Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Hungry like a student

A guest post by Sienna Rodgers at York University.

"You don't make your own chips?!"
My mother looks at me wide-eyed, horrified at the thought of oven chips. No, surprisingly I do not peel potatoes, cut them into slices and hover over a frying pan that is spitting oil, while the rest of my housemates try to cook their food around me in our cramped kitchen. I am a 20 year old Politics student living at the opposite end of the country from home, ergo my diet can at best be described as 'simple'. Some people, the harsher type, would even say it has no nutritional value whatsoever.

In first year, my flatmates were... eccentric. They were very weird but there was never a dull moment. We'd decided at the start of freshers' week to cook group meals so we could get to know each other better and save money. We each took our turn to make dinner for everyone. This resulted in some strange concoctions in the kitchen and the arrangement fell down after a few days after a particularly awful dinner of burnt vegetable risotto. The highlight of this experiment is when my dear friend Lizzie, a talented baker and now housewife, turned my world upside down. She emptied some dry pasta into a baking tray, filled it with water and readymade pasta bake sauce, placed it in the oven and topped it with cheese a few minutes before taking it out. I was scared. The sauce was remarkably orange and I didn't see how this could ever work. Je suis snob. But I was proved utterly wrong. With some added salt (nobody at uni uses salt, what the hell is that about?), I would happily eat this again. I'm not joking. Ok, it's not better than a homemade tomato sauce with bronze-die pasta, but it's fairly tasty and definitely easier.

easy tomato cheese pasta bake
Lizzie's easy tomato and cheese pasta bake
Lizzie soon became the matriarch of the flat and fed two of us regularly. She is the kind of person who makes weekly meal plans, so we always knew what was for dinner. Our classics were pasta, nachos, pizza, chips and sausages and veggie roast. Looking back now, it seems quite weird to have Doritos for dinner but I didn't question it at the time. My diet then was certainly more varied; now that I cook for myself every day it's just pasta or rice with tuna. The food I eat is more boring than weird - a previous flatmate stunned my mother by having a packet of Angel Delight as a dessert. She said she hadn't seen this since the 70s.

vegetarian roast dinner burgers mash vegetables yorkshire pudding
Veggie burgers, roast carrots and broccoli, mash, gravy and Yorskshire puds
vegetarian mince cheese nachos
Doritos with Quorn mince in Lloyd Grossman chilli tomato sauce and cheese

I will begin my third year of uni in September and have just moved into a new house with my second year halls flatmates. (I stayed in halls on campus for two years.) Most of the students in my house live on pasta, pizza and chips. Other carbs are occasionally introduced when an adventurous mood takes us, but dinner is largely just penne covered in a shop-bought tomato sauce. Or should I say 'tea', as the Yorkshire natives do. (Confusion arises when someone says they're going to make dinner, meaning the evening meal in the South and lunch in the North, or tea, meaning a cup of tea in the South and the evening meal in the North.) There are six of us in our new house - there were eight in halls but the married middle-aged man from Hong Kong didn't speak to us and another was a 33 year old Manc who was too busy writing his dissertation or chatting up women to socialise with us. Out of these six students, three are vegetarians and the other three tend to stick to ham and chicken for their meat fix. I think it is quite common for students to become more veggie at uni due to the price of meat.

I personally tend to spend around £10-15 a week on food shopping, which isn't much. I always order my food online, usually with Tesco, but I've started to just add my measly requests onto everyone else's orders due to the minimum basket charge. My housemates use Asda thanks to its abundance of deals. My shopping list will typically consist of: 
  • longlife milk (I don't use milk every day as I don't bother drinking tea at uni, much to my family's horror) - 56p
  • easy cook brown rice - £1.75
  • potatoes - 34p each
  • whole wheat penne - £1
  • pesto - £1.20
  • chopped tomatoes - £1.50
  • Warburtons seeded bread - £1
  • peanut butter - 62p
  • cans of tuna - normally £6 but I only buy this when on offer, so around £3.50
  • garlic baguette - 32p
(This comes up to £11.79 and I don't even have to buy all these things every week. The prices quoted are those currently on Tesco online.)
I will buy avocados as a treat, but rarely. Other items I do not have to buy regularly: olive oil, tahini, garlic granules (*hides*). I try not to buy any chocolate because if it's not there, I can't eat it! Great dieting method. There are some luxuries in my cupboard, namely balsamic vinegar and Maldon salt, which I nick from home. I am the daughter of a foodie, after all. My biggest indulgence is dining out, although none of these excursions ever costs me over £15. To explore York, I used to eat at a new restaurant every 1-2 weeks, but now I just go to YO! Sushi every so often.

The chef of our house fills up the kitchen every evening with mouth-watering aromas and my pale and comparatively tasteless dinner simply cannot compete. He spends approximately £50 a week on his food shop. This extravagance makes Dom skint but he cannot bear living off non-perishables as I do, preferring to spend his money on fish, meat, fresh fruit and vegetables. He also has the most fancy pants equipment, boasting a large, heavy coffee machine that would look overly-professional even in Starbucks. My only appliance is a rice steamer (it cost £8) that I use far too often because it's totally brilliant. I stick rice in with some water, watch an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and come back to a bowl of perfectly cooked rice. What more could a lazy student want?

