Chew on this: 3 easy tips to up your college cooking game

A Girl in green sips a bowl of steaming ramen.
(Yasmin Elqutami • The Student Life)

Staying at the 5Cs? Tired of dining hall food and sack lunches? Cooking with limited resources may seem difficult, but it can be a rewarding process. Regardless of your skill level, here are three tips to make cooking from your dorm simple and fun. 

Tip 1: Upgrade your meals

Instant ramen, mac and cheese and microwave meals are considered college student staples, and I’m exactly the type of person who hoards Nongshim ramen and Annie’s mac and cheese in my room. But as much as I love a steaming bowl of soupy ramen or macaroni, it gets boring if you make it the same way every time. So spice up your meals with these tasty tips! 

An easy and nutritious way to level up a pack of ramen is to simply add vegetables. Greens like spinach, bok choy and arugula add in a nice freshness. Stores like Target, Trader Joe’s and Vons also sell frozen vegetables such as carrots and peas. Simply cook or heat them up with your meal — you’ll appreciate the difference.

My personal favorite upgrade is adding bok choy, mushrooms and an egg to ramen noodles. If the ramen broth is spicy, I sometimes splash in a little full-fat coconut milk to imitate a laksa (a type of curry noodle soup) taste.

If you’re feeling fancy, buy some bacon crumbles and mix it into your mac and cheese, which will add a nice, salty crunch. If you’re feeling daring, go and collect some spices at Hoch-Shanahan Dining Commons’ spice bar before it closes and create some spicy concoctions. Bon appétit!

Tip 2: Find your inspiration

This tip comes from Kimia Mahdavi SC ’21, who cooks for herself in her off-campus housing. To quote Chef Gusteau from Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” she believes that anyone can cook. “It just takes practice, patience and believing in yourself,” she said.

Mahdavi finds her inspiration for meals through apps like Pinterest and Instagram. Currently, she has over 100 recipes saved. She recommends starting off simple, but also encourages others to not be afraid to try new things.

“There are so many wonderful recipes that take a few easy steps and require about five ingredients,” she said.

Like any skill, it takes time and practice to improve your cooking. If something doesn’t work on your first try, that’s normal. Just look at Chef Linguini from “Ratatouille.” I’m not suggesting that you befriend a rat, but you improve by learning from your mistakes. For example, the first time I made risotto, it was undercooked and bland. But after practice, I figured out the perfect ratio with my ingredients. 

Mahdavi remembers the first time she made one of her current go-to meals, a creamy vegan pasta.

“I will never forget, it took me half an hour just for the sauce,” she said. Now? The recipe takes her five minutes. 

Tip 3: Get creative with meal prep 

Meal prep is a great method to plan and prepare meals ahead of time. This can seem daunting at first glance, but it can actually be quite simple if you have a plan. One key tip: If you’re looking to meal prep, it’s best to have some tupperware (or your greenbox) handy.

My biggest suggestion is to cut up everything beforehand. This may seem time-consuming, but it saves so much time later. You can also make this process more fun by bopping to your favorite tunes as you prep everything — Lizzo, Queen and Frank Sinatra make up my soundtrack of choice as I cook up a storm.

While I was abroad in London, I mainly made egg scrambles, stir-fry, curries and pasta. The vegetables I found that went well with everything were bell peppers, onion, spinach and mushrooms. 

I would also chop up vegetables differently. For example, I would do a mixture of julienne, dices and diagonal cuts. Having different textures keeps your meal interesting. It also affects flavor because your vegetables will have varying surface areas — some vegetables get a nice char while others remain juicy.  

If you’re the type of person that gets sick of eating the same thing every week, fear not. There are so many ways to alter a meal. For example, you can add some tomato paste and sugar to your stir-fry, which will provide a new sweet and sour taste.

“Cooking for myself allows me to indulge in all the food that I love to eat, while making sure I am treating my body with the respect it deserves,” Mahdavi said. 

While there’s nothing wrong with staying simple, cooking for yourself is also an opportunity to be daring and innovative with your ingredients. So go out there and explore — just try not to burn down the kitchen.

Stephanie Du SC ’21 is TSL’s science and food columnist. She is a biology major and aspires to work in healthcare. Her hobbies include cooking, traveling and eating all kinds of foods. 

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