OPINION: How to cook in college without embarrassing yourself

Backyard barbecues are an American staple, and impressing your friends with dazzling displays of food is easier than you'd think. (Alex Masson | Collegian Media Group)

One unfortunate realization you can have in college is knowing that, at some point, no matter how much you try to run from it, you will eventually have to cook a meal.

It’s not fair, but that’s just the way it works. Your parents aren’t around and you (probably) don’t have the cash to buy every meal. What’s a fella to do?

I used to be in this exact situation as someone who thought he hated cooking, and I’m happy to say it’s not as bad as it might seem. While everyone has different preferences and dietary needs, here are some basic guidelines to start cooking in college without embarrassing yourself.

1. Buy generic brands

The first step of cooking is buying ingredients, and don’t let the advertising firms of the world cloud your judgment.

Tons of studies from places like Tilburg University and the University of Chicago have shown that informed consumers, like restaurant owners and food manufacturers, buy generic brand ingredients.

I say, if it’s good enough for them, why not you?

I’ll concede that off-brand Doritos never taste quite right, but that’s snack food. When you’re trying to make a decent meal for yourself and/or others, brands don’t matter when you’re combining ingredients.

You might think there’s a big difference between $5 chicken and $10 Premium Chicken™ in terms of quality, but they both come from the same bird, don’t they? It’s the same for other kinds of food, too. Delicious, nutritious foods are available for fair prices in every grocery store, no matter what the name on the box says.

2. Frozen foods are fine

I’m sure there are angry British chefs who would disagree with me on this, but for home cooking, frozen food is perfectly acceptable — and delicious!

The argument against frozen food is that any ice crystals forming inside food will break up the internal structure, giving it a dryer flavor and texture when unfrozen.

That’s certainly a true fact of food, but here’s the deal. The difference that freezing makes in food quality is hardly noticeable, especially to an untrained palette.

Starting your culinary journey is as easy as buying a frozen entree and a side dish before following the instructions on the packaging. If you’re just trying to make hamburgers for your friends on game day, frozen beef will do the job.

3. Stick with the basics

Back when I was a silly freshman and I thought I hated cooking, my main argument against it was that cooking was too complicated — especially if you have to follow a recipe that includes a ton of ingredients, some of which you don’t even like.

Here’s the secret, though: you don’t have to follow an exact recipe. Imagine that!

09.23.18.DerbyDining-RealCostofDining.RJ (8 of 12).jpg
If you're wanting to cook better meals in college, starting with the basics can never hurt. Who doesn't like pancakes? (Rowan Jones | Collegian Media Group)

While American restaurants might insist a basic sandwich includes four different kinds of vegetables piled on top of the meat, don’t let that mess with your expectations.

The more raw ingredients you try to include in a single dish, the more things you have to buy and keep fresh, which can be hell when you’re dealing with vegetables that want to rot in your fridge if you don’t find a way to use them in three days.

Sticking to basic ingredients is not only good for your wallet, it also gives an amateur chef like yourself less to worry about so you can focus on perfectly cooking the ingredients you do have. If you’re like me, you might even prefer the taste and texture of a simple dish, so it’s a win-win.

4. Get creative with a microwave

Microwaves are good for more than just warming up pizza rolls at 2 a.m.

I often like to call microwaves a perfect side dish machine — microwaveable veggie bags and mashed potato cups are just two fantastic examples. Why spend an hour mashing your own potatoes when you can microwave a few cups, pour them into a bowl and make your guests just as happy?

Microwaves are also good for certain entrees, too. Personal pizzas are something I will never get tired of, and all the breaded goodies you can imagine are just fine in a microwave, even if there’s something special about putting them in the oven: chicken nuggets, barbecue wings, mozzarella sticks and so on.

If your dish on the stove needs a little extra pizzazz, don’t forget about your microwave. You can even use it at the same time as your stove for maximum efficiency.

5. Seasoning!

I don’t have anything too creative to say here. Just add tons of seasoning to anything you make.

Remember, it’s much easier to have too little seasoning than it is to have too much. Pour it on and take a ride to Flavor Town.

6. Don’t spread yourself too thin

To start, here’s a quote from legendary martial artist Bruce Lee: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

I’m not advising you to go kick a hamburger or something, although that would be amazing. Rather, this is a metaphor for some sage advice: get good at cooking a few meals instead of floundering through 20 meals you don’t understand.

My friends and family love my barbecue cooking — not because I’m a prodigy, but because I’ve had tons of practice. I know exactly when to take the meat off the burner, I know what seasoning tastes best and I know what side dishes to use.

Practice makes perfect, so if you keep at it on your favorite kinds of food, your meals will start to improve more than you ever thought possible.

Kyle Hampel is the copy chief and deputy multimedia editor for the Collegian and a senior in English. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

Those words you just read were written by me, Kyle Hampel. I am a 2019 graduate in English. I have strong feelings about barbeque pizza and the Oxford comma. I am a former copy chief, community editor, feature editor, designer and deputy multimedia editor. Beloit, Kansas, is proud to call me their own, along with several other towns I've lived in that aren't as special to me.