craft.