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In a recent talk at TED, chef Jamie Oliver suggests every child leaving school (I'm assuming high-school) should know how to cook ten recipes. I agree with him and think that is a great suggestion to improve their lives. I'd love to encourage my children to cook for themselves regularly when they start living on their own, and keep restaurant meals as a treat rather than a necessity.

The recipes should be beyond beginner level cooking (open can, heat soup) but not so complex they lose interest. They'll also likely be living on a budget, so eating healthfully at a low cost is critical as well. Kids living on their own for the first time also tend to have nothing more than the basic kitchen utensils, pans, etc.

Given those requirements, what recipes do you think every young adult should know?

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23 Answers

I agree that the emphasis should be on techniques and concepts more than actual recipes. Give a man a fish vs teach a man to fish kind of thing.

That being said, everyone should know how to make, ideally from scratch:

1 - pasta with a good tomato sauce, including how to cook pasta properly and how much sauce you should actually have (and hey, budget-saving in that tip; less sauce = more meals per pot).

2 - breakfast: fry or scramble an egg, cook bacon bendy or crispy (knowing both is an excellent skill when cooking for a roommate), make some homefries.

3 - omelette. great way to use up odds and ends of veg.

4 - macaroni & cheese, because it teaches so many concepts: make a roux, make a bechamel, make a mornay. cook pasta al dente. learn about how browning and crisping work. And for the adventurous, is basically a blank canvas for anything they want to add. Plus for some reason it impresses friends. Also easily pre-portioned and frozen for later.

5 - as Jay R said, lasagna. another great impress the friends dish. garlic bread and caesar salad (dressing from scratch if you can) to go with.

6 - one pie. apple, tourtiere, whatever. But learn some really basic pastry and baking skills. Plus, at college age at least, nobody else will show up to a potluck with a homemade pie.

7 - breakfast 2: french toast and/or pancakes, with at least one variation from the plain (blueberry pancakes, for example, or french toast with something flavouring the egg mixture)

8 - stir fry. again, it's a 'use anything' kind of dish, and keeps for a few days. Also cheap.

9 - something vegetarian (unless they are already vegetarian, in which case something carnivorous just in case) that is not just 'have more vegetables.' Bean soup or stew, tofu stirfry, something that takes advantage of cheap protein.

10 - whatever their absolute favourite meal is.

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A few comments: a college student is much more likely to have access to a reasonable oven than a great stove. I'd axe the stir fry, and replace it with a roast chicken -- a technique everyone should have down pat in life. Also, I'd replace one of your breakfast or pastas with a french-style bean soup a-la cassoulet, and your something vegetarian and replace it with some serious instruction on how to make a great salad and vinaigrette from scratch. –  Peter V Jul 21 '10 at 15:24
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An excellent list, but from hard experience I'd sub a couple things. An early college student can expect potlucks, doubly when they move off-campus. For these, you need one crowd-pleaser entrée or app and one dessert, which replace 5 and 6. Pies aren't practical to make in the tiny, barely-equipped apartment/dorm kitchens, but CUSTARDS are. The basic ingredients (milk and eggs) are cheap staples. Creme brulee, baked custard, and flan are consistent winners. For the entree, the Keller Roast chicken is perfect, especially if you throw on a balsamic reduction sauce. –  BobMcGee Jun 19 '11 at 7:14
    
@Peter V: true about the chicken. Proper cassoulet, however, is not cheap nor easy to make. –  nico Jun 19 '11 at 12:06
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@daniel: I would also add spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino (spaghetti with garlic, oil and chili): a favourite and super-easy Italian first dish. –  nico Jun 19 '11 at 12:09
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I'll counter your celebrity with another one -- Robert Rodriguez, on the DVD special features for Once Upon a Time in Mexico has a cooking lesson in there -- and if I recall correctly, his comment was "learn to cook what you like to eat".

It's been a few years since I saw it, but from what I remember, his advice was to pick something you like, and learn to cook it well. Then pick something else, and learn to cook that well. And repeat, until you have a number of recipes under your belt.

Now, specifically, kids living on their own for the first time -- this one's kinda a pet peeve of mine -- too many cooking shows seem to assume you've got a few hundred dollars in appliances, can buy alcohol, have a 5-6 burner stove, want to "entertain", have a dishwasher (it's not a "30 minute meal" if I'm taking 20+ min doing dishes afterwards), etc.

