Learning to Cook in the U.S. A Guide for International Students.

Learning to Cook in the U.S. A Guide for International Students.

Have you been living on instant ramen and $2 burgers ever since you moved to the U.S.? Are you fed up and want something more nutritious?

No matter the motivation, the decision to learn how to cook will liberate you in more ways than one.

After we’re through, you’ll be able to bring variety to your palette with ease. Healthy and scrumptious meals won’t seem like fantasy anymore.

But, before that, let’s address a common question that occurs to many international students:

Why do I need to cook when I can just order food?

For three reasons primarily:

1. Reduced costs

With the price of one takeout order, you can easily cook three meals. That’s how much money you are wasting when you order out.

When you buy ingredients and cook from scratch, you can control the portion size as well. This means you can not only eat a lot more for half the cost, but you can also save the leftovers for the next day. It’s going to reduce your cost of food drastically.

2. Vital skills

Consider this: What if a snowstorm or flood strikes the city where you’re living, and no restaurants near you are delivering. If you depend on getting your food delivered to not starve, you’re going to be hungry until conditions improve.

Cooking is a vital life skill that allows you to become independent. No matter the weather or where you live, being able to cook means you won’t have to depend on a restaurant or delivery service for your meals.

3. Good health

Your health is jeopardized when you buy every meal from a restaurant. Not only are your choices limited based on what is on the menu, but you also don’t know what they put in the food.

For all you know, the food is stuffed full of cheese, butter, MSG, or something else that tastes amazing, but harms your body in the long run. When you cook, you are in full control of the ingredients, taste, safety, and your health.

The basics of cooking for every college student

1. Arrange a functional kitchen

We’re proceeding with the assumption here that you do have a kitchen, or the basic setup and space for it.

Look for these appliances to complete your kitchen:

  • Stovetop/induction burner
  • Refrigerator
  • Counters, drawers, and cabinets
  • Sink
  • Microwave
  • Toaster and oven

These are the basics you’ll need to cook simple meals. Stuff like rice and pressure cookers, blenders, air fryers, slow cookers, and mixers are an added benefit, but not totally necessary.

Now, for the primary utensils you’ll need to complete your kitchen setup:

  • Large skillet or pan (for everyday cooking)
  • Large pot (for pasta and soup)
  • Sheet pan/glass oven-baking dish
  • Good chef’s knife
  • Peeler
  • Cutting board
  • Colander
  • Whisk
  • Grater
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Metal and silicone spatulas
  • Ladle
  • Can opener
  • Kitchen shears/scissors
  • Prep/mixing bowls
  • Tongs
  • Oven mitts
  • Cutlery
  • Plates
  • Set of sealable plastic containers (such as Tupperware) for food storage

The list might look long and intimidating, but you don’t need to buy everything at once.

2. Get the most essential supplies first

As a college student, you’re likely operating on a tight budget, have limited storage space, and have little time to cook. So, you must buy groceries within these constraints.

Here’s how to go about it:

  • Always make a shopping list before visiting the supermarket. Otherwise, you’re going to buy unnecessary items and forget the important stuff.
  • Stick to the budget while shopping. Try to curb tendencies to splurge. Expensive wines can wait until you get a job.
  • Buy non-perishable foods in bulk, and perishable foods in quantities you can eat within a few days or a week. That’s the best way to avoid any food waste.
  • Frozen food and ready-prepared food cost more and defeat the whole purpose of learning to cook. Limit your purchase of such items.
  • Don’t let coupons and discounts trick you into purchasing something you normally wouldn’t imagine eating.
  • Stock up on cheap, yet filling foods like bread, pasta, noodles, rice, oats, and cereal.
  • Prepare an arsenal of spices and condiments that can add flavor to any boring, bland dish. Start with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, soy sauce, salt, sugar, pepper, allspice, chili powder, onion powder, garlic powder, basil, oregano, and chili flakes.
  • Always remember the six key vegetables while grocery shopping—onions, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, limes, and garlic. Buy seasonal fruits and vegetables as well.
  • Steer clear of artificially flavored food, or items with small portion sizes marketed to children. They are overpriced and unhealthy.
  • Compare ingredients and prices of the same items under different brands before purchasing anything. Get the cheaper and healthier deal.

3. Explore different opportunities to learn cooking

You have your kitchen and groceries ready. Now, for the real challenge—how do you start cooking? By learning it from the experts and cooking veterans.

