One year, when I was in college, my dorm roommate and I decided to save money by not signing up for a dining plan. Instead we each pitched in about $20 a week, and my remarkably frugal roommate found a way to stretch that to a week of meals for two. But there wasn't a lot of cooking going on. I look back at that time and laugh a bit ruefully about all the Hot Pockets and Pop-Tarts I ate, and wish I would have known a little more about making smart, cheap meals right there in my dorm room.
I was curious what else our editors and readers wish they would have known in college about cooking. Here are our thoughts — we'd love to hear yours too!
Of course, these thoughts don't just apply to college. Lots of us take an alternate path and never live in a dorm or eat in a dining hall. But you could just as well call this "11 things we wish we would have known about cooking in our twenties," or, "things I wish I would have known when I got my own place." What do you wish you would have known about cooking earlier in life?
Here are our editors' thoughts — plus quite a lot from our readers via Twitter!
1. That I could cook for myself at all!
Like I said above, I didn't realize in college that you could make poached eggs or polenta in the microwave, or that a bag of salad and some deli cooked chicken would be a much better meal than a frozen pizza. On Twitter, @cookitpretty said much the same thing: "I wish I knew how much I love it and how much I'm capable of. Would've been great to start my kitchen-ucation then!"
There's a surprising amount you can do even in ultra-limited space or on a tight budget, and college is a great time to start learning that. As @aliphin says, "I wish I knew how to cook in college! Didn't learn until a few years later. Ate too much pizza & ramen as result." Didn't we all, Alice, didn't we all.
2. Boxed baking mixes are a waste of money.
That brownie mix you made at midnight in the dorm kitchen? Not really any cheaper or easier than from-scratch brownies. And that doesn't just go for brownies; as Christine said, "I wish I had known that buying whole ingredients is cheaper than buying pre-packaged 'mixes.'"
3. There's so much more to pasta than jarred sauce.
This came up on Twitter; as @Shemkus said, "All the wonderful things to do with pasta beyond jarred sauce." Pasta — that amazing meal option — has so many more good ways to be eaten than just with jarred sauce. Fresh vegetables can be stored in the fridge, and frozen vegetables can be steamed in the microwave. Toss with pasta and garlic, or half a can of chopped tomatoes, and you have a much better dinner than the dining hall.
4. Bulk bins are an amazing way to shop.
Dorm rooms aren't exactly known for their pantry space (and neither is most off-campus housing, either). It's a lot cheaper and more efficient to shop using bulk bins, buying just a cup of rice, or a small jar of spices.
5. Basic nutrition knowledge is worth acquiring.
Emma said, "I wish I'd known some basic nutrition. I had zero idea how to feed myself and actually feel a) satisfied by what I ate (and not hungry an hour later), or b) what was really healthy and good for me." @AdamLehman says, "I wish I had know what's actually in food."
College is the perfect time to pick up some structured nutrition science; you can take an elective!
6. A few basic recipes can help enormously.
This came up a lot among our editors. In college, and just after, we wish we would have built a small, sturdy repertoire of basics. As Emma said, "I wish I'd known just a few basic recipes (how to cook fish, how to make a decent pasta dinner) that I could have fallen back on."
7. Just one smart appliance can make cooking a lot easier.
Ariel said, "I wish I had owned like ONE easy, good appliance ... like a blender for smoothies." Other appliances that can make college cooking so much better: a slow cooker, rice cooker, or water kettle.
More Dorm Basics: 10 Essential Tools for Cooking in Your Dorm Room
8. You're going to move a lot, so don't pick up gadgets or a lot of extra dishes.
This was one thing I learned shortly after college. While I was eager to set up my kitchen, I tended to pick up cheap gadgets and pretty dishware frequently, and they bogged me down as I moved from place to place over the next few years. I wish in retrospect that I would have spent the same amount of money on fewer, more high-quality tools that would have made the core of a solid, smart arsenal.
9. How to scale recipes down and cook for one.
If you're moving out on your own for the first time, this can be tough. @devinshaircut says, "How to shop and cook for one person. I came from a family of four, and I had a hard time scaling home recipes down." I know how that is; I am the oldest of eight kids, so this was tough for me! Learning a few basic recipes (and how to cook individual pieces of meat and fish) was helpful.
More on Cooking for One
1o. It's possible to grocery shop on a budget.
On Twitter, @saucypearblog says, "Eating well, or at least better than I did, could be affordable. Also the microwaveable stuff isn't really faster than cooking." Learning how to grocery shop on a budget and feed yourself well is hard! It's like advanced calculus. But again, college is a great time to start figuring that out.
More on Grocery Shopping
11. It's better to cook simply every day than only cook complicated things occasionally.
Last and definitely not least, we all wish we would have understood that cooking is less about impressing our compatriots, and more about learning how to nourish yourself every day. Also, if you just start to make small efforts in this direction, you're doing so well. As Ariel said, "I wish I hadn't been so hard on myself about food and cooking. If you're trying to eat healthy, avoiding eating the ENTIRE pizza, and being mindful of what your body really needs, then it's OK."
And, don't forget: Hot Pockets have their place, but really — aren't you glad when you branched out?