Part of the important part in learning to cook for a budget is in learning how to improvise -- the student equivalent of the "secret ingredient" from Iron Chef is the "reduced for quick sale" bin at the grocery store. I know way too many people who are hung up on recipes -- they can't find one little item, and suddenly, they have to cook something else.

(okay ... true story -- I missed the deadline for the first season of Who Wants to be the Next Food Network Start ... but due to a restriction on contestants, I can no longer enter. Not that I think I'd have a chance in the more recent years, and they've since got Sandra Lee and some of the other less "gourmet" of chefs out there ... but there's still no entry-level cooking show on Food Network, (unless you counted How to Boil Water, which I found downright offensive) ... maybe Food 911, but they're no longer making new episodes)

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You know, after reading this, I think I just realized that there are two very different kinds of improvisation. I can take an existing recipe and easily make substitutions and improvements, and can usually come up with just the right spice or sauce for some dish, but when it comes to looking at a bunch of ingredients strewn about the kitchen and attempting to answer the question "what can I make with this?" I'm still useless. I'm not sure if it's a more "advanced" skill, or just a "different" one, but... there you have it. –  Aaronut Jul 18 '10 at 1:19
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@Aaronut : I tend to look at one or two items, and try to work from there ... if you break things down into a main & sides, I find it's easier. Part of it's also knowing what cooking method is good for things ... and trying to explain to people that just because it's cut like a steak doesn't mean it's good for grilling. –  Joe Jul 18 '10 at 3:26
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@Aaronut: I think it's a different skill, not a more or less advanced one, or perhaps more like a mindset. Some classical musicians are terrible at improv, some jazz musicians don't even read sheet music. There's a lot of crossover, but you'll find people are a bit better at one or the other. Really it's just a continuum; you could improvise something with e.g. tomatoes, garlic, basil, pasta. Could even throw a bunch more stuff in there and you'd be fine. When you start focusing on cooking techniques versus cooking recipes, you start seeing more linkups between various ingredients. –  daniel Jul 18 '10 at 7:38
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"Not knowing how to cook is like not knowing how to f'k" - He did an easier one for Sin City: breakfast tacos. The shells are of course the basis for a whole slew of dishes. You can find them both on youtube. –  Crazy Eddie Feb 16 '11 at 8:03
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I like many of the other suggestions here, but how to make bread seems to be missing. I would recommend at least one baking from scratch recipe (bread would be my choice, but cookies, or cake would work). Anyone can learn to bake by reading the directions on the box (that's why they are there), but often young people seem to be amazed at the idea of baking from just a recipe.

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I can only vote this up once, more's the pity. Making bread is a "high return" skill. It's easy to do, but people are really impressed by it. And home-made bread tastes so much better than most store-bought bread. –  Bruce Jun 20 '11 at 13:31
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I agree with others who have mentioned that specific recipes are less important than general techniques, but it is good to have some recipe "templates" -- i.e. flexible meals like stir fry, burritos, pasta, etc. that really only require a few key ingredients and can be easily expanded to include anything on hand.

Another important consideration is working with significantly limited kitchen resources. Someone already mentioned that students probably won't have all kinds of fancy equipment, but many may not even have a stove/oven... I made it through 4 years of uni living in a dorm in which I had only a microwave and fridge, cooking nearly all of my meals myself. I found a rice cooker and a water boiler to be indispensable, and well worth the ~$20 each I spent on them. Using just these few things I made all kinds of things: curries, pastas, sushi, stir fries, burritos and more were easily within reach, and i made all of them with whatever was available/on clearance.

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I think the note about equipment is really important. This seems to be true of many of the skills that high schools teach. Who starts working on their house and starts will all the right tools for carpentry? They need to have suggestions for how to make due with less than perfect setups. –  acrosman Jul 18 '10 at 18:19
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I'd say recipes are less important than basic techniques - how to pan sear, chop, sauté, make sauce, etc.

