How Rachael Ray saved me from malnutrition in college

Everyone knows the typical schedule of a college student; stay out late, sleep in, and fit some classes in between. Hey, it's the reason I wanted to go to college. But what can suffer the most during this routine is your diet. Eating pizza at 3 a.m. and grabbing a cup of coffee on your way to class in the morning does not fulfill your food pyramid requirements.

Rachael Ray's 30 Minute Meals saved me from malnutrition in college. The recipes on her site are healthy, quick and most importantly, the finished product turns out the way it's supposed to. I can't tell you how many times I have looked up a recipe in a cookbook or found one online, and after attempting it, I'm left with something that doesn't even resemble or taste like the rosemary chicken or baked mosticcoli I wanted to make.

What makes Rachael Ray's recipes so successful is that each one takes just 30 minutes or less. You aren't tackling a meal that will take up most of your night. The recipes are geared toward those who aren't a whiz in the kitchen, and let's face it, many of us are cooking for the first time in college. Gone are the days of home-cooked meals and a stocked fridge courtesy of our parents, we are now faced with the daunting task of cooking for ourselves and buying our own groceries.

If you're like me and need your hand held to get started on cooking your own meals, follow along.

Getting Started:
After selecting a recipe that grabs your eye and tickles the taste buds (I recommend an easy recipe for beginning cooks, they are ranked by their difficulty level), make a list of all the ingredients you'll need from the store. This can be done quickly and on a college-friendly budget. Most of the recipes require food that you may already have, such as, salt, pepper, butter, extra virgin olive oil and flour. So first, take a look in your kitchen and take note of the recipe items you already have so you can avoid buying additional groceries. Don't forget to make sure you have the necessary cookware as well before beginning the recipe. Most require a frying pan, baking pan, or if you're really fancy, a wok.

Many students may not have any of these. I recommend purchasing a frying ban, casserole dish, mixing bowls (plastic is preferred) and measuring cups. You can buy all of these at a Walmart or another discount store. I bought my frying pan from CVS for $8 five years ago, and it has remained in good condition. You don't need to shell out $100 or more for a fancy complete set of cookware; you won't use all of them and won't find space to store them in your dorm.

Grocery Shopping:
Once you have your grocery list, it's time to shop. When possible, buy generic. I can not stress this enough. This goes for vegetables, condiments and even poultry. Buying generic can save you half the price of the name brand items. Also if the dish requires pasta, opt for the healthier whole grain option; it's shown to have three times more fiber than regular pasta, potentially aiding in weight loss.

Many recipes serve up to six people and when split between roommates or friends, can cost as little as $5 per person. This is cheaper and no doubt more nutritious than a value meal at McDonald's. It might take longer to prepare than the pre-made cheeseburger sitting on the counter, but I think it is more fun and rewarding to make a meal yourself. We all need to learn how to cook at some point, why not now?

Tip: Don't be intimidated! Some recipe names may sound more difficult than they actually are. Just imagine the bragging rights after cooking rosemary grilled chicken and wild mushroom sauce.

Substituting Ingredients:
Some recipes may require you to use ingredients you've never heard of. For example, Rachael's Macaroni and Cheese with Ham recipe says to use cavatappi pasta. I had trouble even pronouncing it, yet alone know what type of pasta it is. Instead, I used elbow macaroni, much cheaper and you can't go wrong making macaroni and cheese with macaroni pasta. And look for ways to substitute food instead of buying the pricier items. There's no need to splurge on porcini mushrooms when regular mushrooms will do just fine in the recipe.

For quick, easy and economical meals, it's hard to beat: Apricot Chicken, about $19.35 total, or about $5/person. Macaroni and Cheese with Ham, total about $13

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