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How to free up time and money for cooking and eating well

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Photo by Jesse Colautti

As a student, it can be tough to find the time for good food. Between readings, papers, labs, midterms, and exams, eating something other than microwavable dinners or Mr.Noodles can seem like a chore.

But eating well doesn’t have to be that difficult or time-consuming. A few nights a week, set aside an hour or two to make yourself a delicious dinner. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just something that you take a bit of time to prepare and enjoy. 

Eating well doesn’t have to be expensive 

Rather than buying Kraft Dinner or frozen pizzas, use your money more effectively and get some good wholesome food. One example: beans. Black beans, Kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, and Romano beans are some of the cheapest, most versatile, and healthy foods you can buy at the store. The amount of protein, fibre, and other nutrients you can get from one can is astounding. The best part is that a can of beans will cost you about a dollar. 

Another superfood is quinoa. This grain is a phenomenal alternative to rice in a side dish or for a salad, as it’s far more nutritional and satisfying. You can usually get cheap wholesale sized bags at the grocery store that aren’t too expensive and will leave you well-supplied for months.   

Do some research

Next time you’re at the grocery store, take 10 minutes to look down the aisles you usually avoid. Look for any good, cheap produce or shelf items that give you some bang for your buck. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve come across who spend a ridiculous amount on one or two food frills, and then complain about their high grocery bills. It’s so easy to buy good, cheap food if you know where to look. 

The first step toward lowering the cost and increasing the quality of your food begins before you even enter a grocery store. Read a flyer. I know it sounds obvious, but adapting your meals to sales can make a massive difference in your bill. I find Metro to be a bit more expensive than Loblaws, but sometimes they have different sales. You don’t have to buy everything at one store. 

Another important piece of advice is find out what foods are in season. Buying produce in season will save you a ton of money and give you the freshest and often tastiest ingredients.

Living in Canada can be particularly difficult during the winter, since buying produce at this time of year can be disheartening. I would suggest you stay away from your summer fruits and berries in the winter months because you will only be disappointed at the taste and price. (Blueberries in the winter taste like sand.) There are plenty of other good winter fruits to look for and they’ll be much cheaper. 

Building your kitchen

Right, so you have your ingredients, your recipe and you’re ready to go, but you still need your cooking supplies. Getting a good set of knives, a cutting board, pots, pans, spices, and oils can be very expensive when you’re just starting out. It’s easy to get carried away and spend $50 to $60 on spices alone. 

Stick to the essentials: knives, a cutting board, salt and pepper, olive oil, and one or two pots and pans of different sizes. If you can add in a baking dish that would be perfect, but if you can’t afford it, you can get by with the items above. Quality cookware will last you years if you take care of it, and it’s much more enjoyable to cook with good equipment. Cutting with bent and brittle knives is horrible. If you’re going to buy a bunch of spices, get the bagged ones. They’re way cheaper and you get a lot more. You can also use mason jars, or washed out spaghetti sauce jars, as a way to store your spices.

Finding inspiration

It takes time to get good at something, and cooking is no different. You can’t do it if you aren’t inspired. I encourage you to get out and explore what Ottawa has to offer. Getting out and tasting different foods will get your creativity flowing and teach you how to complement certain ingredients with others. Over time you’ll develop a better sense of what you’re doing and it’ll come more organically. Until then, it’s fine to pay a little more attention to the recipe.

Most importantly, have fun with it. Cook to some music or cook for a bunch of friends. Food is a great way to bring people together, so take advantage of it and enjoy.