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How to cook: a kitchen guide for students

Worried you’ll burn through your food budget by Thursday? Looking at a weekend of plain pasta and toast? 

Takeaways and ready meals make for quick and handy dinners, but the cost adds up and they're rarely the healthiest choices. Try these kitchen hacks, and you’ll have healthy and delicious food with cash to spare.

1. Get the basics

  • Load up your larder with tins of food that cost very little and won’t go off
  • Pasta and rice are your cupboard staples, quick and easy to cook and won’t break the bank if you’re cooking for your housemates. If you want to get more fibre into your diet, look out for the wholegrain varieties, just be sure to check the cooking times as they take longer to cook
  • Tins of tomatoes are great for making sauces for pasta or rice, or adding to some meat and veg for a full on meal
  • Beans are among the cheapest form of protein you’ll find. Jazz up some black beans with hot sauce, dollop on some sour cream and top with grated cheese for a meal with attitude
  • Lentils are a great source of protein too. To give them a hit of flavour, cut up a few rashers into smallish pieces, fry them in a pan, remove any visible fat, add the drained lentils and heat through for a really tasty meal
  • And it’s always worth having some spuds around for a baked potato which can be pimped to perfection by using different toppings

2. Frozen vegetables

  • No need to feel guilty every time you see those bags of buy-one-get-one-free vegetables rot in your fridge as you try to work out what to do with them. A bag of frozen veg is your friend. It waits quietly in the freezer till it’s needed, it doesn’t take up valuable fridge space and it’s packed with goodness because the fast freezing process means most of the good bits aren’t lost
  • Add it to rice with a bit of low-sodium soy sauce for a quick veggie dinner, use it in a stir fry with noodles or add it to a dish you’re cooking for your housemates
  • For added protein you can add a beaten egg to rice or a stir fry by just breaking it up as it cooks
  • Meat substitutes like quorn are also good freezer staples

3. Make friends with mince

  • You’ll get all the flavour of beef for a fraction of the cost when you cook with mince. It also means that you have a nice tasty base to lash in a load of vegetables to ensure you get your five-a-day. Shepherd's pie is a perfect dish to cook for your housemates, Chilli con carne stretches your meat even further with kidney beans, spaghetti Bolognese is an absolute stalwart and we have the low down on making your own mouth-watering burgers in this video.
  • While you’re at it, check out our top tips for cooking with mince, and if you’re looking for a really lean mince, why not give turkey mince a go?

4. Stock cubes

These pocket rocket cubes of flavour are great for adding a punch to a bland dish. They’re cheap, they don’t take up a load of space and they don’t go off. Look out for the reduced salt option and add it to the water to cook rice. If you want to make a meal out of it, just add some frozen vegetables and any leftover chicken or meat. Done!

5. Simple soups

Soup is incredibly easy to make and is a great way to use up vegetables you buy on offer at the store (before they’re forgotten in your fridge). Pick up an inexpensive stick blender, and after you have cooked your vegetables till tender in stock, just whiz it all up for amazing results. Make sure your pot is big enough so that you don’t scald yourself when you start blending the mixture. If you prefer a chunkier soup, just whizz about a third of the vegetables, and if you want to turn this into a nutritious one pot meal, at the end, you can add some tinned and drained lentils, chickpeas or beans which are great, inexpensive sources of protein. Just heat through in the soup and you’re done.

6. Mix it up with some cool sauces

Learn to cook a few basic dishes and make them taste spectacularly different with a little bit of secret sauce. Worcestershire sauce is awesome dripped onto some cheese on toast before you toast it under the grill. A few drops are all you need as it packs a fair whack of salt. Similarly, a few drops of Tabasco will add a nice hot kick to anything that’s just a bit too timid. And it’s well worth dropping into an Asian supermarket to pick up some more unusual bottles of sauce. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice if you’re unsure of what to choose. Soya sauce will give rice and veg a nice oriental touch, try Sriracha for a bit of Thai heat, hunt down the jars of concentrated Thai green curry which are so much cheaper than the usual branded ones and for a more Middle Eastern touch of heat, grab a tube of harissa. But remember, a little goes a long way, so have a tiny taste of the sauce or paste before you start lashing it into a dish.

7. Leftovers

All you have to do is Google "leftovers" to get piles of suggestions to use up the food lingering in your fridge. Make it easy by jotting down a few ideas, stick them on the fridge and you can turn leftovers into dinners without even thinking.  

8. Freeze fruit

Don’t let fruit go off! If you don’t feel like eating the lot, peel it, cut it up into chunks and freeze it. It’s perfect for smoothies. Just add the frozen fruit to yoghurt and a splash of water, whizz it up with a stick blender and you have a powerful start to your day. Check out our recipes for banana and oat smoothie and raspberry and banana smoothie.

9. Get some kit

We’ve already suggested you invest in a cheap stick blender as it’s great for making soups and smoothies. Another thing that is well worth buying, and will make you the most popular person in the house, is a slow cooker. You can chuck in everything for a casserole in this nice big crock pot, your meat, veg and a tin or two of tomatoes, switch it to low and forget about it for the rest of the day. Come dinner time there'll be a seriously tempting smell wafting from the kitchen.  And slow cookers are really economical with electricity, so cheap and eco-friendly too.

10. Keeping costs down

We have some other great tips on how you can keep the costs down when cooking on a budget. We also have information about food allergies, and just to ensure that you take food safety into account when you’re cooking, learn how to avoid cross contamination.

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