Cooking for Smarties: A Meal Plan for Grad Students

Is this your life?

I was totally out of ideas when I sat down to write this morning in the waiting room of the infectious disease clinic at the UW Medical center. (I had taken my young friend there after she returned from Senegal with a weird rash.) Then, out of the blue, my friend Yoshi messaged me with:

  i have a food question for you

Naturally, I nearly peed my pants with excitement.

Yoshi and I met in college when we were studying English abroad in the UK. We bonded over crude jokes and a common love of women’s pants. Since then, we’ve remained close friends–he was one of my husband’s groomsmen–and provided moral support for each others’ various academic and creative endeavors. Yoshi is currently a doctoral candidate at Columbia’s Teacher’s College and he’s probably the smartest person I know. Which is saying A LOT because I know way too many ridiculously smart people.

I do have a leg up on him in the food department, though. As a bachelor and a grad student, Yoshi struggles to eat real food for a variety of normal reasons: no time, no money, no motivation when you eat every meal alone (wah, wah). But as we near our thirties and the cold hand of death begins to enter our consciousness, even people like Yoshi who are too busy thinking about the metaphysical implications of something something start caring about their diet.

Here is the challenge he presented me with this morning:

  • 5 meals, that could be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner
  • Rotate them from time to time
  • Can be made in large batches ahead of time but need to be reheated without a microwave or oven
  • Have a median price of $3/meal
  • Covers all the essential nutritional needs
  • No large chunks of carrots
I am so, so excited to meet this challenge and EXCEED it by costing each meal at an average of $2. I’m going to try to post a recipe at least every couple of days, but I’m going to need to put a little more effort than usual into pricing ingredients, measuring serving sizes, and adjusting for taste with the price limitations I have. So don’t get mad if I’m a little slow. Also, I might come up with more than 5 recipes. Pick your 5 faves and let me know!

Do you have to be a grad student or even a “smarty pants” to use these recipes? Absolutely not. In fact, I think that you should try them no matter who you are, how old you are or what you do for a living. The idea is that they are recipes that even a grad student can afford and enjoy.

What I’m giving you (and Yoshi) today is a list of ingredients you should have around ALL THE TIME. If you have this stuff on hand, you can make a huge variety of dishes quickly and cheaply. But, if you’d rather just pick a recipe and use that as a shopping list, that’s fine too.

My absolute favorite thing about this list is that if you store your food properly it will last forever (not literally but still a very long time). Another point for vegans. Obviously though if you feel like you can’t live without cheese or butter or whatever you are allowed to purchase it. But, know your options. Knowledge is power.

Unbleached, all-purpose flour: this one is pretty obvious, right?
Baking powder: for leavening baked goods
Sugar: I prefer organic, fair trade, evaporated cane juice. But if you’re not picky, just get white sugar.
Olive oil: for low-heat sautéing, salad dressing, and dipping bread
Canola oil: for higher heat frying and baking when you don’t want to taste the oil. Keep in the fridge.
Plain, unsweetened soy milk: for baking, drinking, and sauces. Buy the unrefrigerated quart-sized, and keep in the fridge.
Ground flax seed meal: for using as an egg substitute. Keep in the fridge or freezer.
Lentils: buy dry, doubles as starch and protein. Store in a sealed container at room temp.
Garbanzo beans: buy canned
Black beans: up to you whether you want to cook up a big batch of dry black beans or use canned. One way you’ll save money, the other way you’ll save time.
Rice (white or brown): I like to keep both on hand because while white rice cooks up super fast, brown rice is much better for you. Store in a sealed container at room temp.
Lemons and/or limes: or buy a little bottle of juice. Store in the fridge.
Fresh garlic: store at room temp or in the fridge
Fresh onions: store at room temp or in the fridge
Quick or instant oats: Out of ideas and time? Eat some oatmeal. Store at room temp in a sealed container. Bring a little more water than oats to boil with a pinch of salt. Add oats, reduce heat, and cook stirring till it’s cooked to your liking. Add nuts, fruit, sweeteners as you please.
Dry whole-wheat pasta: (I prefer penne) boil and then toss with any veggies, dairy, and/or nuts you have
Canned tomatoes (I prefer crushed): for pasta sauce, curry, chili, etc.
Unsweetened apple sauce: a great snack, better than butter on toast and pancakes, and excellent in baked goods. If you don’t think you’ll eat it quickly, buy the little guys.
Peanut butter: For toast, sandwiches, sauces, etc. Buy the healthy kind, please: no sugar or added oils. Just peanuts and salt. Store in the fridge.
Walnuts: Crazy healthy, delicious, and not terrible expensive if you buy in bulk. Store in the fridge or freezer.

Spices and seasonings
You have two options here: Invest in a bottle, or just buy a little bit as you need it for a recipe. On one had you’ll be able to cook more spontaneously and experiment. On the other, you’ll save money and space. 
Iodized salt (so you don’t get all iodine deficient)
Black pepper (ideally, grind it yourself so it stays fresh longer)
Chili powder
Ground cumin
Curry powder (there isn’t like a curry plant or seed; curry powder is a blend of different seasonings and they’re all a little different and vary in level of heat)
Bay leaves
– If you want, a bottle of Mrs. Dash, Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute, or similar salt-free spice blend
– Red pepper flakes and hot sauce if you like your food spicy

That’s it. If you have all that, you can cook or bake pretty much whatever you want with whatever produce looks good at the store: fresh, frozen, or canned. If you are feeling a little more adventurous, though, consider these other things that may come in handy: 
– Frozen veggies: especially shelled edamame and chopped spinach. You can put either of them in ANYTHING.
– Soy sauce: It’s just really good. Especially in stir fries or on rice.
– Frozen fruit: good in muffins and pancakes, heated up with apple sauce, in a smoothie, on a salad… and berries are packed with antioxidants which make you live longer.
– Ground ginger and sesame oil: if you really like stir fries
– Potatoes, fresh or frozen, for when you’re tired of rice
– Salad mix, lettuce, spinach, greens: Like frozen chopped spinach, fresh green are great in LITERALLY everything. Unlike frozen spinach, they are also good in salads.
– Seasonal fresh fruits and veggies: Going to the farmer’s market is a fun outing and/or date, and it’s good to support your local farmers, and it’s good to eat fresh produce.
– Garam masala: if you really like Indian-style curries
– Smoked paprika and chipotle powder: if you really like chili and Mexican-style dishes
– Dried oregano and basil: if you really like Italian flavors
– Dried rosemary, olives and capers: if you really like Mediterranean flavors

Am I leaving anything out? What do you find yourself running out of the most?

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2 Responses to Cooking for Smarties: A Meal Plan for Grad Students

  1. Erina says:

    Love this concept! I am all about the mean plan, so this is right up my alley.

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