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Cooking basics for the hungry college freshman

Exuberant British chef Jamie Oliver has famously said every child should strike out on their own with the ability to cook 10 things. Boiling water is not one.

It certainly is true that the more they know how to cook, the better shape their budget and health will be. Still, it seems like a tall order.

Can their parents prepare that many dishes?

Home cooking role models may be spotty for many young adults. In recent years, according to Bureau of Labor statistics, the biggest share of our weekly food budget is spent on eats prepared outside the home.

We are raising a nation of children who know how to hold a menu but aren't so versed at folding an omelet. Still, it's worth the effort to teach your children some kitchen basics like scrambling eggs, baking chicken breasts and preparing a simple soup. That's three.

In my other role, I am an adjunct journalism instructor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Last semester, I asked beginning reporting students to interview other students about what they wished they would have learned about cooking before they left home. Responses varied, but clearly everyone was hungry for information. E.)

One lamented that she couldn't tell when fruits and vegetables were ripe. Another admitted to a lack of understanding about spices.

Roaming the campus were students who didn't know how to make rice or hard-boil eggs. Determining when chicken was done was a mystery. Information on budgets and coupons would have been helpful, they said.

Many said they were sorry they didn't pay more attention when Mom was cooking. Yeah, Mom, too.

Getting started

Maybe its seems overwhelming but there are about seven weeks before most college kids take off. That's nearly 50 dinners. Even if you dine out for half, you've still got some opportunities to make sure your budding adult knows how to make rice. (Big hint: The instructions are on the bag, but it's generally 2-to-1, water to uncooked grain.)

Keep in mind, you aren't training them to be contestants on Top Chef. You just don't want them to think that cooking everything on high on the stove makes the process go faster. (Another hint: Grilled cheese sandwiches cooked on a red-hot coil will result in bread burning before cheese has melted.)

Instructions and dishes should be simple, making sure they fit the college budget and equipment inventory. The best way to get started is to have your student cook alongside you. He will pick up quite a bit by watching how you cut an onion or use a whisk. Show her how to take the meat off a store-bought rotisserie chicken and make sure she knows it's okay to use clean hands and a so-so knife (though a good one is a great going-away present).

Like music or tennis lessons, practice is what's needed to succeed in the kitchen. Or at least to become marginally competent. Not much of a cook yourself? The two of you can gather 'round the computer and find a YouTube video on how to cook just about anything.

When it comes to cooking, the Internet can be your best friend. Besides recipes and instructional videos, it's a wealth of information about ingredients and techniques. The multitude of home-cooking blogs are also helpful. Heck, the two of you might be inspired to start one.

Also, go grocery shopping together and explain your reasons for buying certain things. Show how you use coupons (or explain why you don't). Spend time in the produce section — it seems to flummox new shoppers. They want to know why you chose one tomato over another. Walk them through your thought process as you buy the building blocks for dinner.

Most of all, be patient and get input. What is it that they would like to learn to make?

If you don't know how to do something, learn it together. That will help get your own dinnertime repertoire to Jamie Oliver's required 10.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at or (727) 893-8586.


Vegetarian Chili

Packets of chili seasoning are widely sold but learning to make the spice blend yourself gives you more control over the flavoring. Also, look at the ingredients carefully to make sure the product is vegetarian if you go with a store-bought blend.

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cups chopped onion

3 garlic cloves, minced

4 cups water, divided use

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 (14.5-ounce) cans diced tomatoes, undrained

1 (15 1/2-ounce) can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained

1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained

1 (16-ounce) can cannellini beans or other white beans, rinsed and drained

1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

1/2 cup reduced-fat shredded cheddar cheese, (optional)

Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; saute 3 minutes or until tender. Add 3 cups water and next 8 ingredients (through cannellini beans), stirring to combine.

Combine remaining cup of water and tomato paste in a bowl, stirring with a whisk until blended. Stir tomato paste mixture into bean mixture. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Ladle soup into bowls. Top with cheese, if desired.

Serves 8 (1 1/2 cups).

Source: Cooking Light


Barbecue Chicken Salad

1/4 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise

1/4 cup barbecue sauce

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 cups chopped cooked chicken breast from a rotisserie chicken

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

1 celery rib, sliced

5 cups torn salad greens or from a bag

1/2 cup garlic croutons

In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Just before serving, combine the chicken, tomatoes and celery; stir in dressing. Serve over salad greens; top with croutons.

Serves 3 to 4.



Skillet Tacos

1 pound ground beef

1 small red onion, chopped

1 (15-ounce) can whole kernel corn, drained

10 (6-inch) corn tortillas, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 (8-ounce) bottle taco sauce

1 1/4 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided use

Hot pepper sauce, optional

In a large skillet, cook beef and onion over medium heat, stirring until meat is no longer pink; drain. Add the corn, tortillas, taco sauce and 1 cup cheese; heat through. Top with remaining cheese and sprinkle with hot sauce if desired.

Serves 6.

