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Life A freshman’s guide to groceries, cooking, and meal planning

Oct. 24, 2018
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Illustrated by Hannah Kang

By my third week of living alone for the first time, I experienced the phenomenon of having to eat everything in my fridge in the span of a day and being clueless as to what to cook with just days later. This was the direct result of me not knowing how to properly do groceries. Take this as a cautionary tale of the consequences which stem from irresponsible food shopping—but I’ve been able to avoid the problem since.

The first time I went grocery shopping for myself, I was stunned by the endless possibilities. Never had I enjoyed the luxury of buying any kind of cereal I wanted or, dare I say, multiple kinds. I was throwing coconut milk and cow milk into my cart, taking advantage of my parents’ offer to pay for my first round of groceries. I tackled the snack sections vigorously, fulfilling all of my heart’s desires. I decked out my fridge with all of my favorite foods. However, as their expiration dates approached, my level of consumption rose. I was trying to eat everything in my fridge before it went bad. 

After scouring the internet for ways to make the raw chicken in my fridge last longer, I ended up with numerous lunch boxes filled with grilled chicken, ready to last another week. I threw all of my fully ripened fruits into the juicer, making one delicious smoothie after another (some of which even served as the base of my half-decent breakfast bowls). At one point I was giving out my pack of premade crêpes on my dorm floor, a day before its expiration date. While having surplus food was helping me earn a good reputation amongst my neighbors, I was incredibly stressed over my lack of knowledge about the basic life skill of grocery shopping.

But that wasn’t my only problem. 

The first time I cooked pasta for myself, I cooked the full box and had enough to serve a family of five. 

There I stood, staring at the overflowing pot, wondering how it was even possible for what seemed to be a small amount of water and bow-tie pasta to cause such a disastrous scene in my kitchen. I felt like Alfredo Linguini from Ratatouille—clueless. Despite the initial setback, I found my own Remy Ratatouille with the help of my friends. They gave me basic tips, like using my own hand or even a mug as a guideline for rice and pasta portion sizes. A fistful of pasta, for example, is one serving. Although I grew up watching my parents cook in the kitchen and binge-watching Master Chef in my bed, I only had a limited understanding of seasonings and the basic concepts of cooking.

Since I moved out of my house, I’ve tried my hand at a large variety of simple dishes: for pineapple chicken, I grill the chicken first, throw in cubes of pineapple for flavoring, and add a pinch of sea salt; for fried rice, I pan-fry an egg, chop it into pieces using a spatula, add it to a bowl of rice, and splash some soy sauce for coloring and flavor on top; for pepper steak, I throw sliced pieces of steak into a pan with thin strips of green pepper.

But while it’s fun to be able to cook for myself, it is time-consuming and tiring to do so every day.

Imagine having a proper meal ready for you every day when you returned home instead of turning to instant noodles. Just like everyone else, I’m exhausted after a full day of lectures, which has often resulted in me eating junk food in my bed, trying to do my homework while catching up on Queer Eye.

Recently, I’ve started meal planning up to three days in advance. This allows me to kick back after a long day of class, dumping what I’d previously prepped into the microwave and enjoy a hot meal with zero effort. If you’re into fitness or generally want to watch your calorie intake, meal planning is an excellent way to monitor exactly what you’re putting into your body and stay away from any artificial ingredients that could ultimately lead to health problems.

On Sunday mornings, I go grocery shopping, buying enough chicken, peppers, rice, and tortillas to last me the whole week ahead. In the afternoon, I get to work on my meals for the next few days. Typically, I’ll cook three to five servings of rice; for the main dishes, I’ll prep a box of grilled chicken and beef stew. 

I can’t tell you how helpful meal planning is in the long run. If you have roommates or neighbors that want to join in, you’ll have further flexibility and a greater variety of dishes to enjoy in a week!

I’ve been living by myself for two months now, and I’ve definitely had my fair share of cooking nightmares (and amazing successes). Cooking is just like any other pursuit you’ll take on in college—give it time, and you’ll flourish.

Still a freshman,

Wen Hsiao