warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Cooking: Essential Ingredients And Recipe Ideas For College Students

Madison Ko |
November 10, 2014 | 6:05 p.m. PST

Staff Contributor

We’ve all been there. Weeknight meals consisting of ramen noodles and frozen dinners for days on end— maybe even weeks. As a college student balancing a hectic schedule, busy weeknights and a tight budget, resorting to convenient meals and fast food seems to be the obvious option. But with a little time and planning, you’ll be surprised to find how quick and easy it can be to prepare meals that are both good for you and your wallet.

Although cooking can seem a bit daunting at first, stocking up on a few versatile ingredients on the weekend not only makes the process less overwhelming but also gives you a great jumpstart to a week of meal variety. These four essential ingredients and recipe ideas will help inspire your weeknight meals:

Eggs: $1.97/dozen

Scrambled, poached, fried, or hard-boiled, eggs are anything but boring. Eggs can take on almost any form and are one of the most versatile ingredients in the culinary world. Aside from being the star of breakfast and desserts, a simple fried egg with a runny yoke can take any dish to the next level. They are packed with protein and vitamins and can really be incorporated into any meal of the day. 

One of my favorite quick and filling meals is ketchup rice topped with a fried egg and avocado. This may sound unusual, but the flavor is actually very reminiscent of Spanish rice but without the time-consuming process. Simply place the cooked rice and a squirt of ketchup in a hot, oiled pan and mix until well combined. Top with sliced avocados and the perfect sunny side up or over easy egg seasoned with salt and pepper. Garnish with green onions, and of course, you can never go wrong with a bit Sriracha for some added heat.

Avocado: $1 each

Stuffed Avocados (Creative Commons/Flickr)
Stuffed Avocados (Creative Commons/Flickr)

I think it’s safe to say that guacamole is a must-have condiment for any Mexican dish, even if it costs extra. Not only is it the perfect condiment and dip, its buttery texture added to a salad or protein creates a rich and cohesive meal. 

For a light lunch, try adding slices of avocado to an arugula or kale salad dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper, and for extra crunch, nuts or sliced apples and pears are always great additions.  

The same dressing can also be used to make a Southwestern style black bean salad with mango. The great thing about this salad is that most items can be purchased frozen or canned, such as the mangos, black beans and corn. Toss these ingredients with diced onions, tomatoes, cilantro and avocado. 

Tip: To make this salad even heartier, try adding a grain such as quinoa, which can also be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge for up to a week, making meals even quicker to throw together.

Herbs: $2-$3

Herbs, whether dried or fresh, are as essential to the kitchen as salt and pepper. Thyme, parsley, oregano and basil are just the basics, but if you’re unsure of which ones to use, you can never go wrong with an everyday dry seasoning blend.

Herbs can be used in any dish, soup, or side, but a simple recipe that requires less than five minutes of prep work and no cleanup is salmon baked in parchment paper. All you need to do is place a salmon fillet on a piece of parchment paper, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and your choice of additional seasonings. You can use any herbs you have on hand, but I prefer fresh rosemary or thyme. Finally, place a couple lemon slices on top and gather the sides of the parchment paper to create a pouch over the salmon. Place in a 400°F oven and bake for 20 minutes. Carefully transfer the pouch onto a plate and open to release steam before serving. No cleanup required!

Tip: To keep fresh herbs fresher for longer, snip off the bottom of the stems and put them in a jar of water. Cilantro should be covered and stored in the refrigerator while parsley and basil can be kept at room temperature. When stored this way, herbs stay fresh for up to two weeks.

Tomatoes: $2.80/lb

Tomatoes can be utilized in a variety of ways from pastas to sauces to salads. Whether you decide to use them fresh, jarred, or canned, tomatoes are always affordable and can be easily transformed into the star of your next homemade meal.

This ingenious one-pot pasta recipe is ideal for busy college students. (Maral Tavitian/Neon Tommy)
This ingenious one-pot pasta recipe is ideal for busy college students. (Maral Tavitian/Neon Tommy)

After a long day, a bowl of steaming pasta is sure to satisfy. However, preparing the sauce and pasta separately can be quite time consuming, especially when adding other vegetables or meat. To avoid this hassle, simply place all the ingredients in one pot and simmer over medium heat. One-pot pasta, just like parchment-baked salmon, is essentially foolproof. Simply combine a box of dried pasta, herbs, sliced onion, garlic, salt and pepper and any other vegetables you wish to add. Some of my favorites include artichokes, roasted bell peppers and mushrooms, but take this opportunity to get creative (or find inspiration here). Finally, add the tomatoes; the beauty of one-pot pasta is that you can use fresh tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes. Then, fill the pot with enough water to cover the pasta, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes for perfectly al dente noodles. 

Tip: Prep all ingredients in your pot except for the water and tomatoes the night before or on the morning of and place in the refrigerator. When you’re ready to eat, simply add the water, tomatoes and simmer, saving you even more time and energy after a long day.

One-Pot Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce 

  • 16 ounces spaghetti or capellini
  • 12 ounces cherry or grape tomatoes, halved or quartered if large
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • ½ teaspoon red-pepper flakes
  • 2 sprigs basil, plus torn leaves for garnish
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4½ cups water
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

1. Combine pasta, tomatoes, onion, garlic, red-pepper flakes, basil, oil, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and water in a large straight-sided skillet. Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil mixture, stirring and turning pasta frequently with tongs, until pasta is al dente and water has nearly evaporated, about nine minutes.

2. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan, if desired, and serve.

Reach Staff Contributor Madison Ko here



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.