Here’s the thing. Food is expensive. When you’re a student, eating out or ordering in all the time can really make a dent in your budget. But at the same time, cooking at home can be intimidating. There’s the grocery shopping, you don’t always know what to buy. Meal planning, who knows what to make? And actually cooking the food, there’s a lot that feels like it can go wrong.
So, today I thought we’d try and eliminate some of those common issues by giving you a basic starting point with what to buy and what to make. If you have a base for some pretty simple (but delicious) dishes, you can only build on your skills and understanding from there. Let’s start with the ingredients and work our way up.
If you don’t have a rice cooker, you can buy one for crazy cheap online. I found one for about $20 and I promise that you will use that thing until it dies. It’s way easier than trying to stare at your boiling pot of rice and guess out when it’s done. Rice is such a nice base for tons of meals and the rice itself is always affordable to buy. There’s lots of options too! Brown rice, white rice, jasmine, basmati, short grain, long grain—they all taste good, so you can’t go wrong.
Some meal ideas with rice:
- Burrito bowls (or just regular burritos or tacos!)
- Stir fry
- Chicken and rice
- Fried Rice
- Great additive for soups to beef it up!
I like to have fresh tomatoes in my fridge at all times (I usually like cherry tomatoes for salads, pitas, scrambles, and all sorts of other things). However, some people just don’t love tomatoes on a lot of things, and I get that. But what I do suggest you always have in your pantry is diced canned tomatoes. They are great for simmering down to make a base for chili (which can feed you for multiple days), if you have a blender (or even if not!) you can make a simple red sauce with basil, garlic, and oregano for pasta, and one of my favorite meals is an easy chana masala with garbanzo beans. It’s a great starting point for tons of meals.
Beans have a lot of protein and other vitamins and nutrients. Plus, they’re pretty low fuss. You can throw some beans into a pot (like we talked about in the last section), toss them on a salad, or just warm them up in a pan to eat with tacos, pitas, or a burrito bowl. If your food is chilled, you don’t even have to do that. Just open can, dump out, rinse, eat.
Okay, buy eggs if you want. No judgement here. But in my humble opinion, more people need to get on board with tofu. It’s versatile. It has a great shelf life. It can be made to taste like eggs. It has a lot of protein. And it’s really cheap. You can buy a big block of it for like two to three dollars. I usually have two blocks in my fridge ready to go at any time.
You may or may not be surprised to see bread on this list, but I love “everything” flavor bagels with a burning passion. It has to be the “everything” flavor kind for me though. Anyway, I put them on this list because you can make an easy breakfast sandwich with tofu (or egg) and cheese. I like to do avocado toast as well with a bagel instead of bread.
So, if you’ve bought the aforementioned things on this list, you’ve got a really nice little burrito bowl option with rice, tomatoes, and beans. And these days you can often get avocados for just a dollar a piece. But there’s tons of other great ways to use avocados to make your dishes taste better and add a great healthy fat to your meal.
7) Frozen veggies
I do kale, broccoli, and edamame. It’s super affordable and very easy to throw in a pan with rice, tofu, or really just about anything else. Other great ones to have are things like peas, carrots, and corn which you can sprinkle into tons of meals to help it be less plain.
8) Penne pasta
Really, you can get whatever kind you want, but we all know that college students are eating too much ramen and spaghetti. We’re over that. So, change up your pasta choice to make it feel a little fancier without spending any extra money.
9) Vegetable broth
You can, of course, get chicken or beef broth instead, but I like the versatility of veggie broth personally. It’s great for a soup base, but it also can add a lot of flavor if you splash a little into a dish instead of water like a pasta dish, something like a chana masala, or when you’re cooking taco meat. Try cooking some rice in veggie broth instead of water—so good!
I don’t care if it’s powder, minced, or fresh, but I use it so much in my cooking (probably often for every meal of the day) that I think it needs to be in everyone’s kitchen all the time. If you’re wondering why something tastes bland, add some garlic. You made a dish, but it just seems to be missing something, it’s probably garlic. Add this ingredient to anything on this list and it’ll taste good.
I specifically picked all of these recipes because you can essentially just throw the ingredients in a pan and go AND you won’t spend much money buying it all. Truly, nothing on this list should take more than about 30 minutes from start to finish. There’s not much finesse required and they all taste really good, especially if you toss some of your favorite seasonings in with it. Hot sauce is basically my favorite seasoning. I literally put in on everything.
But now that you’ve made it to the end, hopefully, you can look back over these ten ingredients and have some ideas for how you can use them all together to make food that is affordable, easy to make, and actually tastes good. If you keep all or most of these items in your pantry at all times, you’ll be able to throw together something tasty at a moment’s notice!
Just remember that you can modify any of these recipes to fit your needs based on what you have, what you like, and your cooking skill level. Don’t be afraid to just try something out. That is what cooking is all about. You got this.
And as always, there are plenty of people and resources available to you at Boise State to get you started or keep you going on your cooking journey. It’s a skill you can carry with you the rest of your life! Check out BroncoFit Eats for even more cooking basics, recipes, how to cook, meal planning, and how to build a grocery list that includes even more options for your pantry.