My “college cooking” expectations quickly confronted reality during my first few weeks back at school this year. Since the last few months of my freshman year, I planned the big move into my first apartment, as well as built my website, the Collegetown Kitchen. I drew from my knowledge as a home cook, my experience working at a bakery and the advice of many trusted cooks to curate the perfect recipe for college cooking success. I wrote lists of pantry-staple ingredients one can’t do without and what to use them for, named every piece of cooking equipment a student might need, explained basic food safety and published over 3o recipes and articles adapted to a minimalist kitchen and a college budget.
And then a couple of days after arriving in Ithaca, mono hit. It started like a common cold until the fever struck. I had a fever over 101 degrees for eight days and the worst sore throat of my life for over two weeks. I ended up having to miss the entire week of class and I still wasn’t well the following Monday. For a long time, the doctors at Cornell Health didn’t suspect it was anything worse than a regular virus, so each day I operated as if I would wake up the next morning totally better. That didn’t happen.
I was missing class, but I was more stressed about my eating. Those close to me would not find this as a surprise at all, but the situation started to feel especially serious. The Collegetown apartment I was so excited to live in felt isolating, even with a close friend as my roommate. Without a car, I struggled to get myself to doctors’ appointments, let alone shop for food. My carefully-planned budget quickly fell out the window when the only things I could eat were chicken soup delivered from Wegmans, Tom Kha soup from Tamarind (delicious, but I think I need a long break from it), rice cakes and Gatorade. After two and a half weeks, I lost at least 15 pounds — and had spent more on food than I ever wanted to, and it wasn’t even good food! To make matters worse, I wasn’t well enough to work at my on-campus job, which would have ameliorated the budgetary stress I felt.
Now, however, no longer sick, I am able to see more clearly which problems were “sick” problems and which I will continue to face. I still struggle with budgeting and planning, because a lot of times I come home from class exhausted, and cooking tomorrow’s lunch is the last thing I want to do. To alleviate a little bit of this added stress, I decided to use some funds from my summer job to buy 45 meal swipes. This works out to two to three meals a week and is a big relief when I’m stranded on campus for extended periods of time or if I just want to eat with a friend who lives on West. For some reason, it was less painful to bite the bullet and just pay for it as an “investment” in my well being — even if a couple lunches out would have cost the same on my debit card. After getting back to work at my on-campus job, that income has given me a little cushion when I really just want that soup at Zeus or a breakfast burrito at the Ithaca Farmers Market.
Despite the appeal of Wegmans and the convenience of Greenstar, I’ve found other ways to shop more frugally. Generally, I find the produce at the Farmers market cheaper and of better quality than at the grocery store. I try to go most weekends, and it’s right next to Aldi, which I find significantly less expensive than Wegmans. Recently, I fell in love with Anabel’s, a student-run grocery store on campus in Anabel Taylor Hall. It’s subsidized by the University, and I am always blown away by the low prices — the other day, I bought a large container of fresh peanut butter, three large carrots, two large potatoes, two heads of garlic and broccoli and the total came out to about $7, whereas a bag of carrots and some hummus alone recently cost me $8 at Greenstar. I can’t recommend Anabel’s grocery more highly for produce and pantry staples, I just wish it were open more than three days a week.
Another time-saving method I’ve adapted is what my friend likes to call “lazy meal prep.” This isn’t what you’ve seen on Instagram with a container of perfectly-portioned food for each day of the week; rather, it’s a way of cooking with forethought. Roasting veggies or cooking rice, for example, to last you the whole week and to be incorporated into different dishes can help take the pressure off of cooking something entirely new each day. You can eat them as is, make instant fried rice, fill an omelet (à la Carriage House), build a grain bowl or even a warm salad.
Since recovering, I have finally started to settle in and enjoy apartment living. I hosted an event for Italian Club and made fresh pasta for about 15 Italians, which was terrifying but ended up great. I had friends over for an impromptu turmeric coconut chickpea stew, hosted my roommate’s birthday arepa brunch, baked copious amounts of slutty brownies and gingersnaps and made so much challah for Rosh Hashanah. I still have a lot to learn — I’d like to further reduce my food waste, make less of a mess when I cook, and figure out how the heck to fill an ice tray without spilling it all over the place. And I’m not going to pretend that cooking in college is a total joy every single day, but that’s what boxed mac and cheese is for.
Jeremy Scheck is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Collegetown Kitchen runs every other week this semester.