Student Cuisine: How and why to cool

A lot of university students aren’t used to cooking for themselves all the time. If you’ve come from home, where your parents do most of the cooking, through the halls, where you eat the hall food and wind up in your second-year flat with little idea of how to feed yourself, it’s easy to end up cooking food that’s not that healthy - and honestly, doesn’t taste that good.
On the other hand, it’s the perfect time to learn a skill which you’ll use throughout your whole life. Cooking tasty, healthy food for yourself will also help you to focus at university - good nutrition keeps the brain functioning properly while you learn.

Powering the brain

A healthy diet affects how your body functions, including your brain. Learning uses a lot of energy. The brain uses glucose, a simple sugar, as its energy source. You can eat simple sugars to power your brain, but these break down quickly and won’t sustain you throughout the day. Foods containing complex carbohydrates, fats, and proteins will break down slowly, supplying your brain with energy over longer periods.

Timing is also key. There’s a good reason why everyone always told you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Eating in the morning kickstarts your metabolism, helping to release energy for your brain throughout the day. Skipping breakfast makes it harder for you to focus and retain information, resulting in you struggling to get anything out of lectures.

Regardless of what you eat, you also need to stay hydrated. When you don’t drink enough water, your brain will struggle to function properly and you’ll feel agitated. You might even experience it as hunger. It’s best to avoid energy drinks, soft drinks, and juices while you’re at uni and stick to water. You should aim to drink about 2 litres of water per day - that’s around 8 glasses.

Nutrition and you

Nutrition is a complicated science we don’t fully understand. In the mid-1800s, scientists discovered that energy for the body was released from food by oxidising certain compounds inside - they discovered metabolism. Upon recognising that carbohydrates, fats, and proteins were the major fuel sources in food, scientists thought they’d figured out the keys to human nutrition.

So, why were sailors getting scurvy, despite plenty of these macronutrients? Eventually, nutritionists got a handle on micronutrients - vitamins and minerals. These are needed for vital body processes, including memory consolidation. There is still more to nutrition, but to make sure you put yourself in the best position to learn, you need to make sure you eat a healthy mix of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, as well as all your essential vitamins and minerals. But how?

Student cuisine

Student food needs to be nutritious, cheap, and tasty. Your meal prep also needs to fit your schedule. A great place to start is stocking your pantry with basics. You’ll need certain ingredients for a bunch of recipes, and it’s more efficient for you to get them together early on. Your shopping list could look something like this:

  • Dried herbs and spices (Oregano, thyme, curry powder, cumin, paprika, chili)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Flour
  • Butter or margarine
  • Baking powder and baking soda
  • Cooking oil
  • Baking paper and tinfoil
  • Vinegar (e.g. white wine, apple cider)
  • Big packs of carbohydrates (rice, noodles, pasta etc.)
  • Canned goods (tomatoes, coconut cream, chickpeas, etc.) 
  • Surebake yeast (if you want to make bread)

These ingredients will be incredibly useful to you, they won’t expire, and you can replace each one as it runs out. Getting fresh fruits and vegetables each week should see you able to cook everything you need. If there’s a weekend market near you, you’ll be able to save money compared to buying from the supermarket.

Picking good recipes

Once you’ve stocked up with basics, you’re ready to cook. Recipes can come from anywhere - there are countless cookbooks around in second-hand shops, and the internet is full of food websites. Look for recipes that say things like ‘basics’ or ‘simple cooking’. You don’t want to be looking for gourmet recipes that will cost as much as eating out.

If you’re at a total loss, try MyFridgeFood. This website allows you to plug in exactly what ingredients you have lying around, and suggests recipes that will use these ingredients. 

Cooking will get easier over time as you get used to it. Keep your own recipe book - when you find a recipe you like, keep it in there for the future. You’ll build your own repertoire and find it easier and easier to cook those recipes. To get you started, here are some great student cooking ideas - I found these recipes super useful as a student:

  1. Falafels
Falafels are a great source of protein, are tasty, and when you make them yourself, they’re incredibly cheap. Don’t bother buying premade falafel mix when it’s this easy to make yourself!

You’ll need a stick blender - it doesn’t work with a regular blender. If you don’t have one, try the op shops in your area. Alternatively, they’re not too pricey from the Warehouse or Kmart.

You’ll need 2 cups of dried chickpeas, which you can get from the pick n mix section at the supermarket. Then, you’ll need a few cloves of garlic (the more the better, in my opinion), one medium-sized onion, a bunch of fresh coriander, half a bunch of fresh parsley, and cumin, salt, and pepper to season.

Soak the chickpeas in a large bowl overnight. Cover them with plenty of water - they’ll soak up more than you think. In the morning, drain them and add the other ingredients, coarsely chopped and give it a mix. Blend with the stick blender - this requires a little patience. When it’s all blended together, you can shape tablespoon-sized amounts of the mix and fry them. I like these in wraps, sandwiches or salads.

  1. Corn fritters
These are great for feeding your flat on weekend mornings. You’ll need a can of cream-style corn (it has to be cream-style), a cup of plain flour, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper and mixed herbs. Simply mix the corn with the flour and season with the rest - if it’s a little thick, you can add a little milk, and if it’s too thin, you can add more flour. Add tablespoons of the mixture to hot oil and fry until crispy and brown.

Enjoy yourself

You’ll become a lot better at cooking if you enjoy it. If you’re not used to it, cooking can be a little stressful, but it only takes a few successes to get hooked. So, the main thing is to keep at it if you make mistakes - you’ll be a master student chef in no time, and your body - and brain - will thank you for it.