I think what we buy depends largely on our family backgrounds, maybe even more so than our budgets. A friend says she has "low expectations" when it comes to food, so she finds everything she cooks for herself (and this is mostly pasta, without salt!) delicious. I have been brought up with high expectations for food. If I'm lucky, when I visit home I'm greeted by home-smoked salmon on homemade sourdough toast or some other deliciousness I cannot afford at uni. Upon asking others what their parents cooked for them as children, I found out that baked beans with chips and a fried egg was normal. Apparently that's an actual thing, not just a joke in The Royle Family. Naturally, I come across as an utter wanker when I look shocked at these replies. I must admit to being absolutely outraged when I discover they have never tried sushi. Trying to imagine a life without sushi or pesto or gnocchi (because all of these things have reportedly never been eaten by some of my Northern friends) brings on an empty dreadful feeling that pours over me, which I suppose is how my mother feels when she hears tales of oven chips. Fortunately, Monique, my favourite housemate, has now experienced the wonder of avocado maki and I have never seen her happier than when she tucks into a green plate at YO! Sushi. (Disclaimer: YO! Sushi is the only Japanese(ish) restaurant in York, if we'd been in London I would obviously have taken her to somewhere proper like Asakusa.)

While I scoff at their use of table salt rather than sea salt flakes and patronise them in my middle class London way because they've never tried an avocado (come on though, really), at university our cooking pretty much levels out. We are all equally as lazy, apart from Dom who is a Proper Adult with spices and everything, so our food is equally basic. 

What did you eat as a student? Did you find culinary communism or were there tense class divisions in the kitchen?


  1. This was a great read and it definitely opened my eyes as to what students really eat.

    Having graduated about two years ago, I was lucky to live my first year and a half of uni at a family home in London, where the landlady would cook dinner for me every night. I just had to make breakfast and lunch to take to uni with me. After that, I moved into a small studio by myself and had to cook everything on my own. I'm very much into cooking and food in general so that wasn't a problem for me.

    I had financial help from my parents while studying, while I worked part time as a sales assistant to pay for some things. Now that I'm self-sufficient I spend about £80 to £120 on food a month. I eat A LOT of vegetables and fruits, I have a salad for lunch every day so I can see how things like that would bring up the food bill.

    Looking back, I was really lucky to have someone cook for me when I started uni, I don't think I would have been able to eat as much pasta.

    Also, there's many other low cost and healthier options than beans, chips and pizza... wonder why people eat it so much...I think it's more about knowing when and where to shop and using deals. I guess it runs in the family..


    1. Hi Julieta!
      I think some students do eat healthily, as my housemate Dom does, but a lot of us just want quick fixes and comfort food. Especially when studying, I can't be bothered to make anything other than pasta, which will take me 10 minutes. Getting fresh food does increase the budget significantly. I am personally really fussy as a pescetarian who doesn't like most vegetables or fruit, but I do occasionally crave cherry tomatoes, some salad or an apple.
      There's definitely many healthier alternatives that don't require too much effort or time but I was just reporting what really happens rather than what we should be doing.
      Thanks for reading!

  2. I really enjoyed Sienna's guest post - I'll make sure my daughter (almost 17 - hopefully going to Uni Sept 2015) reads it - also the daughter of a 'foodie', and current lone cooking consists of noodles, pasta pesto (sometimes with salmon & broccoli), nachos & burrito's.

    Spaghetti with marmite is good!


    1. Hi Sally
      Your daughter has great taste, I love pesto pasta with salmon, yum!
      I have recently gotten into cooking whole wheat pasta and eating it simply with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sounds weird but it's so good. I basically think salad dressing is yummy with pretty much anything.
      I believe you about the marm spag! Mother has done a pasta bake with marmite in the past, I think marmite is very versatile because it's basically just salty tanginess.

  3. Also forwarding this to my Uni-bound daughter. I think she will relate to this as daughter of a foodie :)

  4. Fab post, Sienna! It took me right back to Uni was the same in the 80s, pasta pasta pasta...cheese on toast, beans on toast...or just toast!! Still love all those things although the purse allows more variety now. Hope you have a great summer x

    1. Pasta and toast, they are still the mainstays of my existence even now

  5. Great post, and certainly reminds my of my student days in halls. We would create toasties from tortilla wraps, tomato paste, grated cheese and mayo. Essentially pizza?!

    I suspect the Northerners' lack of awareness of sushi and avocado may be more specific to your friends or perhaps the more parochial location of York. As a Mancunian who left the north the attend university in London there were few revelations food-wise, although I did discover more individuals who had the disposable income to share in the delights of eating out, and many more opportunities to eat interesting food very cheaply (I ate huge amounts of Vietnamese food, for example, the year we lived in E8).

    Enjoy your third year!

    1. Those wraps sound good.
      My Northern housemates are from Sunderland and Cumbria, so they don't regard Manchester to be very northern! They have very (geographically) high standards for acquiring the status of Northerner.
      A Bradford friend had never tried sushi, avocado, gnocchi, pesto... and of course more restaurant-y dishes, like panna cotta. But had obviously eaten an awful lot of curry.


