‘Don’t buy grated cheese’: student cooking tips by top chefs | Student cooking

Torri Donley

‘First, get a handful of store cupboard ingredients’ Ben Lebus is the founder of MOB Kitchen, the bestselling book and online cooking platform which helps students prepare quality meals on a budget. My dad had an Italian restaurant so I grew up around food and cooking, but when I got […]

‘First, get a handful of store cupboard ingredients’

Ben Lebus is the founder of MOB Kitchen, the bestselling book and online cooking platform which helps students prepare quality meals on a budget.

My dad had an Italian restaurant so I grew up around food and cooking, but when I got to university I quickly saw my friends didn’t share the same enthusiasm. Lots of my mates were clueless when it came to the basics in the kitchen which meant it got repetitive, with pesto pasta and bacon sarnies five nights a week.

If I could advocate one thing when you arrive, it’d be to go to a supermarket and get a handful of store cupboard ingredients to get yourself prepped. Get some nice spices, chilli flakes, smoked paprika, cumin, oregano, salt, pepper, and olive oil.

To get going it’s good to nail down the simple things, like how to cook rice. It’s affordable and you can stir it through roasted veggies, make some egg fried rice, or serve it with leftover chilli. Also learn to make pasta and some simple sauces, like tomato sauce with a couple of cloves of garlic and tins of tomatoes.

The idea of sticking to a recipe is something I try to get away from. We want to instil the mob with confidence, which means you feel you can deviate from a recipe. If a recipe calls for chilli flakes and you have powder, for example, it’s not going to make any difference.

To save money you could have a policy of sharing ingredients with people in shared accommodation – it means things are much less likely to go off. You could have the “going-off shelf”. Just whack it on there and say anyone can use it to save it going to waste.

There’s an idea that batch-cooking is boring, but I [believe] it’s exciting. You’ll get nicer dishes and flavour and it is a great way to save money. Finally, don’t go to a shop on an empty stomach. You’ll spend three more times than you should.

Miguel Barclay.
Miguel Barclay. Photograph: Dan Jones

‘Don’t buy pre-prepared food, like grated cheese or sliced carrots’

Miguel Barclay, who describes himself as more of an “anti-chef” than chef, is the author of four One Pound Meal books, as well as the successful Instagram account and Youtube channel.

When I went to university I didn’t know too much about cooking, and it was scary trying to get to grips with it for the first time. But once you’ve tackled a few recipes and they’ve come out well, your confidence goes up.

One of the first things I learned was a simple bolognese. Then I took that on to the next level to do a lasagne. Then mushroom tagliatelle – cream, mushrooms, and pasta. They were the main ones I used to cook. I thought lasagne was out of reach and too difficult for me to do, but I did it and my confidence just went sky-high after that.

One pound meals was a game I used to play. I was working in London and spending my days doing spreadsheets, so I would research ingredient prices and put them in there. It was a way of skiving off work and doing something I was really into.

One of the things I learned was not to overcomplicate recipes. Simplify them, making your life easier and making them cheaper. You don’t need garnishes and you don’t need to make the recipe your own by adding blue cheese to a lasagne. Just do it the normal way.

It’s all about having three or four recipes that you know how to cook from scratch. Then you can learn more or cycle through those. They’re a good foundation to cooking. I would recommend a simple potato curry, a bolognese and a risotto – then you can tweak them with what you’ve got.

To save money, plan meals and remember regular ingredients, such as a cheddar cheese, are fine. Don’t buy pre-prepared stuff, like grated cheese or cut up carrots. Out of town supermarkets are cheaper than local supermarkets. Cook with less meat, and throw more vegetables in there. You can bulk things out with potatoes.

Make life easy for yourself. Don’t bother peeling potatoes, just throw them in with the skin on. Take advantage of shop-bought puff pastry. Cutting corners is fine. People pre-boil potatoes, but you can just cut them smaller. It’s OK to take steps out.

Rukmini Iyer.
Rukmini Iyer. Photograph: Ula Soltys

‘You can do quite well buying ingredients in bulk’

Rukmini Iyer is an author, recipe writer and food stylist, best known for her popular and best-selling The Roasting Tin cookbook series.

I learned to cook at home, but it was moving into a student house in my third or fourth year in Edinburgh with my mates, all girls, when I really got into it. We’d take it in turns to cook things. It makes sense to pitch in together if a few of you are eating at the same time.

You can do quite well buying bulk ingredients. You can buy large bags of rice or lentils and it’ll work out a lot cheaper as your staple. You can have them with fresh vegetables that are going to be cheaper if you go to a nice corner shop.

When you’re cooking from scratch it’s quite hard to be unhealthy. My favourite was making tray bakes with vegetables, some protein, and some carbs; stick it on a tray and let the oven do the work. You’re really limiting how unhealthy it can be.

It’s good to have some staple ingredients in the house. I’d recommend cooking oil, table salt, lemons in the fridge, garlic, onions in the basket, and ginger. If you’ve got those you can season really nicely. You always want a balance in your food of acidity and salt.

If you’re experimenting in the kitchen, you can usually fix things. It’s when you panic that you have problems. Check your equipment out, get familiar with how hot your hob is going to be, and get familiar with the kit you’ve got. You’ll make fewer mistakes.

Nomalanga Nyamayaro.
Nomalanga Nyamayaro. Photograph: David Kwaw Mensah

‘Figuring out what to cook can’t be a last-minute thing’

Nomalanga Nyamayaro (Noma Creates) was a BBC Masterchef quarter finalist who has a BSc Hons degree in food and nutrition and is now a chef, inspirational speaker and lifestyle coach.

My love of cooking goes all the way back to when I was a child. Cooking food is like a love affair; it goes from your heart, to your hand, and into the spoon.

Just as we go to university to get a professional certificate, we can also learn to cook, which is an important life skill. Your body is your boss. In order for you to function at your best, you’ve got to pay attention to what you put in it.

Figuring out what to cook can’t be a last-minute thing, like last-minute revision the day before your exam. You need to think about what you’re going to eat for the week on Saturday or Sunday, to help you prepare the food.

I know what student life is like because I’m a student myself [studying a master’s in project management]. Sometimes lectures finish late, but if you’ve organised yourself you’ll have healthy options to choose from. Just cutting a quick batch of carrots and onions ahead of time can help, so when you come to cook a stir-fry everything’s ready for you.

I’m all about healthy eating on a budget. My go-to ingredients are lentils, quinoa and frozen spinach. Get in tinned tomatoes and coconut milk and you can make a variety of things. Bulk-buying is the key to shopping on a budget.

Rachel Phipps.
Rachel Phipps. Photograph: Nicole Lev

‘Cooking isn’t as stressful as it’s made out to be’

Rachel Phipps is a recent graduate and the author of popular student cookbook Student Eats: the best tried and tested recipes for students.

When I first went to university, I remember thinking I wouldn’t be able to afford to cook. I started off with a student cookbook and wrote a list of what I thought looked cheap and went from there. It was trial and error.

Cooking as a student can be tough because you often have a small kitchen. In our kitchen in student halls there were four burners on the hub. Two didn’t work and the others timed out after an hour for safety. You’re also sharing a fridge. So the key is to start simple.

When it comes to equipment, I’d say start off with as little as possible. You need a good, sharp knife, chopping boards, a saucepan, frying pan, and baking tray. Have the very basics.

Plan ahead, because then you can look at what you’re going to use and when. Making a plan will save you time and money. Start with things that are already familiar to you and that other people have cooked for you.

The biggest thing is to keep it simple and don’t be afraid to experiment. Relax if something goes wrong. Cooking isn’t as stressful as it’s made out to be.

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