7 things to know when cooking as a college student

By Claire Filaski ***

Incoming college students are always going to be berated with inquisitive questions from friends and family, but one question stands out on an annoyance level:

“Do you know how to cook?”

Do you have every recipe on the planet memorized? No, but with a sheet of instructions and a little trial and error, how hard can following a recipe be? 

Yes, careful reading and a clean kitchen will award most collegiate chefs with a decent meal. However, who constantly has recipes (and then the ingredients for said recipes) at hand?

Exactly. No one.

If most college students knew that cooking in a crummy college kitchen — and usually for one — could be far simpler than their first weeks of experimentation, they’d save plenty of money on groceries and time in the kitchen.

Instead of going in blind with the idea of “knowing how to cook,” go back to the basics. Follow along for the seven things to know when learning to cook as a college student.

Get an air fryer

Don’t wait a whole semester to hop on the air fryer bandwagon. And even then, don’t get stuck on the idea that it’s only for reheating leftovers or to crisp up frozen food. Because that’s all that college kids really eat, right?


When it comes down to it, an air fryer is essentially a miniature convection oven. Don’t get alarmed by the “fryer” part. We’re not converting your kitchen into a KFC.

Air fryers run for as low as $50 at Target or on Amazon, but when essentially three meals a day can run through the appliance, it’s undeniably worth the money. 

Instead of stressing about salmonella, use predetermined heat and time settings to cook protein to perfection, no matter if it’s fish, chicken or beef.

From there, chop up assorted vegetables and roast alongside the main part of the meal; if you’re feeling really fancy, throw on a pot of rice or couscous for a starch base.

In addition to convenience, college apartments in general tend to have overly-sensitive fire-alarms, so instead of being the culprit of a 2 a.m. evacuation, keep smoke-free meals in one contraption.

And of course, nothing hits differently like a late night batch of fried mozzarella sticks; what better way to crisp these up than an air fryer?

Don’t get bogged down on the recipes

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Too many college students begin their cooking experience convinced that they need a recipe for every meal they make.

But more often than not, coming up with what to cook is almost as dreadful as actually cooking it.

As soon as you abandon the idea of needing a recipe for every meal, cooking becomes that much more liberating.

Instead, narrow in on preferred items— prioritize having some kind of protein to dominate dinners, and then roast vegetables or cook rice/pasta on the side.

At the same time, however, if you do find a recipe of interest, try to pick one that doesn’t require obscure items like sesame oil or swiss chard— beyond this one dish, how often will these really be used?

You know what you like to eat— so start there and work outward.

Food goes bad way quicker than you would think

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This seems like it would be obvious, but when you’re the one buying the food, having to throw out whole cartons of strawberries is a punch in the gut.

Everyone knows that food goes bad, and when multiple roommates are cramming assorted groceries into one fridge (and when Chick Fil-A is right around the corner), a week will go by and suddenly the “brand new” fresh fruit has gone bad. 

It’s going to happen. At some point, the green beans that were definitely going to be cooked will have to be tossed. 

Try to make notes of everything purchased on grocery runs so each item is accounted for before it meets its maker.

Learn what day your grocery store restocks

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Sadly, it’s possible — the salmon that was bought on Sunday could go bad just a few days later on Wednesday.

In order to avoid this catastrophe, find out which day of the week your local grocery store restocks its items.

For example, Harris Teeter in downtown Charleston restocks on Mondays. That means that salmon has been sitting out all week before you purchased it on Sunday.

Knowing these restock dates provides both a structured shopping routine as well as optimum freshness in the fridge.

Keep meats in the freezer— but don’t forget to take them out in advance

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While this seems like another obvious one, it comes with important stipulations to note.

As previously discussed, keeping groceries fresh on a college budget is of paramount importance— thus, the freezer is your best friend.

Instead of betting that the chicken breasts will be cooked by Friday, preemptively put them in the freezer— it’s easier to handle defrosting than degradation.

However, safely defrosting meats is an important discussion as well.

The safest way to thaw protein is by leaving it in the refrigerator overnight, but let’s be honest— everyone’s guilty of forgetting this step.

Instead, follow these three methods to safely prep meats for cooking; leaving meat out or using hot water to thaw dangerously permits bacteria to multiply.

Make grocery lists and shop for staples

As cliché as this may seem, making a grocery list can help to satisfy college students’ No. 1 priority -saving money.

It’s so easy to enter a grocery store and walk out with a cart full of seemingly-delicious items that will likely never be eaten.

Instead, identify staples in your diet to accommodate for each meal – simple eggs or yogurt for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, proteins for dinner.

Then assemble a grocery list or follow pre-made ones to keep on task and organized while shopping.

Once in the habit of cooking frequented meals and finding what you do or don’t like, identifying staples becomes increasingly easier.

Deliver when you can’t shop in-person

Grocery-delivery services have been made popular by the pandemic, but these resources can be helpful even when not thinking from an immunocompromised perspective.

If college students could ask for three things, it’d likely be time, food, and sleep — and grocery-delivery services essentially account for all three.

Proximity to a grocery store is oftentimes a deterrent for college students when it comes to cooking, but this shouldn’t be the case.

For those students lacking a car, delivery services can be an excellent way to provide them with the groceries they need in a timely manner.

Yes, such services will require slight upcharges in terms of delivery fees and tipping, but the alternative is eating only frozen pizzas or undercooked chicken from the dining hall.

Consider collaborating with roommates for minimizing the amount of orders placed but maximizing the food output.

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