This post is courtesy of my dear Frugal Son.
Few people are nostalgic for their college eating experiences. College is a time of tight budgeting, and neither money nor time is available to spend on cooking. For most people, college food memories probably conjure up images of a mystery meat concoction from the cafeteria, greasy fast food, ramen, microwaveable entrees, or other unsavory morsels. Nothing very appetizing or nourishing to be certain. Except for the lucky few who are in the know, the vast majority of college students—and people in general—are under the impression that to eat well requires a lot of money and / or a lot of time or that “restaurant quality” food is out of reach of the average cook. While in some cases cooking is a time-consuming process—there is just no way to speed up the process of making a demi-glace—practical cooking can be cheaper, easier, and more satisfying than buying pre-packaged convenience food or going to a restaurant.
My most recent cooking experience is a good example of the kind of cooking that can be done in an EXTREMELY limited kitchen by a person with limited skills on a limited budget, but without skimping on taste or perceived fanciness. My meal for the night—salmon baked on thin slices of lemon garnished with a butter and caper sauce and a stir-fried rice with vegetables on the side—would seem to be more at home on the menu of a fancy eatery than in a simple apartment kitchen. How much do you think this meal cost me to make? At P.F. Chang’s, where I ate recently for a friend’s birthday, a similar menu option (Salmon Steamed with Ginger and served with a side of White Rice) came to $17.95 before tax and tip; for four people to eat this dish at a restaurant would easily cost $70 and take up at least a two-hour chunk of the evening. While a $15 or even $20 per person meal might be nice every now and then, it is definitely not something that is sustainable on a college budget or really any budget; eating a $15 meal three times a week for a year comes to $2,340, which is money I would much rather spend on a plane ticket to Korea or some other foreign locale!
In addition to the gustatory, nutritional, and financial benefits of cooking for yourself, a little known side-effect is a markedly improved social life. Casually mention that you love to cook but need a kitchen and suddenly you will have three times as many friends as you thought you had. Also, if you cook seemingly complex or fancy foods, you will soon gain a reputation as some sort of cooking genius. I must admit that part of the reason I love to cook for friends is the ego-stoking I get from them and I was beaming at the praise I received for this meal.
As Dr. Frugal Scholar says, frugality is not about depriving oneself of things but rather it is about getting more from less, and home cooking is one of the most rewarding frugal tasks I know of. For the cost of a single person’s meal at a restaurant I can cook the aforementioned meal for myself and three other people and I can do it in about the same amount of time that it would take to go to a restaurant. I can see the skeptical looks on your faces, dear readers, but fear not; in my next post I’ll show you how to cook a meal that leaves your belly (and your friends’ bellies) satisfied and your wallet intact.