Food Budget & Cooking at College

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Simple meals a freshman can prepare at college

May 2015

My foster son will be attending a CSU far from us in the fall, and he's also going to attend a five-week summer bridge program there beginning in June. This university does not have a dining commons--all the dorms are shared apartments, each with its own kitchen. He can either pick up fast food on campus, or walk to the nearby grocery store for ingredients and cook in his kitchen.

I've only been working with my son on cooking for the last year or so due to his extensive emotional issues. I actually felt like we were doing pretty well, timing-wise, until we realized that the CSU he picked would require cooking skills sooner than expected.

Does anyone have suggestions for basic meals with few ingredients that would be easy to make in a shared apartment setting? Culturally, he's very meat oriented, and generally he wants his food to be simple. My ideas: We'll practice different ways to make eggs. Spaghetti and meatballs (frozen, from the store). Hamburgers from frozen patties. Sandwiches. We'll stock him up on cereal. After that I feel stuck!

Suggested meals and/or personal experience with this kind of cooking situation would be much appreciated! getting nervous!


Hi mom, Glad to hear that you are helping your foster son (especially since I'm a fost -adopt mom) I spent my graduate school years eating meals prepared with a slow cooker. I still use one today. It was good to come home and have the food ready. There are 3-4 different sizes so I'd suggest choosing one that could hold enough enough for 2-3 meals. The larger ones can hold a chicken which means meat for 2-3 days ( think chicken tacos, burritos, sandwiches, etc) . This works well for dinner, which will probably be eaten late after a long day. You can start testing recipes now before he goes. There are some 3-4 ingredient recipes that are simple to prepare so he won't need to spend time chopping veggies or meat. Check on line for recipes or the library for cook books. The meals can be healthy to help him from gaining ( or loosing) weight. And don't forget the storage containers for leftovers. Zero in on his food likes and go from there. Good luck and congrats to your son. Mom who likes quick and simple meals


It may be helpful to realize/think of it this way, that just about any food you can think of exists in a similar form in another culture. i.e. the equivalent to spanish empanadas in Jamaica are Jamaica patties (Either of which, by the way, can be bought frozen and fairly quickly baked to make a snack/meal. Or Pierogi)

  • Hamburgers? Think burritos or tacos. Make a cup of rice which should keep in the fridge for a couple of days, and then fry some ground beef, or bake some chicken, and wrap it in a tortilla with rice and salsa.
  • Hot dogs? Try buying frozen or fresh italian sausages and cooking them for a 'meatier' hot dog.
  • Spaghetti? Try tortellini with meat or veg fillings, or ravioli. Buy frozen or fresh from the refrigerated section, and slather with red or white sauce. (Note for other parents - don't be shy about teaching your boys how to cook, from an early age, like 5 or 6...)

Dad Who Taught His Son to Cook


Meat oriented? That makes it super easy. He just needs a crock-pot. Put in a piece of meat, potatoes, carrots in the morning and walk away for 6-10 hours. By dinner it will all be done! Or put the ingredients in the crock pot before bed and it will be done in the morning. A simple rice cooker is also a good idea; rice, noodles, vegetables can all be cooked in it. Again, put the ingredients in and walk away for 20 minutes and that's it. Have fun!


So of course, there is every college student's go-to meal, which is ramen noodles. If you go to someplace like 99 Ranch or Tokyo Fish Market, you can show him how to read the labels and look for kinds with better ingredients, or at least without ingredients you'd prefer to avoid (MSG, etc). Once you know his favorite kind(s), it's nice to put in college student care packages. My kid likes the really spicy Korean Raymun. You can show him how to dress it up with finely chopped carrots and BokChoy or really any other cabbage, greens or veggies that are readily available at his local market.

