Growing up, I was a terrible cook.
I’d mash together anything I could find and use far too much creative liberty in making my meals. I’d craft misshapen quesadillas containing obscure ingredients. Once, I even put flour in a frosting. A lot of my inspiration came from watching Food Network after school, but my techniques came from my own immature ideas of what recipes required.
Most of my childhood, I didn’t have to worry about cooking. I would do it for fun, but frequently had other people, such as my parents or grandparents, to cook for me. Even during my first year of college, I stayed strictly on the dining plan. But as an RA during the fall of 2020, I was thrust into a two–bedroom apartment in DuBois College House with a kitchen and few food options due to few students being on campus. For the first time in my life, I truly had to cook for myself lest I spend far too much money on takeout.
I had a few requirements that I desperately needed to fulfill when finding recipes. First, I wanted them to be cheap. At the time, I was only working an online tutoring job so my weekly income wasn’t enough to afford $10 meals every day. I also didn’t like to spend too much time on dinner. I was taking a full course load of difficult physics classes and couldn’t take that much time away from my problem sets. Plus, I needed recipes that were fairly easy to make and healthy to eat.
The easiest way to start would be to go to the store and see what was available. On that first trip, I bought a bunch of random ingredients: rice, pasta, frozen broccoli, garlic, and of course, eggs and butter. I’d also bought a handful of fresh vegetables and fruits, before realizing that that was sometimes a money waster, especially if I didn’t use those foods in time.
Over that semester and since then, I’ve accumulated a handful of easy recipes that can be made quickly with ingredients that don’t go bad easily.
1. Rice and Broccoli
This is one of my favorite dishes as it’s not only delicious, but also very cheap. One of my biggest issues when cooking is buying food that spoils before I can use it. For that reason, I’ve turned to mostly using frozen vegetables and foods, as they won’t go bad. Rice never goes bad, and frozen broccoli can be bought for as little as two dollars at Acme, so this meal can be made practically whenever.
- 1 Egg
- Frozen broccoli
- Minced garlic
- Soy sauce (optional)
- Avocado (optional)
Start by cooking the rice in a medium–sized saucepan by adding twice as much water as rice and bringing it to a boil. As soon as it starts to simmer, turn the temperature to low and let the rice cook for 20 minutes. As the rice is cooking, heat the frozen broccoli in the microwave for four minutes with a tablespoon of water. After the broccoli finishes, immediately heat a pan and add butter and minced garlic. Then, add the broccoli, salt, pepper, and any other seasonings. Cook the broccoli until it begins to brown. Plate the rice and broccoli while leaving the pan on and adding a bit more butter or oil. Then, crack an egg and add it to the pan. Cook the egg for as long as you would like (I prefer mine runny). Finally, add the egg, some avocado and soy sauce to finish the dish.
2. Rigatoni and Chicken
Similar to the rice and broccoli recipe, this one is pretty easy to make and the ingredients don't go to waste easily. Pasta and rice are two staples for me whenever I'm cooking. They're easy to make and a good way to get some carbs. The chicken in this recipe can also be easily substituted with any protein that you would prefer. In the picture attached, I used vegan chicken as I'm not a big meat lover.
- Box of rigatoni
- Frozen vegetable (green beans, broccoli, cauliflower)
- Breaded chicken
Bring a medium–sized saucepan of water to a boil. Add the rigatoni and allow it to cook for 10 minutes. While that’s cooking, heat up whatever frozen vegetable you would like in the microwave. Similar to the rice and broccoli recipe, once it’s out of the microwave, heat it in a pan with garlic, salt, and pepper until brown. For the breaded chicken, you can either make it from scratch using chicken, Italian breadcrumbs, flour and egg, or you can buy it pre–made. In this case, I bought vegan breaded chicken from ACME and heated it in the microwave. After I finished microwaving, I set it on a hot pan for 5 minutes, just to get the outside a bit crispier. Lastly, I plated my pasta with some parmesan cheese alongside my vegetable and sliced chicken.
3. Grilled Cheese and Soup
This one is a classic. I've been eating grilled cheese my entire life. It was one of the first things I ever learned to make. The only thing that makes it better is adding a steaming bowl of tomato soup. It's almost like a deconstructed pizza.
- Bread (I recommend Ciabatta!)
- Cheese (cheddar, American, etc)
- Canned tomato soup
Put a few slices of cheese between two slices of a bread of your choice. Place this in the microwave for 15 seconds to allow the cheese to begin to melt so the sandwich doesn’t fall apart in the pan. Heat a medium–sized pan and add butter. Add the sandwich to the pan, and cook on both sides, buttering as needed, until the bread is golden brown. As the grilled cheese is cooking, pour the canned soup into a medium saucepan. Wait until the soup is boiling before lowering the heat and keeping it at a mild simmer. Lastly, serve alongside the grilled cheese and garnish with some shredded cheddar.
4. Rice Balls and Yellow Squash
I absolutely love this recipe, not only because it was my favorite thing that my grandma made me when I was growing up, but because it’s an easy way to use up leftovers. You can fill the rice balls with pretty much anything and it will still taste good. It's a classic Italian recipe that I could eat every night without getting tired of it.
- Leftover rice
- Leftover vegetables
- Marinara sauce
- 1 Beaten egg
- Italian bread crumbs
- Grated parmesan
- Yellow squash
Take leftover rice out of the fridge and mix it with the beaten egg. Mix in enough grated parmesan so that the rice can be molded into balls. Begin creating rice balls of around 1.5” in diameter. Optionally, create a mixture of cut–up leftover vegetables with a bit of marinara sauce. I also recommend adding some chopped up onion. Then, with your thumb, create an indent in the ball and add a bit of this mixture into the indent before closing it up with more of the rice mixture. At the end, you should have multiple uncooked rice balls. Cover each in bread crumbs. Heat oil on a pan and place the rice balls in the pan. Cook until they are golden brown on all sides. For the squash, cut it up, add more oil to the pan, and cook on both sides with whatever seasonings you would like until brown.
Even though it seems terrifying, learning to cook on your own really isn't that bad. It's cheaper, healthier, and for me, it's an easy way to relax after a long day. When coming up with meals, I stick to simple ingredients which cover all my bases: something with carbs, a vegetable or a fruit, and a protein. It's never failed me before, and has helped me craft meals that are fun to make and feel good to eat.