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Student food guide: how to cook and eat when you've started college or university

Get ready for years of beans on toast

Published: September 12, 2022
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Many parents will be suffering from empty nest syndrome, as their offspring head to university and college for the first time.

After a couple of decades of feeding their babies, it’s hard to imagine what they’re going to eat. Hopefully, they will leave home armed with the ability to boil a kettle, butter toast, open a packet of biscuits, or chop an onion.

Or maybe, in the age of The Great British Bake Off, MasterChef, and other telly cooking programmes, they’ll have way more skills than previous generations. Here’s our guide to student food, past and present.

TYPICAL STUDENT CUISINE

Pot Noodles, baked beans, fish finger sandwiches, veggie curries and tuna pasta are the classics. Anything that’s cheap and easy, teamed with the finest wines known to humanity. We remember going to college with students who’d buy a giant bag of MSG (monosodium glutamate) from the local Asian supermarket, before sprinkling it on plain noodles to make them umami. Served with nothing else - especially no greenery.

Also, student years are the toast-eating era.

“Cheese on toast, with tomato! Often prepared and eaten after a long evening in a Glasgow pub. I’d have the burns to prove it”, says Scottish chef Nick Nairn.

Fion Scotland sommelier, Miguel Crunia, says; “I used to bake pasta but mine was covered in a paté sauce grilled with some dodgy cheddar style cheese (recipe found in one of those magazines read while waiting for a student haircut back in the day)”.

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BASIC COOKING KNOWLEDGE

Along with other cook schools, including the Edinburgh New Town Cookery School, who do a Getting Ready for University class, East Linton’s Yarrow Cookery School (www.yarrowcookery.com) runs young adults, kids and student classes. They’ve already released some graduates of their inaugural student course into the wild, but will be running another session next August, for those starting further education in 2023.

“We teach a culinary foundation to prepare teens to leave the nest. Here are some example dishes; a lasagna, a versatile Italian herb tomato sauce, an authentic pad Thai, a chicken and mushroom risotto and a chicken/vegetarian curry with homemade naan bread and rice,” says cook school owner, Richard Yarrow. “The reasoning behind the above choices was to give our students a few core dishes and sauces that can be easily tweaked to create many variations, while keeping to a student budget. We also taught the students knife skills, heat control, seasoning, how to create depth of flavour and how to wash up as you cook in order to keep on top of the kitchen”.

If they can get students to wash up, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

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RECIPES

These days there are loads of cookbooks that are aimed at students. These range from Broke Vegan: Over 100 Plant Based Recipes That Don’t Cost the Earth, by Saskia Sidey to the Student Cookbook for Dummies by Oliver Harrison. Also, anything by food writer Jack Monroe, including Tin Can Cook, is excellent. Owner of Edinburgh’s Elliott’s cafe, shop and studio, Jessica Elliott Dennison, also has her book, the excellent Tin Can Magic. 

“Sam Stern's Student Cookbook was great and my first”, says Richard Yarrow. “I also think Jamie Oliver's 5 Ingredients is a great concept and keeps it simple. There are also so many amazing recipes online for free”.

Interestingly, Sam Stern, who published his first cookbook at 14 years old, studied Politics, Sociology and Business at Edinburgh University. We imagine that he would’ve been a good flatmate. Although there’s more accessible cooking information out there, Yarrow says there’s a real range of abilities among young people, from those who have never eaten a raw carrot to those with a great understanding of culinary skills.

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CHEAP INGREDIENTS

Not all students, especially in Edinburgh and St Andrews, are skint. There are some that get an allowance that’s more than the average salary. You will find them in the local Champagne bar.

However, for the average struggling student, it doesn’t seem like anything is cheap at the moment. You can’t even do a baked potato, since energy costs are so high. NB: an air-fryer, slow cooker or rice cooker are good practical gadgets to give a fresher.

If you’re surviving on the typical student income, you may need to explore the yellow stickers in your local supermarket, or their value ranges. Places like ethical shop Locavore, with branches in Edinburgh and Glasgow, usually have a selection of cut-price vegetables that need to be cooked that day, and there are apps like Too Good to Go, where you can collect surplus food from local shops, restaurants and cafes. Only problem is, you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to get.

The irony to all of this is that young adults need a lot more calories than older people. Let the scavenging begin.

EATING OUT

Going to a restaurant doesn’t happen a lot when you’re a student. However, the Capital’s affordable but substantial favourites include Chez Jules, Taza in Town, The Mosque Kitchen, Civerino’s (in Edinburgh and Glasgow) and Sister Bao. In Glasgow, you could try the reliable Paesano for pizza or Sugo for a big bowl of sustaining pasta, or the institution that is University Cafe on Byres Road. In St Andrews, The Cheesy Toast Shack is good for a protein and carb heavy treat. Anywhere that has “buffet”, like Taza Indian Buffet in Dundee, in its name, is a good call. The COSMO World Kitchen buffet venues, who have branches in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, usually do a 10 per cent student discount, and they allow you to fill your boots. It’ll be an hour or so of gorging glory before you head back to your empty fridge and instant noodles.

Richard Yarrow

Gaby Soutar is a lifestyle editor at The Scotsman. She has been reviewing restaurants for The Scotsman Magazine since 2007 and edits the weekly food pages.

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