Essential cookbooks for a college student's first apartment kitchen

Published Aug. 10, 2015

Children leave you by degrees. There's preschool, the first sleepover, all that stuff. But the biggie is when they peel their favorite posters from their bedroom, corral the soccer trophies into a box in the attic (where they will live forever) and head off to college.

Or so I thought.

In a way, last year I could think of my freshman in her dorm room with a certain amount of maternal sanguinity. Someone would expect her home at night. Someone would, on occasion, clean her hall bathroom. Someone would be feeding her regularly. It might be chicken frisbees and bean burritos, but they would occur three times a day and would sustain life.

On Sunday my progeny departs my house for her very first apartment. We spent a morning recently combing through my kitchen to outfit hers. Into a box went the nearly new Calphalon soup pot (too heavy for me, but she's a strapping girl), my first good chef's knife, my B Team ladle and peeler, the extra colander and coffeepot.

And with all of it, of course, came advice. One sharp knife is worth 10 dull ones. Put enough pasta water in the pot so the water comes back up to a boil quickly and the pasta doesn't get gluey. Don't apologize to guests for the food you're about to serve; keep your game face on (but if it's iffy, serve a good dessert).

She received it with a minimum of eye-rolling. Truth is, like so many young adults I know, she is a "foodie," can tell you the difference between panang and massaman curry, but can do little more in the kitchen than make a sandwich. Millennials can talk about sustainability and the merits of GMO labeling, but surprisingly few of them can roast a chicken and whip up mashed potatoes.

In the case of my own daughter, I bear some responsibility. So often at the end of the workday I roared into the driveway famished, the most expedient thing to make dinner myself. Stand back, folks! But as in the old adage about teaching a man to fish versus giving a man a fish, I never taught my daughter how to cook a fish.

Time to outsource.

Leslie Bilderback, who had a lot of success last year with her cookbook Mug Cakes (a book that accounted for the Freshman 15 across the country as college girls stayed up making moonpie mug cakes and root beer float mug cakes), has done it again with Mug Meals (St. Martin's Griffin; $22.99). My daughter has already dog-eared some of the pages: short ingredient lists, fairly wholesome (there's quinoa, natch) and clearly described techniques for making single-serve lasagnas, soups and such.

And gender issues aside, another helpful new book is Avi Shemtov's The Single Guy Cookbook (Page Street Publishing Co.; $19.99). I wouldn't exactly call it "dude food," but Shemtov, who founded the Chubby Chickpea food truck in Boston, has a flair for cheap and easy. From bacon and parm roasted veggie medley made on a no-nonsense sheet pan to garlic Parmesan monkey bread you make out of a roll of store-bought home-style biscuits, nothing requires a monster amount of prep or apparatus.

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In September, mom-blogger Jessica Fisher publishes her fourth cookbook, Good Cheap Eats: Dinner in 30 Minutes (or Less!) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $9.99 preorder). As someone who routinely cooks for her six (six?!) kids, she's got the effort-to-outcome ratio just right, with an emphasis on healthy and contemporary preoccupations. There are punchy Asian dishes (quick gingery cuke salad and shrimp summer rolls) and colorful Mex options (quick fish tacos, chicken fajita bake), and she does not steer away from canned beans and chickpeas (absolute staples for first apartments).

And finally, Elena Rosemond-Hoerr's gorgeously photographed and illustrated The No Time to Cook! Book (Dorling Kindersley; $25) presents a whole lot of no-cook ideas that will keep your college kid entertaining in style. How to put together a gorgeous cheese and charcuterie board; dips you can make aided by just a few whizzes of the blender; and the nuts-and-bolts of hipster root-veg tempura — these are the things that will make my kid that sought-after apartment mate. Well, that and the occasional willingness to clean the bathroom.

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.