How cooking kept me sane in university lockdown

by Lottie Savage

A first-year student kitchen is a social hub in which to drink, dance and hopefully make new friends, as well as a cooking space. Before meeting my flatmates for the first time when I arrived at uni, I snooped in their food cupboards – were they one-can-of-baked-beans or whole-rack-of spices kind of cooks? Either way, cooking with the people in your flat is a great way to form friendships.

Of course, this year some students are in bubbles with their housemates. Whether or not that’s you, I believe cooking is an activity best shared, and for me and the friends I lived with it became the focal point of each day during lockdown. So if you’re fortunate enough to be able to spend time together safely, here are some ideas to help you discover the delights of communal student cooking.

Be prepared for things to be awkward

When you move into shared accommodation, if you’re living with strangers the newness of everything will inevitably bring nerves and awkwardness. The best way to overcome this is to jump right into getting to know one another. Why not suggest a group meal? Liven up your cooking environment with a playlist, so awkward silences don’t creep up on you.

Try recreating a restaurant experience

If you’re locked down, going to a restaurant will be on hold, but there’s nothing to stop you recreating your favourite dish at home. It’s certainly a cheaper option. A quick online search will bring up all sorts of recipes for replicating going ‘out’ for dinner. Lay the table, light a candle and think about the presentation of the food. You may even prefer your homemade version!

Let others take control

I’m guilty of being a backseat driver in the kitchen at times, but I’ve learned people don’t always appreciate it. Everyone has different experiences of cooking: some may be brilliant at making dinners involving toast, others will whip up a mouth-watering meal with seemingly no effort. Let others plan meals – maybe you’ll get to try new foods and find a new favourite dish. Listen to their tips – you can discover a lot by watching how others do things instead of jumping in to offer your own technique – but also teach them your style of cooking.

Don’t be put off by a long list of ingredients

Sometimes you’ll open a cookbook only to find a bunch of ingredients you can’t pronounce, let alone source. Don’t let this put you off. Try searching online for common replacements, eg swapping pine nuts for sunflower seeds when making pesto as they’re cheaper and can be easier to find. Don’t worry about following the recipe exactly, often it doesn’t matter if you miss out a couple of ingredients that are a small part of the dish. In our house we each added one new ingredient to our weekly shop. That way we shared the cost building up a communal ingredients store – handy for all the cooking you’ll hopefully be doing together for the rest of the year!

Use everyone’s leftover ingredients

When the remains of your food shop look scarce, inventing a meal from the broccoli left on your shelf can be uninspiring. But teaming up with housemates to incorporate all your leftovers makes for a much more exciting meal. Maybe someone has noodles, another frozen prawns and there are some sauces at the back of a cupboard? You’re well on your way to a tasty stir-fry. See it as the chance for a bit of Ready, Steady, Cook and to ensure no food is wasted.

Pizza can be a great way to use up bits of leftover veg.

Turn cooking dinner into an evening activity

Trying new activities is a great way to fill time and get the whole house involved in something. One of my favourite things during lockdown was making fresh pasta. It only requires eggs, flour and a wine bottle (the perfect substitute for a rolling pin), and it doesn’t need much planning. Each housemate can get involved in all the different steps: kneading, rolling, cutting and cooking. The end product tastes even better when you know how much work went into rolling out all that tagliatelle!

Agree how to split the bill

Just like eating in a restaurant, you have to agree how to divide the bill when cooking together. We agreed to make one meal a week for each other out of our own food shop and then, if we wanted anything extra or to use particularly expensive ingredients, we’d split the cost. An app made working out who was owed what a lot easier!

Clear up as you go

It may sound boring, but it really does make life a lot easier! I’m no stranger to finding near-fossilised food under the counter and mould growing in unusual places. If you’re confined to your own house for periods of time, the cleanliness of the kitchen becomes all the more important. Tidy as you go and get all hands on deck to clean up once you’ve finished eating. This ensures no-one is greeted by a kitchen sink full of plates with last night’s meal cemented to them in the morning.

Sit down and eat together

One of the biggest things my housemates and I learned was the value of sitting together to eat in the evening. Normally we all had different schedules so it was difficult to achieve this, but during lockdown we led synchronised lives and could cook and eat together every night. Sitting at the table enjoying each other’s company and the food we’d cooked made so much difference.

Lottie Savage graduated with a BSc in Nutrition from the University of Leeds in 2020.