Baked beans, pot noodle, oven chips, pasta. Pizza, cereal, toast. I’m not just randomly naming convenient comfort foods, I’m describing the diet of most of my fellow students.
Eating as a self-catered student can be tricky. I’m on a very limited budget (think £15 weekly shop maximum, and that includes all non-food items) and living in a student flat means that the last thing I want to do is spend time in the kitchen. You could probably use the counters as a microbiology experiment and don’t get me started on the washing up! Even with a cleaner five days a week I sometimes wonder how we haven’t all got food poisoning. Or Ebola.
I, however, am feeling smug because I’ve made it nine weeks into university life and I’m still cooking healthy meals from scratch for myself every day. I don’t have a years supply of baked beans and my dinners don’t consist of pasta every night. Obviously, this makes me the ultimate expert on student cooking so I’ve decided to offer up a few tips. And even if you’re not a student, these may come in handy if you’re looking to cut down on your food budget or just want to know how to cook guilt-free convenience food.
1. Ask your parents to take you shopping. (This one mainly applies to students. Unless your parents are extremely invested in you, in which case enjoy the free food!). Grocery shopping with your mother or father is the perfect way to stock up on all the expensive things you can’t afford normally. Be careful though; don’t use this as an excuse to load up on junk food. Nice cheese and fresh fruits and vegetables will go a lot further than the six chocolate bars and jumbo pack of crisps that you can finish in one Netflix marathon. Hint: ask for fresh foods. Tins and frozen foods are generally cheaper and you can stock up on those yourself.
2. Stock up on the basics. And by basics, I mean food that requires preparation and can’t just be eaten raw. I try to watch what I eat (key word: try) and I’m the sort of person who will happily snack her way through the entire fridge and half the cupboard before feeling full. This way, if I feel hungry I have to double-check that I’m not just bored, think of something to eat and then cook it. Plus, it means that I’m not spending all my money on food that will be gone two days after I buy it. I keep three types of flour, four types of sugar, pasta, rice, pitta bread, tinned tomatoes, sunflower oil, honey, peanut butter and a few fresh vegetables in my cupboards at all times. These give me plenty of options for meals without having to spend half my week planning what I’ll eat.
3. Hone your baking skills. Baking skills aren’t just limited to cake and cookies, although they’re brilliant for taking your mind off uni work for a few hours. Try your hand at bread. I had never made bread before I came to university and now I’m making a loaf every few weeks. It doesn’t last long, but it’s cheap, therapeutic, and makes a great 2am snack when you’ve just got back from the SU and are a bit peckish. I mentioned flour in the last tip: I have a big bag of stone ground wholewheat flour. I’ve worked out that I can get three large loaves out of one of these bags and the only other ingredients in the bread I make are yeast, water, salt and a dash of olive oil. I’m getting homemade, artisan bread for just a few pence. I’m winning at life here. Plus, bread freezes really well so you can shove it in the freezer and just pop a couple of slices in the toaster when you want it.
4. Go brown. I mentioned before that I’m minding my figure: white pasta and rice are two of the most fattening things you can eat. Wholewheat pasta and brown rice are far better for you, really not that expensive, and add much more texture to your food. You can also get wholewheat noodles, which take five minutes to cook and go perfectly with chilli jam. The pitta breads I always have in the cupboard (and freezer) are wholemeal and are 50p for a pack of six. Plus, wholemeal is more filling so you don’t have to eat as much to reap the benefits.
5. Don’t pass over supermarket brands. This one took some training. We are conditioned to look for the most widely-known brands, which also happen to be some of the most expensive. But if you check the bottom shelves, you’ll find the supermarket-brand versions of the same foods and guess what? They’re usually just as good, if not better than the branded stuff above. And they cost pence. Some of my best buys have been cream crackers at 24p, tinned tomatoes at 89p and milk chocolate at 30p. The milk chocolate is particularly close to my heart; it’s Tesco’s basic chocolate and it tastes like the stuff of dreams.
