Whether you’re starting university in September or returning after a year of nuggets and Subway, this is your ultimate guide to being a good student cook. I feel like I need to include a disclaimer here, I am not saying that this is the dirt-cheapest way to feed yourself whilst away from the comforts of home, but it’s certainly a guide that will help you to eat healthily on a tight budget. I’m also not claiming that this is the way to become a Michelin star chef, but you’ll find this guide helpful for creating tasty, filling and hopefully fun and creative food! I’ve created a list of dos and don’ts for beginners and those not used to not being able to raid their parents cupboards for ingredients! These tips worked for me during my first year, through a little trial and error, and if you have any of your own please leave them in the comment section, I would love to know!
- Buy tins of ingredients such as tomatoes, beans, chickpeas, lentils and other sauces. They are my store cupboard essentials and most large supermarkets stock these versatile and affordable must-haves. You can easily make three meals out of various tinned pulses and tomatoes, add your own different spices and you have a diverse rage of curries, chillies, casseroles, tagine dishes and much more.
2. Shop the reduced section. As someone who has worked for a supermarket for three years, I can tell you that there are some true bargains to be had here! Look out for significant reductions at the end of the day on high value items such as meat and fruit. Reductions rarely apply to cupboard items, so don’t waste your time looking for these. However fresh food ingredients are amongst the most popular items that I reduce. The reduced section is a magical place, but be careful not to get sucked in by items that you won’t use in time for them to go bad (freeze any meat, wrap the ends of herbs in damp kitchen roll) or go completely crazy and clear the shelf of prawn salads!
3. Go shopping with a list. If you’re a beginner in the kitchen, don’t just wait until you arrive at the shops to make your meal plans. Plan your week’s meals on a Sunday, including any snacks or lunches you need to make ahead and work out a rough budget. You don’t have to shop all in one go this way, you’ll have your meal plan so you can shop throughout the week for what you need so that fresh veggies or meat don’t spoil. Another well-spoken tip is never go shopping when you’re hungry! I’ve made this mistake many a time and it makes a big difference to the bill!
4. Invest in a good selection of herbs and spices. Having a variety of different seasonings for your bargain ingredients is a must for tasty results. If you’re heading off to university this year, then start collecting now. A pinch of paprika or cumin can intensify the flavours sometimes lost in canned veg and are well worth your money as they last a long time. My favourites are salt, pepper, smoked paprika, cumin, garam masala, thyme, rosemary, turmeric, nutmeg and cinnamon. If you’re not sure what goes with what, there are plenty of affordable spice sets out there that you can get your hands on!
- Buy brands. I can honestly say I’ve very rarely noticed a difference in quality when it really comes down to it. Of course if I had unlimited budget I would splash out on branded items for something extra special, but on a student budget there really is no excuse for going for those mission deli wraps when sainsbury’s basics will do just as well. If you really are a brand lover, try downgrading your products to, for example, a Tesco’s own product from a brand, rather than straight to an Everyday Value product and see whether you genuinely notice a difference.
2. Buy meat. Meat is expensive and one thing that I, if you choose to eat it, recommend you spend more on to ensure quality welfare. If you can’t forgo cooking meat during your time as a student, then buy the best quality you can afford and eat it once or twice a week. Another tip is to bulk out your meaty meals with pulses, add more kidney beans to a chilli and pearl barley to a beef stew. But I can also promise you that meat-free meals can leave you feeling satisfied and full!
3. Shop at just one shop. Search around for the best deals, don’t get sucked in for price reductions and offers at one shop to find that the product on it’s own is cheaper elsewhere. For (limited) selections of cans and basics like pasta, I would recommend Iceland. Iceland is also brilliant if you really fancy branded products as they are far cheaper here, the frozen veg here is great too. Aldi does a pretty good selection of fresh fruit and vegetables for really low prices, but be prepared to compromise as Aldi isn’t always consistent and you’ll often come away with more than you intended!
4. Get sucked in by deals. Every supermarket will have enticing 2 for 1 offers and price reductions that seem a real bargain at the time, but you’ll never end up using it. Before you put the product in your basket, be honest with yourself and ask: would I have bought this anyway? Do I really need this? and if not, return it to the shelf! I would recommend making the most of offers if they are store cupboard goods, as even if you won’t use them in the next week or two they won’t spoil so are worth investing in.
I hope you’ve found this guide useful, these are certainly tips that helped me through my first year so I hope you’ll find them handy too! If you have any questions then please leave them in the comment section and check out the recipe section of my blog for plenty of inspiration!