Here are some great sources to start learning to cook while you’re in college:

  • YouTube – Search “easy recipes for beginners,” or look up the recipe for a dish you already have in mind. YouTube is the best place to learn how to cook because of the audiovisual cues and the guidance of experienced cooks. Pause and rewind as many times as you like.
  • Cooking class – Enroll in an online cooking class or a small culinary course to get some hands-on experience from professionals. If you have the money to splurge, it will serve as the perfect guide. You would know the correct way to do things instead of guessing all the time.
  • Books – Invest in an easy recipe book for beginners. Cookbooks are packed with minute details and measurements that you can access for the rest of your life. It also contains great cooking advice from experts.
  • Experiment – After you have been cooking for a while, it’s a good idea to start experimenting with dishes. This is how you transition from an amateur cook into a seasoned one. Try doing things differently, or altering the amount and variety of ingredients. Always keep tasting the dish while cooking.
  • Family and friends – If there’s a family dish you are craving, or a friend’s special recipe that you want to replicate, ring them up for advice. Near and dear ones often explain things simply and kindly. You can ask them for generic cooking advice as well.
  • Practice – Lastly, keep practicing every day. You’ll find your food tastes a lot better on your fifth try, as compared to your first.

4. Pick up the golden kitchen skills

In case you are clueless about what recipe to start with, try your hand at some kitchen skills instead. These are techniques that will prove useful, no matter what you cook.

Acquire these fundamental skills if you want to learn cooking and get good at it:

  • Knife skills for safe and precise chopping and dicing
  • Making a delicious gravy, curry, and stock
  • Mastering a flavorful tomato sauce and white sauce
  • Cutting fruits the right way
  • Cooking eggs in all possible ways (especially boiling, poaching, and frying)
  • Handling, cooking, and storing meat, poultry, and fish
  • Sanitizing vegetables to avoid any contamination or poisoning
  • Making a batter for pancakes and desserts
  • Kneading dough
  • Lining a cake tin
  • Freezing in bulk and reheating as required
  • One-pot/pan dishes
  • Roasting meat and vegetables
  • Properly cooking rice
  • Making salad dressing
  • Brewing coffee
  • Leaving the kitchen squeaky clean after every use

We suggest you begin with something moderately easy, and then build up your confidence before approaching the difficult stuff.

5. Some basic recipes that will save the day

Now, for some suggestions that’ll make your time in the kitchen shorter and easier. These recipes are fairly versatile and healthy. We have compiled five recommendations for each meal of the day.

  • Breakfast
    • Avocado toast
    • Pancakes
    • Fruit smoothie
    • Breakfast sandwich/slider
    • Omelet
  • Lunch
    • Vegetable and meat wrap
    • Chopped salad and hummus
    • Baked potatoes and stir fry
    • Salmon
    • Baked chicken breast
  • Snacks
    • Granola bars
    • French toast
    • Microwave potato chips
    • English muffin pizza
    • Guacamole
  • Dinner
    • Spaghetti and meatballs
    • Fancy ramen
    • Steak
    • Mixed fried rice
    • Rice and curry
  • Dessert
    • Mug cake
    • Baked s’mores cups
    • Chocolate chip cookies
    • Oreo fudge
    • Raspberry frozen yogurt

6. Don’t forget safety and precautions

Always follow these safety rules to avoid getting cuts, burns, or food poisoning.

  • Wear shoes that cover your toes. It will protect you from a dropping knife, broken glass, and hot liquid spills.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and learn how to use it. Never try to extinguish a kitchen fire with water. Always suffocate the fire by cutting off the oxygen supply.
  • Use knives and other sharp tools with caution. Store them in a wooden block or drawer.
  • Don’t wear long, baggy synthetic clothes near a gas stove. Tie back your long hair. Take off jewelry as well.
  • Handle hot utensils with extreme care. Keep hot pans and pots on potholders or wooden surfaces.
  • Always stir and lift away from your body. You don’t want to be burnt by the scalding condensation or the boiling gravy.
  • Wash your hands before and after handling meat, fruits, and vegetables. Don’t keep them out of the fridge too long.

Accidents can happen despite all precautions. Maybe there’s a gas leak you couldn’t detect, or a hot pan slips and falls on your foot. You should always stay prepared for such medical emergencies when entering the kitchen.

As an international student, medical emergencies can mean hefty hospital bills. There’s only one way to deal with that without breaking the bank: International student medical insurance. Remember that your cooking will likely not be perfect right away. It takes time and practice, and the more you cook, the easier it will become!

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