Home Cooked and Handmade: Become a Better Cook in College

3.04.2016

By Kate Miller

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Maitri Patel comes home from a typical day exhausted. As a pre-med student at the University of Kansas, she spends her classes cranking numbers, memorizing anatomical parts and attending meetings with the pre-med club.

Coming into her apartment, Patel drops her backpack and puts away her things. Instead of collapsing on the bed for a nap, however, she makes her way to the kitchen, where she pulls out vegetables and starts her rice cooker.

As she chops celery and brussel sprouts, her mind goes into autopilot and she lets her hands do the thinking. The constant motion of the knife, combined with the savory aroma of the cooking rice, soothes her brain and the tension dissipates from her shoulders. At the end of the half-hour of preparation, she feeds her relaxed body with a healthy, home cooked meal – invigorating her to tackle tonight’s round of homework assignments.

Patel’s kitchen, though, isn’t the norm for college students. The stereotype that all we eat is ramen noodles and Chinese takeout? Well, it’s true.

A 2014 survey by GrubHub Inc and Spoon University found that, when it comes to ordering food, 10 percent of all college orders include pizza and of the top 10 foods ordered for take-out by students, five of them are Chinese dishes.

It’s easy to see why cheap, easy ordering is so popular among college students: for many of them, college is the first time they’re solely responsible for feeding themselves. Once they’ve moved into someplace with their own kitchen and no chef at their whim, many are clueless.

Paige Vandegrift, a private chef located in Kansas City, says the reason for this is simple – college students today haven’t grown up learning to cook at their mother or grandmother’s elbow and they’re not going to magically develop those skills in college, she says. “[To learn how to cook,] you either have to be a person of great discipline or thrown into a position where you’re forced into it,” she said. “You have to make the commitment; you’re not going to get it right the first time.”

Patel knows that feeling. While she grew up learning to cook by watching her mother, she had never cooked before moving into an apartment – and her first foray into food making was a disaster. She remembers making Tollhouse cookies from a package, burning them, and having to toss out the whole batch. “Cooking is difficult for everyone,” she says. “My mom didn’t let me cook at home because she’d make four entrees rather than just the one I could, so when I got [to my apartment], I had to work at it.”

Commitment is just the first step in learning how to cook. The next step? Finding easy, healthy, quick recipes that fit your cooking experience — no matter what it may be. Kelsey Fortin, a health educator at the University of Kansas who teaches free monthly cooking classes, recommends looking for those recipes online and in cookbooks specifically designed for the broke college student.

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Vandegrift says cooking classes are a good option, but the best option comes from learning from someone you know and being exposed to do-it-yourself cooking as often as possible.

For Sash Alm, another University of Kansas student, do-it-yourself cooking is the only kind she knows. As a Kuwaiti who came to the United States for college, her passion for cooking is cultural. She cooked for her parents at home, and as a college student, constantly experiments with new recipes. She attended one of Fortin’s cooking classes to find healthier recipes.

“I really started looking for healthier ways to cook since I came here to America,” she says. “I used to just eat fast foods, but all of a sudden, I realized it’s not really that tasty. Yes, it’s yummy; yes, it’s satisfying, but it’s not tasty. So I started trying to cook things that are filled with vegetables and eat more fruits and get to taste the natural taste of foods.”

Some of the best foods you can eat to get that natural taste are the versatile staple items: brown rice, black beans, leafy vegetables. Fortin advises, for the sake of cost, that meals include items in season to get the most out of your budget and the most nutritional value. Frozen and canned foods aren’t a bad choice, as long as they’re free of the preservative liquid full of salt and other unhealthy chemicals.

But cooking for yourself isn’t just an issue of health. For many, including Alm, cooking provides a therapeutic way to wind down at the end of the day, a way to express your creativity, and an opportunity to communicate and bond with who you’re cooking for.

Fortin says cooking provides a break from the stress of classes and academics. “When you cook, you’re using your body instead of your mind for a little while, letting your mind academically take a break, and letting your hands and body do the work,” she says.

Vandegrift, who worked for an insurance company before she attended the Cordon Bleu in (London), says cooking gives her tangible, short-term rewards for her work – being able to see the “fruit of her labors,” so to say. “To me, the value of sitting down with freshly-prepared food, I think that’s very valuable,” she says. “It’s easy to buy prepared food, but in the long run, the ability to prepare a meal for yourself is worth the time and energy and commitment it takes up front to figure out how to cook.”

Photography by Ikeadi Ndukwu


 

cooking class-8Looking for an easy recipe to begin cooking? Try this Greek Quinoa and Spinach Salad that Fortin teaches at Watkin’s Health Center’s free cooking classes.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup dry quinoa, rinsed and drained

1 cup water

2 roma tomatoes, finely chopped

1/3 cup (15 oz.) can black beans no salt added, drained and rinsed

1/2 cup shredded fresh spinach

1/3 cup green onions, finely chopped

2 small ripe avocados or one large, chopped

1/6 cup feta cheese, crumbled

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Combine cooked quinoa and water in a small pot. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Simmer, covered, 15 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed.
  2. Transfer quinoa to a medium bowl. Add tomato, spinach, green onions, avocado, and feta cheese; stir to combine.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk lemon juice, oil, and salt. Add to quinoa mixture and toss to combine.

Serve right away or chill in the refrigerator and serve cold.

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