As the new influx of students arrives at university, there are offers galore in all the shop windows and pubs, making it all too easy to spend a student loan at speed.
However, if you want to make sure you have enough money in the last weeks of term, you need to avoid overspending at the start of term. Here are a few store cupboard essentials to make it easier.
Buying a big bag of oats now will help you eat all term (and a pinch of oats doubles as a skin-softening cleanser, and can be used for other toiletries too). The bigger the bag, the more you’re likely to save (assuming you have somewhere dry to store it and won’t annoy housemates by filling the entire cupboard with oats).
If you’ve never cooked before, porridge is a good place to start. Add water, milk or almond milk to oats (1 cup of oats to one cup of liquid: add more if you prefer thinner porridge or are using jumbo oats). Put it on a medium heat on the hob and stir. Stirring constantly is the easiest way to avoid burning your porridge and also makes it creamier.
You can also make porridge in the microwave. If so, I strongly recommend using a bowl that’s 3-4 times bigger than the oat/milk mix to avoid it overflowing. If it does spill, wipe it up immediately as set porridge can be hell to clean up, but it’s easy to clean while it’s still wet. The amount of time depends on the size of bowl but I tend to allow 3-4 minutes in one minute bursts, checking and stirring as I go along.
Add dried fruit, fruit compote, a banana or nuts and seeds to introduce variety and add vitamins. You can also add cream, honey or maple syrup for a more indulgent treat. A big bowl of porridge can help you avoid snacking mid-morning.
If you’re a more confident cook, flapjacks make a great ‘any time’ snack, that’s ideal to grab when you’re running late for lectures and haven’t had time for breakfast.
I use 250g oats and 100g each of butter and sugar, plus four tablespoons of honey and whatever nuts, seeds or dried fruit I have in the cupboard.
Melt the butter and sugar together, add the oats and nuts, stir around then press into a greased baking tray (I use silicone – but remember they get just as hot as metal ones!) Bake for half an hour at gas mark 4 (180 c). Leave to cool, slicing while still warm (they harden as they cool). Set an alarm on your phone if you’re likely to get distracted. Store in a tin or tupperware (takeaway packaging often provides a free alternative – excluding the cost of the take away!).
Another great bulk buy, rice can be used as a base for numerous flavours.
Top it with bean chilli, mushroom stroganoff, curry or stir-fried vegetables (I use soy/honey/ginger/garlic mix for a simple but tasty sauce).
Alternatively, you can fry rice with a beaten egg or two, and add frozen peas, sweetcorn and any suitable leftovers in the fridge. Or with a couple more eggs, you can make a fridgetata that you can use for a packed lunch.
If you cook the rice with tinned tomatoes onion and paprika, you have a paella base which, again, can be added to with leftovers. This is tasty and filling with a sprinkling of cheese too.
While tinned beans are the stereotypical student meal, tinned tomatoes offer a lot more scope.
In addition to the paella above, you can eat tomatoes on toast, add them to roast vegetables for a simple pasta sauce, use them in a stew to tenderise tough meat, make Bolognese, or make tomato soup.
To make tomato soup, fry a couple of tablespoons of tomato puree until they go dark red, then add a finely chopped onion and spoonful of garlic puree, and fry until golden.
Pour in a tin of tomatoes and two tins of water and simmer. You can add leftover wine before you add the tomatoes, if you have any. Just make sure you boil off the alcohol before adding tomatoes or it can be bitter.
You can blend this if you prefer a smoother soup. Adding chickpeas makes it more filling, while veg leftovers can turn it into a minestrone style soup. It costs about the same as a single tin of soup but will last for a week of lunches if you store it in the fridge (and even longer if you freeze it).
For the cheapest chickpeas, buy dried. However, these require soaking for several hours before use. If that takes too much planning for you, buy tinned chickpeas instead.
These can be added to soups and stews to make them more filling; thrown into salads with carrots, cabbage and peanuts for a crunchy slaw that’s tasty in pitta bread; or blitzed with a handblender, along with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and tahini to make your own hummus (you can save money by omitting the tahini but it won’t taste quite as good).
These are just a few cheap core ingredients available. If you use your student years to hone your cooking skills, you can save a fortune. And you may even find fellow students are happy to buy you a beer or a coffee in exchange for a home-cooked meal…