• Cooking your meals is one of the best ways to save money and stay healthy as a college student living in New York City.
  • Cooking will benefit you now, but your future self will also thank you for learning how to cook. 
  • A kitchen, budget, and recipes are all you need!

As a college student, you’ll have a very busy schedule, and cooking might be one of the last things on your mind. However, I really recommend learning some basics, not only to save money but also to prepare for life after college. Cooking in college might seem intimidating at first, especially if you have no experience, but, whether you live on or off campus, it’s super doable as long as you have a kitchen! Here are some tips and tricks that will help make your learning process easier.

1. Budgeting and Planning

Budgeting should be one of the first things you figure out as a college student. Living in New York City definitely makes it more difficult. The cost of things here is so high. However, cooking your own meals can certainly help you maintain your budget. 

You should sit down at the beginning of every week and figure out what groceries you’ll need for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Bonus points if you can utilize the same ingredients for different meals! If you’re super new to cooking and unsure of what to make, browse some easy recipes for college students on Google or Pinterest. You can definitely find some inspiration there. Taking the time to plan your meals and recipes for the week helps to create a set list of groceries, ensuring that you stay within your budget and don’t overbuy at the store.

2. Shopping

When you go to the grocery store for the first time, you’ll need to stock up on some basics. This will include your kitchenware and your preferred seasonings and condiments. This first trip will definitely hit your wallet a little harder, but these kitchen essentials will last you quite some time. 

For grocery shopping, you should definitely browse the more affordable alternatives. New York City college students love Trader Joe’s for its great deals. I personally love going to Chinatown to get my groceries. There, they are usually more affordable than any of the other grocery stores in New York City, and there’s a huge variety to choose from. 

Definitely never make the mistake of shopping on an empty stomach. Write out a list beforehand so you don’t get carried away…Shop with your brain, not your stomach!

The author standing in the middle of a street in Chinatown during a grocery store run.
Me, shopping in Chinatown for my groceries.
A male-presenting college student pets a cat in a market in Chinatown, New York City.
My friend Sammy petting a cat in a small market in Chinatown.

3. Meal/Ingredient Prep

I’m sure we’ve all heard of meal prepping. That’s when you prepare all of your meals at the beginning of each week. It’s usually the same meals, and it will, without a doubt, save you a lot of time throughout the week. However, I prefer to ingredient prep. After figuring out what I’ll cook for the week, I prepare the ingredients first. For example, I’ll chop green onions, garlic, and any other veggies—anything that will make cooking throughout the week easier. I prefer to do this over meal prepping because I like to change up my meals throughout the week, and I genuinely love the act of cooking as well.

4. Simple Tips to Make Cooking Easier

  • Your freezer is essential! 
    • Freezing is really useful as a college student. If you make too much of something, freeze it for a later meal. If you come across a great deal on vegetables or meats, buy and freeze them! 
  • Repurpose your leftovers 
    • Don’t worry if you cook too much of something. Use that for lunch or dinner the next day. You’ll reduce food waste and save time. 
  • Substitute when necessary
    • As a college student, it’s not as easy to run to the store to grab one or two missing ingredients from a recipe. Substitute these ingredients to make your life easier. 
  • Clean as you go
    • The clean up after cooking can definitely be a big reason why many college students don’t cook. Instead, try to clean as you cook. If you have something in the oven or you’re waiting for something to finish cooking, wash a few of those piled up dishes to save yourself time later on.
  • Wring out your sponge
    • Another useful tip is to always dry and wring out your sponge after you’re done with the dishes. This will ensure that your sponge won’t get musty or moldy.

5. From My House to Yours

An arm holds a bowl of Vietnamese chicken noodle soup.
Miến gà (Vietnamese chicken noodle soup).
holding a bowl of vietnamese chicken salad
Gỏi gá (Vietnamese chicken salad).

I grew up up in a Vietnamese American household, where my mom cooked the most delicious meals for my family. Going away to college made me miss her cooking so much. So when I started to cook in my kitchen, I called her up for her recipes. Below, I share a super simple and authentic Vietnamese recipe for summer rolls, and, of course, you can substitute any of these ingredients with something more convenient.

Gỏi Cuốn (Summer Rolls)

Two summer rolls on a plate next to a small bowl of hoisin sauce.
Gỏi cuốn (summer rolls).
  • Vermicelli noodles
  • Carrots 
  • Lettuce
  • Herbs (e.g., mint, Thai basil)
  • Chives
  • Lemon 
  • Pork belly
  • Shrimp 
  • Hoisin sauce
  • Peanuts
  • Rice paper
  • Boil vermicelli noodles for about 10 minutes or until cooked. Drain and set aside.
  • Boil pork belly for around 30 minutes. Boil shrimp for three to five minutes (they’re cooked as soon as they turn red). After these are cooked, slice the pork belly and cut the shrimp into halves. 
  • Cut the carrot into thin strips and place into a bowl. In the bowl, sprinkle some sugar and salt and squeeze fresh lemon juice onto the carrots. Let the carrots sit in the fridge while you’re finishing everything else up. (You’ll make some really delicious pickled carrots. This secret step is courtesy of my mom as most pickled carrots are made from vinegar.) 
  • Wash all your vegetables and place aside. 
  • Pour the hoisin sauce into a saucepan and adjust according to your taste buds. I prefer to add a pinch of salt to it because it is usually sweet. At this point, you can either roast fresh peanuts or buy already cooked peanuts from the store. You can grind the peanuts up and add it to the sauce for a nutty taste. 
  • After prepping everything, wet your rice paper (be careful not to make it too soggy—as long as it’s wet, it’ll get softer as you let it sit) and start adding your ingredients to it. With the vegetables, proteins, and noodles, you’ll make a super delicious and healthy dinner. It’s also just super fun to roll it up and enjoy! 

That’s it! Super simple recipe. You can sub out anything you want according to your preferences. I’ve seen many variations of this recipe on the internet, so you can make it your own. This is a simple recipe I make in my kitchen that reminds me of home.

Now that I’ve guided you through some of the basics of cooking, I just want to remind you that you don’t need to be strict about it. Remember that you’re still a college student with an unpredictable schedule, so don’t worry about cooking every day. Only cook when it’s convenient for you. Eating out is totally OK! I personally eat out a few times a week. I also genuinely enjoy cooking, which makes it super easy for me to cook even after a long day. Starting out as a beginner can be a little overwhelming, but you’ll eventually become a pro in the kitchen, so stick it out! I’m very proud of the progress I’ve made and all the practice I’ve had in the kitchen.

Hello! I’m Jennifer, and I’m a student at the Tandon School of Engineering in Brooklyn. I’m currently studying Computer Engineering. I was born and raised in South Jersey, and I’m also a first-generation Vietnamese-American. I’m a huge foodie, so I love to explore the city in search of the most unique and tasty food New York City has to offer!