  • Other ideas that come to mind are sausages (like Aidell's or any other) and decent quality hotdogs. Coleslaw or canned beans are an easy and cheap accompanying side dish.
  • Sandwiches, Tuna salad, grilled cheese (or ham, or tuna melt), quesadillas. Anything you can wrap in a tortilla. Encourage the addition of lettuce, tomato, other appropriate vegetables or side salad to get some veggies in.
  • Nachos: take some tortilla chips, layer on top with canned beans (refried beans, whole black beans or his choice of other), olives onions, tomatoes, shredded cheese, meat if desired, and other more or less healthy (except for the chips) taco ingredients, bake in the oven until the cheese is melted, then top with avocado or guacamole, sour cream, cilantro, salsa or whatever he likes.
  • An easy soup: boil water, add ''better than bullion'' soup base, a handful of spaghetti, a little leftover chicken, and a handful of chopped vegetables such as carrots and green beans, and you have a pretty good chicken noodle soup.
  • Also check out ''A Man, A Can, A Plan'': http://www.amazon.com/Man-Can-Plan-Great-Meals/dp/1579546072 There is also a microwave version of this book.

​Here's a few simple staples i lived on in college...
- beans, rice, cheese, and salsa. Cook meat separately if he wants, throw it all in a bowl, and eat with a fork or tortillas or tortilla chips
- italian sausage with white beans & kale (the most gourmet thing I ate)
- boxed mac & cheese
- hummus & cucumber sandwiches
- casseroles - look on the Campbell's soup cans for recipes, but basically it's a can of ''cream of X'' soup, water, uncooked rice, and mix-ins. I usually did chicken + broccoli.
- grilled cheese and (canned) tomato soup. add ham or bacon to the sandwich if he prefers
- a lot of boxed, easy prep meals like hamburger helper. when I think of the sodium levels now...yikes! but they were delicious and easy at the time.
- shepherd's pie: layer in a pie pan (from bottom to top) premade crust, 1lb cooked ground beef, 1/2 bag of frozen peas & carrots, cover with prepared instant mashed potatoes. Bake until the crust is done. That's good for at least 4 meals. Jessica

Off to college (apt not dorm), monthly food budget?

Aug 2014

Hi all, we've made it to the place where DD is off to college! Question for those of you paying for child's expenses including food: what is the monthly amount you provide? We want her to do less eating out/Starbucks/etc than she currently does (remember when our college food consisted of too much ramen and peanut butter?). I know times are different and there is a ''Starbucks culture'' of sorts, but we want her to use it less than the high school kids these days seem to.

If you were sending (or have sent) yours off to live away from home, let's say in urban area of CA like Bay Area or LA, etc., how much would or did you provide for food each month? We'd love to hear a variety of answers to spur our thinking and calculating. Thanks so much! Made it to 18!!


First year my daughter is off-campus, and I too am worried about her eating out all the time. My solution is to figure out how much on-campus housing + food plan is, divide that by 12, round down a little (off-campus should be less expensive than on campus), and put that much in her bank account every month. She has to pay for all expenses (except tuition, fees and health insurance; maybe I'll give her more $$ for books if they're expensive). I think this should help her budget as well as cook at home more. She also knows she could get a meal plan at school with her account (she might get 5 meals per week, or something like that) until she's used to cooking for herself ... if that every happens! Also, I started putting the money in her account in June, with the idea that there would me a good amount of ''seed'' money in the account at the start of school, since expenses are higher then -- she'll need books and a little cheap furniture. Wendy


Basic cookbook for student on a budget?

Sept. 2002

Can anyone recommend a good basic cookbook for a college student whose budget will not allow much eating out? My son cooks a little, but his roommates not at all. I read about one several years ago written by a college student for college students but can't remember the name. He doesn't find much he wants to make from sources like Fanny Farmer or Joy of Cooking. We plan to send family favorite recipes with him also. Ela


Regarding a good basic cookbook: Elaine Corn, Now You're Cooking (published by Jay Harlow & Elaine Ratner, Berkeley parents of a teen) -- harzim


My 14-year old likes Clueless in the Kitchen, A Cookbook for Teens, by Evelyn Raab, in paperback. It has humor, simple recipes and enough instructions for non-cooks, like how to cut up a chicken. Lots of teen foods. I myself learned to cook from Sunset's Basics for Good Cooking, which I still use. Good recipes plus all the basics.