College students have notoriously scraped by on the sodium-drenched cliche of ramen noodles. This does not have to be your fate in your first kitchen away from home! Stock your pantry with some basic, whole foods and learn a few simple cooking techniques. Running your own kitchen is not nearly as daunting as it may appear. Here is a guide to get you started.
Most of these items can be bought at national grocery chains; some are best found at health food stores. Shopping the store brands (Safeway Select, Best Choice, 365 Everyday Value) will make a big difference in price, and using the store discount cards will help. You certainly won't have time to prepare a culinary masterpiece every night, so prepare meals with leftovers in mind and stay stocked with some quick, easy options to throw in the microwave. You'll be amazed by how much money you'll save by cooking it yourself -- at least 50%, conservatively, compared to eating fast food. Then, you can splurge on occasion for a meal out.
Rice (brown or Basmati)
Couscous (whole wheat, if available)
Grains offer an inexpensive and nutritious base for most meals. Buy them from a health food store in bulk and experiment with new grains. Discover the rich, nutty flavor of quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) or the light, sweet taste of couscous. Brown rice takes about 40 minutes to cook, so make plenty of it and use the leftovers for stir-fry with vegetables and soy sauce. Oatmeal is a hearty breakfast and cheaper than boxed cereal, without the sugar and preservatives. Add walnuts, apples and raisins to break the porridge-like monotony. Consult a chart for water ratios and cooking times.
Beans (garbanzo, black, white kidney)
Bread (100% whole wheat)
Crackers or chips
Nuts (almonds or walnuts)
Use a variety of canned beans for an inexpensive and delicious way to add protein to your diet. Roast garbanzo beans with olive oil and garlic for a crunchy accent to pasta. Make a quick burrito with black beans, rice, cheese and salsa on a tortilla.
Everyone's pantry should stock a few kinds of pasta: fettuccine, spaghetti, penne. Try Trader Joe's dried pesto tortellini for a quick and delicious fix. Drizzle with olive oil and Parmesan cheese or use a jar of marinara sauce. Throw in a few shrimp or roasted garlic, peppers, and mushrooms for a complete dinner.
Bread and tortillas will get stale and moldy if they are not eaten quickly – so get creative with your toppings on quesadillas, or try bananas and honey on your peanut butter sandwich. Nuts make a healthy on-the-go snack. Combine with dried fruit and chocolate chips for your own trail mix.
Oils and spices
Mix your own salad dressing with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and avoid expensive, pre-mixed dressings.
Vegetable oil is better for frying and sauteeing because it has a higher hot-point. Save the pricier olive oil for roasting and dashing over cooked pasta.
One bottle of soy sauce will last a long time and adds a ton of flavor to stir-fry.
Salt and pepper are a good start for a beginner cook. As recipes call for different herbs and spices, you can expand your collection.
In-season fruit (clementines, strawberries, peaches)
Fresh fruits and vegetables are an imperative to a good diet and add much needed color. Scout out a few grocery stores for the cheapest produce because prices can vary drastically on the same item. Supplement grocery stores with farmer's markets during warmer months where fresh, local treats like melons, peaches and salad greens are available at a good price. Buying produce with a certain recipe in mind helps to make sure you use it while it's still fresh.
Vegetables (broccoli, peas, corn)
Berries (strawberries, mixed)
Burgers (beef or veggie)
Steamfresh vegetables are a good alternative to fresh produce. They are cheap, already cut, come in lightly sauced varieties and you microwave them right in the bag.
Berries are good to have around for smoothies. You can also freeze those almost-overripe bananas. Add yogurt, fruit juice and frozen fruit in the blender and you have a cool morning treat. If you can find fresh chicken or fish on sale, divide it into single-serving portions and freeze it. Look for bags of frozen shrimp on sale. You can quickly sautee the shrimp in a pan and add it to pasta or a salad for a good delicious of protein.
You shouldn't rely on pizza all the time, but it is filling, delicious and effortless to cook.
Gardenburger and Morningstar Farms have a great variety of frozen meat-alternatives. Try the portabella mushroom burgers or "chicken" patties. Eggo's are cheap, but try Van's multigrain for a healthier start to your day. Microwave frozen berries to sprinkle over the top.
Set aside $10 each month to indulge in something you will truly enjoy. Your food budget will balance out if you keep the rest of your shopping cheap. Try Frontera tomatillo salsa and some good extra sharp white cheddar for a gourmet quesadilla. Get a pint of your favorite ice cream, or some fresh strawberries. Splurge on a bag of good coffee beans or organic dark chocolate. Your taste buds will thank you.
Now that your kitchen is stocked, here are a few cookbooks to spark your culinary creativity:
The I Hate To Cook Book – by Preg Bracken
Urban Pantry: Tips and Recipes for a Thrifty, Sustainable and Seasonal Kitchen -- by Amy Pennington
Poor Girl Gourmet: Eat in Style on a Bare-Bones Budget – by Amy McCoy
Everyday Food: Great Food Fast: 250 Recipes for Easy, Delicious Meals All Year Long -- by Martha Stewart Living Magazine
www.epicurious.com also has archives of recipes from various food publications. You can search by ingredient to cook with something you already have, or browse their selections of quick and easy meals.
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