  6. What did I eat in Uni, I had a 20 euro budget per week for everything, so including going for a coffee or a meal out. That's about 17 £ I think. I managed to cook fresh every day except for the frozen pizza I had once a week, which I did completely cover with fresh veg. Actually I baked that at home when I got home for the weekend as I din't have an oven and my mum's cooking is awful. (seriously) I saved on my lunch, while others would grab a filled baguette, I would bring my wholemeal bread with... nutella, cos it was cheap and didn't taste like crap after sitting in my bag for the whole morning.
    I would be able to afford 1 pack of cookies a week, only drank water or tea and during the weekend I would bake a cake at home if I had time with my student job.
    To be sure I could buy all the fresh food, I spent 2 hours a week shopping for food. I would get home, grab my bike and drive to 3 or 4 different stores to buy each product somewhere else as in one store the tomato sauce I liked would be 1,50 and in another it would be 2,20 (big difference!!) Sometimes I would even drive back as something was cheaper in the previous store. So yes I wasted a lot of time shopping "wisely" and this is the first thing I stopped doing when I got a full time job. Seriously, I can't live like that anymore, counting every penny, feeling hungry but knowing there is no money to buy or create a snack. (and I am hungry most of the time, always) At the time I didn't mind at all, but now, I couldn't go back. I love not having to count like I did. Of course I don't trow money out of the window but you really don't have to count to make the figures add up so you don't look like a fool at the till when you've gone 2 euros over and you don't have 2 euros in your pocket.
    The only thing I will go to a store especially for is avocados, I absolutely love avocados. But in my regular store they cost about 2,00 - 2,50 euros and in another it's 75 p each! So you see I still look at the prices of the food I buy. I just don't have to stress as much anymore. Great post Sienna! Cellar door (your screen name), in the movie Donny Darko the teacher claims it is the most beautiful word in the English language.

    1. You do still have a better food culture over in that thar continent. Sienna eats/cooks slightly better than most believe it or not

  7. When I was a student we lived on pasta, toast, a big pots of soup: potato & leek, minnestrone, lentil and bendy veggies! We lived near a supermarket and would go down close to closing and get all the marked down produce. There was also many a instant noodle pack with veggies thrown in...

  8. I was a student over ten years ago, but are very healthily. We had a great greengrocer where once a week I would buy veg for the week: this would then become a one pot meal like chilli or curry, with a tin of pulses & some chopped tomatoes being cheap additions. I did eat it for a few days in a row, cooking rice or similar each night to go with it, but it was still a lot cheaper & healthier than many of my housemates.

    1. A tin of tomatoes and ANY veg and hey presto, an acceptable pasta sauce.

  9. Brilliant post Sienna. Kirsten, she's a star!

    I lived at home when I was a student so I ate well but when I first met my husband he had a lovely flat but little money but thankfully his can-do attitude meant he gave cooking a go having been brought up on proper food-at-the-table.

    I am now preparing my boys for student life and I know although they can cook, I am sure they will eat instant noodle things and baked beans all the time. I have no problem with this for a while at least.

    Much Love
    Beach Hut Cook

    1. She's not a bad cook when she tries. Sienna makes the best vinaigrette in the world.

  10. I enjoyed reading both the post and the comments here! Very interesting. :)

    I did my first degree in Croatia, and my postgrad here in the UK. Neither of these were typical student cooking experiences, I don't think.

    In Croatia, I had a room-mate who loved food as much as I do (we're still good friends). While we ate in the university canteen (usually lunch), we also cooked a lot in our halls of residence, in a tiny kitchen consisting of just a hob and a sink. Most people used it to make just coffee or tea. Turkish-style coffee. And we didn't use many kettles in Croatia at that time, not sure if it's the same now. But not us. We cooked all sorts: soups, pasta, squid risotto (when my uncle gave us squid that he caught), occasionally fried chicken. Mostly veggie though. The risotto was more like a squid stew flavoured with bay leaf and red wine, and then rice was cooked in the stew (we liked brown rice with wild rice mixture). I shall have to post this version sometime. We both had part-time jobs which meant we could increase our food budgets, and we also brought food from home (cheese, ajvar, olive oil, my mum's homemade tomato sauce, etc.). I can't remember how much we spent on food, but I remember we spent a lot on wine. We both liked red wine. A lot. Of course we couldn't afford expensive wine, but we explored different wines within our price range. We had an illegal fridge and toaster toaster in our room, too. I sometimes made chilli con carne for my friends, which I had learnt to cook in the UK. And I made my British boyfriend bring baked beans over. My friends loved both the beans and the chilli. And I still adore baked beans. :)

    In the UK, I shared a kitchen and a house with a pretty international bunch: Ecuador, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka, Korea, Australia, Ireland, etc. Many of us cooked a lot, and some of us often cooked together. It was great! I got to try, and get to like, lots of new things, e.g. glutinous rice balls stuffed with red bean paste or sesame. Yum.


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