Source: Taste of Home


Lemony Chicken

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, split lengthwise to make thinner

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons butter, divided use

1 cup mushrooms, sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup white wine or chicken broth

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

Place each chicken breast half between two sheets of plastic wrap. Flatten with a rolling pin or a large plastic cup to a uniform thickness of slightly less than 1/2 inch. Season with salt and pepper.

Melt half of butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken breasts and brown on both sides; remove from skillet and set aside.

Melt remaining butter in same pan. Add mushrooms. Cook over high heat until they begin to brown, 2 minutes.

Sprinkle with garlic and cook 30 seconds.

Add wine (or broth) and chicken breasts. Reduce heat and simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 7 minutes.

Just before chicken is done, add lemon juice, parsley and additional salt and pepper.

Serves 4.



their own words

We asked students at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg what they wished they had known about cooking before leaving home. Here are some responses, many of them enlightening for parents sending young adults out on their own.

"I wish my mom would have taught me how to season my food because all of my food is bland."

Jaylyn Malone

"I wish I would have learned how to use an oven and fry in a pan."



"I wish I knew how expensive shopping for myself would be."

Sam Matlack

"I wish I knew

what seasonings to put on what foods and

how long to cook certain foods."

Catherine Rudniski

"Easy-over eggs and nonstick pans go together;

easy-over eggs

and regular pans do not!"

Amy Johnson

"I wish my mother would have taught me our traditional family recipes."

Chelsea Zeringue

"Know how to use your stove and basic safety. I can't tell you how many times I've come back from class with the stove on."

Allan Pinkerton

"I wish I had learned

more nutrition facts."

Cayleigh Sturms

"What is natural and what is not? Are green beans out of the can as good for you as out of the garden? I think

it would be great if they had courses for that on campus."

Elliott Lightfoot

"I wish I had gained more experience cooking at home before going to college. My mom tried to show me several times, but I wasn't interested. I didn't understand that taking an interest in cooking was taking an interest in my well-being.

Ricky Cherry

Contributors: Nancy McCann, Jason Marcus, Ryan Ballogg, Krystal Blais, Lina Probst, Angela Blockburger, Jacob Coonfare, Amanda Starling, Lila Timson, Christina Quay, Jennifer Jones, Michael Butler, Nathan Powell

Tips for the beginner

Read through a recipe once, maybe twice, before starting. This way you won't be surprised that something needs to be chilled or that a special ingredient is required.

Trust and follow the instructions on the package. Being a free spirit is an admirable quality and can be welcome in the kitchen — once the basics have been mastered.

Don't cook everything on high heat. It won't get the food done more quickly; rather it will burn the outside while leaving the inside raw. Scrambled eggs get rubbery when cooked on high, and garlic will burn and turn bitter. High heat is mostly for boiling.

Make friends with aluminum foil. Use it to cover the burner pans you've stained as a result of letting food boil over. Place a large sheet under a baking pan to catch any dribbles and splatters, often a problem with lasagna. Use it to loosely cover cooked meat or pasta to keep warm.

The way food is cut is important. For instance, minced garlic will be stronger than chopped because more of the clove is exposed to air, releasing its oil and flavor. These are terms you'll see most often:

Chop: Irregular pieces. Vegetables that have been chopped usually don't need more cutting at the table.

Slice: Flat pieces, often in the same shape as the food, as in cucumber or melon slices.

Dice: Uniform pieces, usually a 1/4- or 1/2-inch square.

Julienne: Thin matchstick pieces.

Mince: Smallest possible pieces. Garlic and onions are often minced.

Spices and dried herbs can be expensive. To save money, buy them from whole food stores rather than in bottles from the grocery store. This way, you can purchase just a couple of tablespoons. Also, dried and fresh herbs are not the same thing. Dried herbs are much stronger. If substituting, reduce the amount of fresh herbs called for by two-thirds.

The Internet is the next best thing to Mom. (Maybe better.) It will have to be a very obscure cooking technique to not have a how-to video on YouTube.

Other resources


The Everything College Cookbook: 300 Hassle-Free Recipes for Students on the Go by Rhonda Lauret Parkinson (Adams Media, 2005)

How to Cook Everything: The Basics, All You Need to Make Great Food — with 1,000 Photos by Mark Bittman (Houghton Mifflin, 2012)

Anything in the "Hungry Girl" series by Lisa Lillien. From her successful blog, Lillien has built an empire with cookbooks and instructions for simple, low-cal recipes. Her book on supermarket survival could be a big help to new shoppers and cooks.

Blogs and websites:

There are a number of websites that provide basic recipes and good instructions for beginners, among them and Also,, the website of the magazine Taste of Home, is good for beginners.

Most new cooks like to read blogs by people like them. Here are a few written by college students that touch on budgets, equipment and ingredients — or how to make due without a lot of any of them.





Janet K. Keeler

Cooking basics for the hungry college freshman 06/25/13 [Last modified: Monday, June 24, 2013 6:31pm]
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