I have decided that to go with the “back-to-school” atmosphere swirling around the September air, I will do a series called “Every Student Should Know…”. I am constantly surprised by how many people around my age don’t know the first thing about food, and how tentative they feel about attempting to prepare food. There is something intimidating that has been built up about food culture, and it’s a pity because there really isn’t much to preparing your own food. Honestly, you just have to get the ingredients, follow the recipe, and acquire a few useful skills along the way. Will you be able to tell when a steak is cooked to medium-rare the first time you make one? Probably not, that’s why it’s worth it to invest in a thermometer, particularly if you are a novice cook. Will you make a few mistakes along the way? Definitely, but for the most part, unless you’ve burnt something beyond recognition, it just takes a bit of effort and common sense to save most of your creation. And if you lose your creation, it’s not the end of the world; the only thing that might acquire a bit of damage is your ego and a couple dollars. Most of all, you just need to relax, plan ahead, and follow a recipe. It really is that simple, I promise.
Let’s get back to that planning ahead concept. Students are always pitied, by themselves and others, for being in a constant state of broke. I know that feeling at the end of the year, when you hand over your debit card and grit your teeth, hoping that it will go through and save you the embarrassment of having to put your groceries back. At the same time though, students are known to be major consumers of pre-prepared dinner food and bought lunches. At the university-student-centric grocery store I shop at here in Montreal, I watch dozens of frozen pizzas, packaged cookies, lunch meats, boxed pasta mixes, and frozen dinners pass through the till. In one of my two hour classes we get a mini-break of ten minutes to eat, and I watch as every single break dozens of people run to the cafeteria and return with muffins, fruit salad, and packaged yogurt. Despite the poor quality most of this food is (think trans-fats, shortening, high sodium, nitrates…), it is also expensive. Even if people buy lots of fresh produce or prepare their own food, I also see a lot of people having to throw out food that goes bad or spoils in the fridge. Knowing exactly what you have in your fridge and only buying what you know you can eat before it goes bad will save a lot of money.
Now that I’ve made a plea to your wallet, you should also consider the health aspect. Now, we are assuming you are going to school to do well. In order to do well, on a basic, physiological level, you need three things: sleep, fuel, and movement. These three all complement each other, which we’ve been told since our first gym class: we move, so we get hungry and eat, we move, so we get sleepy and sleep, we sleep so we get energy, we move because we have energy…you get the idea. While I know how easy it is to drop one, or two, or all of these aspects when exam season hits like a storm, and sometimes you just have to pull that all-nighter or stay in the library for twenty straight hours. What you can do though, is plan ahead so you don’t get caught exhausted with no food, having not been outside or seen the gym in the last month. There are some obvious things, like keeping up on your school work so you don’t have to cram. A less obvious solution for some, is to meal plan. Keeping food under control in times of high academic demand will absolutely make you feel and perform better. The brain is a pretty simple organ, and it quite simply will just work better if you are eating well and getting enough sleep.
How does one go about meal planning? First of all, ideally you want to be able to get all your food for the week in one trip. Stopping by the grocery store everyday is a huge time suck, and can tempt you to by ready-to-go foods that you can make quickly for that night. This means sitting down with three sheets of paper and a stack of cookbooks or your computer. On one sheet of paper, you are going to write out the meals for the week. Sunday to Saturday, break the meals down into the main ingredients that you will need to purchase. Use your computer or cookbooks to find recipes or get inspirations for meals. I personally find it easier to start the plan with the proteins, then filling in the grains and vegetables afterwards. For example, I always cook a chicken on Sunday’s so I can have leftover chicken meat in lunches for the week. On Wednesday, there is usually some chicken that still needs to be used up from lunches, and I don’t want it to go bad, so Wednesday I make a meal that uses leftover chicken, like a pasta dish or frittata. I look for places to use lower priced, less processed meats, like a whole chicken or tough beef cuts, so I can enjoy the higher quality meats at a lower price. From your seven-day dinner plan, you can make your grocery list. I add a few lunch items, such as cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes for salad, depending on the season. I find that my lunches are pretty much exclusively leftovers, whether they be in a sandwich or in a dish to reheat, so I don’t worry about including lots of lunch items on my grocery list.
When making your grocery list, it is very useful to cluster items in their food groups. All the vegetables together, all the fruit together, etc. I also get my meat, vegetables, nuts, and coffee from the market, so I split my list into “grocery store” and “market”. Make sure your list is realistic- if you have to many items and limited storage, you may have to end up throwing out perishables. On the other hand, if you underestimate how much food you will eat, you might end up turning to convenience foods or going out when you come home and find the fridge empty. After a week of meal planning, I find you will pretty easily be able to tell how effective your portioning was, and can adjust accordingly. We are self-regulating animals after all!
Okay, so now you have a plan and grocery list. We’ve hit the third blank sheet of paper, and this is one of the most important ones that will save you lots of time. This is your weekly prep sheet. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, or have any notion of how one is run, you will realize that the restaurant only runs smoothly and gets orders out if all the prep work is done ahead of time. It is the key to getting food on the table fast. For most meals, there is generally a component of chopping, washing, drying, and peeling. If you can just do all the chopping at the same time, you will save yourself the time of having to chop and wash everything right before you cook it, and you will only have to wash your knife and cutting board once. Yes, I know that nutrients start to naturally degrade in some fruits and vegetables are chopped, but to be honest when you are coming home from a long day of classes in the middle of mid-term season, those trace nutrient losses are worth the time you save. I also find that one of the main things that holds up a meal is the cooking of grains and other carbohydrates. For this reason, if I know I’m having rice or barley or quinoa or potatoes that week, I tend to cook them ahead of time, and have them cold in the fridge. To heat them up, I either thrown them in a gratin dish with some vegetables with parmesan on top so they can bake while I do a bit of homework before dinner, or I toss them quickly in a pan to heat them up and get a bit of a crunch going. I love having pasta that has been cooked to al dente ahead of time so I can just quickly heat it up in it’s sauce (that I usually make ahead of time too) or bake it with delicious bread crumbs and grate cheese on top.
So, that is meal planning in a nutshell, it is the key to being able to make your own food without it being a big, stressful deal. Sure, it’s fine to have some spontaneous meals and moments (I’m thinking of cookies made at ten o’clock on a Tuesday night, fresh bread and butter with veggies for dinner, and other non-meals), but in the long run planning ahead will make your life a lot easier, especially when you are busy. Happy planning!