Updated: Mar 2, 2020
For most first time students the thought of suddenly having to make all your own meals can be daunting, but once you get to grips with how easy it can be and feel confident in the kitchen, the more enjoyable (and less pricey) it will be.
You can start saving a bucketload and showing off your skills to your friends by inviting them over for dinner parties!
Becoming a pro in the kitchen doesn't happen overnight – it takes a bit of time and patience, plus the help of the essential tips and tricks below.
1. Learn how to season food
Believe us, a good bit of seasoning can transform even the most drab and bland food into something spectacular.
If you embrace the supermarket downshift and start going for 'basics' when doing your weekly shop, a bit of seasoning can really spice up a 15p can of beans or a 12p pack of noodles.
While salt and pepper will always be your besties, it's worth working out which spices and herbs you actually like as well, as they can completely change how you cook (and eat!).
A touch of chilli powder, Cajun pepper or paprika will bring a nice kick to pretty much anything you think needs it, whereas dried oregano and basil are great for any Italian pasta dishes (we're looking at you, bolognese fiends).
Look into some nice combo spice shakers at your local supermarket too – garlic salt or even chilli, garlic and herb mixes work wonders at turning a boring dish into something super tasty.
2. Stock up on basic cupboard supplies
The more you cooking you do, the more you'll notice that a lot of recipes use the same base ingredients.
It's therefore a good idea to stock up on these, as it's a lot easier to throw together meals if you know you have the majority of the ingredients already in your cupboard. Luckily, the list of student cupboard essentials below will steer you in the right direction!
It might seem like a bit of an expense to shell out on at first, but they will last for years and save you money in the long run.
Balsamic vinegar Chutney Crushed chillis Curry paste Dry pasta Flour Herbs Honey Jalapenos Ketchup Worcestershire sauce Pre made sauces Mustard Noodles Olive oil Paprika Peppercorn Raisins Rice Salt Sardines Stir fry sauce Sesame oil Soy sauce Stock cubes Sunflower oil Tabasco Butter beans Coconut milk Tinned tomatoes
3. Learn a fail-proof tomato sauce
Learn how to make a simple but bangin' tomato sauce and you're sorted! Not only are these great for pastas, but you'll also use a base like this for Spanish-style stews, casseroles, enchiladas, Bolognese, chilli con carne and more.
Everyone has their own way of making a sauce like this using their own favourite flavours and spices. Once you have it nailed down, you can simply add whatever meat and/or veg and serve it up with whatever you fancy – couscous, rice, pasta, potatoes, you name it.
Aside from its nutritional value, it offers a bit of variety if you can switch up the ingredients you add to the sauce and it's cheap to boot! It also keeps really well in the fridge and tastes great for days afterwards (even when frozen – see point five below).
4. Suss out the best pan
Most people think they'll cook better food if they have a greater assortment of pans, but you really just need one pan... alright, maybe two pans is more realistic, but you need one good one and one cheap one.
We'd recommend getting a fairly decent quality non-stick frying pan that has a bit of depth to it and a lid (you can shop for these here).
Aside from soups, you can cook pretty much anything in a pan like this, and non-sticks are also SUPER easy to clean.
The second pan we'd recommend getting is a cheap, deeper pan for aforementioned soup-cooking plus whatever you're having with what you're cooking in your non-stick beauty (rice or potatoes, for example).
5. Make more use of your microwave
Microwaves get a bad rap. Sure, they've given birth to some unspeakable, unholy foods that you'd never indulge even during your worst hangover. But if you know what you're doing, your microwave can become a trusty ally in producing a top-class meal.
Admittedly the microwave is never going to be as good as its more esteemed kitchen neighbours at making quality food, but it does require a lot less effort to use, and leads to a lot less washing up too.
6. Start freezing food
One of the biggest kitchen controversies you're likely to encounter as a student (aside from that phantom snack thief every student house seems to have) is the battle over freezer space. This is because freezers are like a godsend for students living on a budget, as they can make your food last months longer.
A trick to avoid squabbles is to opt for freezer bags instead of boxes, as they take up way less room. You can even go as far as scooping single portions of soups, sauces or whatever else into individual bags that you can then defrost as and when you need them. Genius!
Since food doesn't tend to last long in a family home before it gets munched, there are loads of things you can freeze that you probably didn't realise you could.
7. Nail down some one-pot recipes
We're massive fans of the one-pot dinner – it's super easy, and can be divided up into different portions and eaten throughout the week. Not only this, but one-potters tend to be cheap to make and involve minimal washing up!
A google for 'one-pot recipes' online will reveal a whole other world of cheap and tasty dinners.
8. Switch to Quorn
If you've never tried Quorn before, we can confirm it's really great.
The most popular Quorn product is probably the mince, which aside from having a much lower fat content and almost as much protein as regular mince, is also much cheaper. What's more, you can keep it in the freezer for many, many moons.
As for the taste? Well, most mince recipes involve a sauce of some kind, and both meat and Quorn end up absorbing the flavour of that anyway. So while the texture is slightly different, you'll struggle to notice any real difference if you're using it in a spag bol, chilli con carne, or whatever else takes your fancy!
If you're not a mince fan, Quorn also has meat-free burgers, chicken, sausages and much more! All low in fat, high in protein, and much better for the environment than your standard meat products.
9. Pick up ideas from others
Cooking with friends and flatmates is a really good way to improve your skills in the kitchen. Sure, you might not necessarily agree with how they do things, but just seeing how other people cook and prep food is great practice and will broaden your culinary knowledge.
However, remember that your way isn't necessarily the right way in the kitchen. People can get quite defensive when their kitchen techniques are questioned, so try to be open-minded – you never know, it might be nice to try a new onion-chopping method out sometime.
Taking turns at cooking for each other in your student house is also good fun, and you can always ask for recipes of the dishes you like to help expand your own repertoire.
10. Do your food shop with mates
This one is definitely a matter of personal choice, since some people prefer to shop alone so they don't get distracted by other people's purchases (totally understandable).
The benefit of shopping with someone else, however, is that a lot of supermarkets run buy one get free offers (BOGOF), or multibuys that can generally work out much cheaper, so it can be a great money-saver if you have someone to go in with.
However, beware that sometimes supermarkets are sneaky and make it seem like you're getting a good deal, when you're not actually saving any money. Make sure you know what to look out for, and always do the maths before parting with your cash!
11. Get to grips with meal planning
Planning your meals ahead will save you an arm and a leg, and is also way better for your health. We all know how easy it is to come home exhausted from uni and resort to a cheeky takeaway.
Deciding on your meals for the week means you'll only buy exactly what you need from the supermarket. Same goes for lunches – make sure you have enough of everything to last you the week, or life will get in the way and you'll find yourself in KFC at lunch to save time.
These don't have to be boring – in fact, you could use your cooking skills to recreate your favourite restaurant meals at home for half the price.
Don't forget to factor in a few snacks too, as well as hangover-friendly saviours, because who knows when you're gonna need rescuing?
Once you've mastered the above, you'll be on your way to becoming a confident cook!
Next step is to invite the family over and show off your newly-acquired culinary skills!