6. Don’t be afraid to splurge. Within reason. If there’s a luxury item I really want, and the rest of my shopping is cheap, I’ll let myself have it. In my case, this is usually ginger or dried apricots or Nutella. In one case it was a painfully expensive bottle of Voss sparkling water. I gave the sparkling water to my flatmates (that stuff is gross) and was left with a gorgeous glass bottle to experiment with my new food craze: fruit water. Fill your bottle with any combination of fruit you like (my favourite so far has been frozen mixed berries and fresh oranges) and top up with water. Leave in the fridge overnight and voilá! You have your very own bottle of fruit-flavoured water.
7. Don’t shop with friends. Unless you really, really trust them. The first few weeks at uni, I kept my grocery shop below £15. Then my best friend came to stay, we went to the supermarket to grab a few things and I wound up spending over £30. The food was all snacks, junk, and impulse buys and it lasted me a weekend. Unless you have a weekly budget planned out and a friend who isn’t afraid to point out how much you’re spending, you’ll be too distracted to actually pay attention to what you’re putting in your basket. Also, if you’re feeling at all emotional, you’ll both wind up in the junk food aisle and that is by far the biggest drain on a bank account!
8. Herbs are your friends. Keep a pot of herbs in the cupboard at all times. If you can, grow fresh herbs. It’s possible to make your own gourmet baked beans out of a tin of tomatoes, a tin of beans, an onion and a handful of whatever herbs you feel like throwing in. It also smells delicious, takes absolutely no skill or time and will have everyone else in the flat singing your culinary praises. Herbs take your basic meal to the next level without costing the earth.
9. Fall in love with stir fry. I love stir fry. You can stir fry anything. Literally anything. My dinner today featured carrots and onions stir fried in chillies, honey, sugar, wholegrain mustard, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce. If I have vegetables that need using, I’ll stir fry them. Whatever happens to be in my cupboards can go into a stir fry. All you need is a frying pan, some oil and a willingness to try such combinations as pork and cabbage with lime juice, ginger, honey and chilli jam (beyond delicious, by the way). Goes great with noodles or rice and is extra yummy when it’s been in the fridge overnight because the flavours develop beautifully.
10. Copy your favourite meals. I mentioned a homemade version of baked beans up there. Did you know it’s also possible to make an incredible version of McDonald’s chicken burger using a frozen breaded chicken breast, an iceberg lettuce leaf, two spoons of mayonnaise and a pitta bread? It’s the perfect lunch or light dinner. Look at your favourite meals and figure out a way to do them on the cheap.
11. Make sure you’re getting your nutrients. Just because I’m a student, doesn’t mean I have to give up on my diet. Carbs and fat (unsaturated fat) are easy to get hold of cheaply but protein and vitamins can be harder. Keep a supply of cheap vegetables such as carrots and peas in the fridge or freezer and make sure you buy a piece of fruit for each day of the week. Apples, bananas and oranges are some of the cheapest here and although it’s tempting to buy that punnet of raspberries, they won’t last two minutes (at least not in my hands). Protein can be found in eggs, spinach (stir fry for best results) and sardines. Yes, sardines. I only recently got into them. They’re one of the cheaper tinned fishes and they go perfectly with grilled cheese on wholemeal toast. Plus they’re full of Omega-3, which is of huge help to university students like me who aren’t sure their brains are entirely functional.
12. Find out when the supermarket discounts its food. At the end of every day, supermarkets are left with stock they need to clear. Rather than throw it all out, they tend to leave it on the reduced shelf at knockdown prices for a further few hours. This is how I can afford the odd avocado. Each supermarket will have a set time when they reduce their fresh produce, and it’s up to you to figure out when this is (usually around 6pm) and be there to take advantage of the stupidly cheap prices. Even if you can’t use the food immediately, check to see if you can freeze it and you’ll have it for later.
So there you have it: twelve tips I’ve learned from the first twelve weeks of university.No guarantees as to their reliability, but they;re what’s worked for me. Also, the pictures are terrible and I apologise.