Sometimes I get caught up in the surreal nature of the fact that I have graduated. It’s pretty weird to talk to friends from my graduating class, and digest the idea that we are all headed different directions in such a relatively short time.

But something many graduates have in common is the prospect of moving out.

Soon my peers and I will face the intensified pressures of fiscal independence, the next steps of life — whether through a college education or otherwise — and dealing with new roommates, neighbors and colleagues.

All are very pressing changes, but today let’s talk about one that’s a little bit more lighthearted — food!

In light of the other new challenges of adulthood, food may seem rather trivial, but the “Freshman 15” weight gain is a notorious enemy for a reason. Many kids don’t have a terribly adept sense for feeding themselves when sent out on their own. Many find themselves either gaining or losing a lot of weight, which frankly, isn’t terribly healthy.

On the other hand, few dorm rooms are equipped with full kitchens, making it more difficult to be proactive about preparing your own food (unless you don’t mind cooking in the common spaces). The upshot of it all is that food in college is a major adjustment for many, whether through dealing with small preparation spaces, or a general unfamiliarity with designing a meal plan for only oneself.

Thus, I’d like to share some things I’ve learned in my research in the hope that some other forthcoming college freshmen can also profit.

Plan ahead

The biggest hurdle to cooking for just yourself has to do with learning to plan effectively. Plenty of people have experience cooking, but have done so for more than one person. Most students who cook for one have to adjust to going through food you purchase slower, or learning to make smaller meals. Thus, your new best friend is learning how to plan meals ahead.

As for nutrition, you are more acutely aware of what you’re eating when you have taken the time to decide what it will be. This means you can avoid impulse buys that are unhealthy or more food than you can eat. Deliberate planning means that you will spend exactly what you need to, which is vital for any college student living on a small budget.

This also means you will want to brush up on your math skills. Most recipes are not designed for one person, so if you plan on cooking one serving, you have to learn to divide the recipe in half. You can be more precise in your spending but there are some drawbacks to cooking on a micro level. For example, you may well be cooking every day, a prospect that is not attractive to all.

Or, on a busy schedule, many prefer faster food, leading to ...

Leftovers, frozen meals

Leftover food can be your best friend. It’s a quick, simple meal that you already know you enjoyed.

In addition, with a little thought, meals can be transformed with leftovers. For example, if you went all-out once and cooked a bunch of chicken, the chicken can be used for an array of meals — tacos, wraps, sandwiches, salads, anything you want. If you’re smart with your planning, leftovers don’t have to be an exercise in repetition. They can be a faster ingredient in a new dish.

Another valuable tool at the disposal of the new college student is freezing those leftovers. Since you already prepared the meals, there is very little to actually do once it’s time to use the frozen food for meals. And if you’re willing to coordinate with others, you can have a variety of foods at your disposal.

My sister gave me a small slow cooker for Christmas, so that provides another way to make college cooking painless. You just put in one of the frozen meals, leave it be and head to your classes, and return to delicious and warm food. This might seem to be an expense that is out of reach, but it turns out that if you choose to buy a small slow cooker (which is likely what you would want if you’re cooking for one), they ring in on websites like Amazon for less than $10.

It’s a small investment, but a large value for someone as busy as a college student.

Be mindful of nutrition

There are many things to keep in mind when you strike out on your own, but in the realm of food, it’s definitely in your interest to make sure you’re keeping healthy. It may be easy enough to just live off ramen, but your body will not thank you.

With all the new responsibilities, classes and jobs, you need to make sure that you have a balanced diet, or you risk facing malnutrition and a host of diseases that follow it.

One of the most difficult aspects of nutrition to obtain while living on a small budget is protein. Meat is expensive. In high school, I had a teacher that recommended keeping meat on the menu by taking your family’s leftovers when you’re home. It’s probably fairly effective, but not practical to keep protein in your diet long-term — unless you live remarkably close to your parents.

Anyhow, it’s worth finding other sources for that nutrient. Beans, for instance, are a great food to meet that need. They’re relatively cheap, they taste good, and there’s a wide variety to choose from. Or with research of your own, you can find which foods best meet your needs. It just takes a certain level of forethought before you buy food.

Ultimately, cooking for yourself is just an exercise in independence that many of us are learning to adjust to. However, it doesn’t have to be a nerve-racking experience, and it doesn’t have to lead to dramatic health changes like the “Freshman 15.”

As you strike out on your own, don’t “strike out” your health. You can cook for one, as long as you’re willing to put some thought into making your plans succeed. Now go forth and use your new planning and cooking skills for good!

Sierra Clark is a recent graduate of Venture High School. She plays piano and flute and is an avid reader, but most of all she enjoys learning all about new things. Email her at s.siclark@venturelearning.org.

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