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Better to learn such techniques with a few core recipes rather than technique in itself (which is a waste of time for non-pros). This will also allow you to learn more by being able to follow further recipes. –  Richard Jul 18 '10 at 9:34
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I strongly disagree. Easy recipes with for complete nutrition and a proper diet trumps if you can make something taste good. –  acidzombie24 Jul 26 '10 at 8:48
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Thinking back to what my friends and I used to make as teenagers and young adults, I can think of several meals that were fairly easy:

  • Pasta with rich tomato sauce. I used to make this with chopped onions and canned mushrooms and canned chopped tomatoes. I was a lazy boy.
  • Stir-fry. A friend used to make this with any vegetables he could find, plus chicken if we had any, and a simple garlic-ginger-soy flavouring.
  • Schnitzel and potatoes. Anybody can dip chicken breast in egg and breadcrumbs, and then fry it. There is no easier recipe than mashed potatoes in the western world.

I'll add a comment if I think of anything else, but these recipes are both easy and cheap. They were, at least, back in the day.

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Given limited teaching time, I think the recipes that will serve people best are those that provide good starting points for infinite variation: things like omelettes, vinaigrettes, soups, and stir-fries. It'd be the same ten lessons' worth in school, and they could be taught a 'reference' recipe for each, but with some hints about variations they'd learn how to make dishes based on practically anything they had to hand.

And although the skill isn't as transferable, I think there's a case to be made for roasting a chicken: if I'd learned that in school I might not have been so intimidated by the idea that I didn't get round to attempting it until I was 30.

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Dang. I forgot about roasting. –  daniel Jul 18 '10 at 7:49
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As other people started contributing specific meals and techniques to learn to cook -- I thought I'd add, but an update to my other response was getting just too long ... so first I'd recommend some things to consider :

  • Nothing that's going to require a blender/food processor/other specialized gear.
  • Nothing that's going to require 4 pans going at once; my year of cooking in the dorms (shared kitchen), I had one pot, and one pan.
  • Nothing that's going to require planning ahead.
  • Nothing that's going to require massive amount of time, be it prep, cooking, or cleanup.
  • Nothing that requires lots of effort -- there's no economy of scale when cooking for one.
  • Something that lends itself to variation, so you're not getting tired of the same thing over and over again. (although, I have known people to survive off of cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza for years)
  • Something that can be stored & reheated (so they might only need to cook every other or every 3rd night)
  • When you're on your own, you're cooking more than just dinner. (unless your breakfast is bagels and Mt. Dew, and sandwiches for lunch, but it's good to know how to make some other items).
  • Consider what food shopping is available -- if you're going to have to bum rides from someone with a car to be able to get to a "real" store, you'll want to focus on food that can be cooked from the pantry, and doesn't rely on lots of fresh items. Also, small fridges don't have much freezer space, either.

So, all of that being said, some of the things that got me through my first year of dorm cooking, where I'd be cooking maybe 4-5 nights per week:

  • Grilled Cheese
  • Pancakes. (no mixing bowl, either, so my pot had to double as one, sometimes w/ banana)
  • French Toast.
  • Ramen.
  • Sandwiches
  • Pasta and tomato sauce. I'd add onion, peppers and meat, but based off of a jarred sauce. If you cook up a pound of pasta, al dente and store it separate from the sauce with a little oil, you can either steam it back to life, or heat up the sauce, then add the pasta to warm it back up.

When I later moved into an apartment with its 6' wide kitchen and 3 burner stove, and a hand-me-down set of pots and pans, I expanded the things I was cooking, but still fell back on the others. (even ramen, when pressed for time).

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Add an omelet to that, and how to boil an egg. Maybe fry bacon, and you're done. Being able to cook some vegies can help, but that can come later. Given the way those are sold fresh in supermarkets in huge bags it's a no-go when cooking for one, and anyone can reheat a can of peas or some frozen spinach. –  jwenting Jun 20 '11 at 7:39
    
@jwenting : ewww ... canned peas. ick. I'd much rather have frozen peas. (well, British mushy peas are okay, but regular canned peas have a rather un-pea-like texture that I just can't stand) –  Joe Jun 22 '11 at 0:32
    
it's what you can get. And what storage you have. A student won't likely have a large freezer to store those frozen pees, which typically come in 1-2lbs boxes or bags (and if you're out of luck so frozen together you can't take just the amount you need), when a single portion can can fit in a cupboard or even a box on the floor. –  jwenting Jun 22 '11 at 8:52
    
@jwentling : true, you might not have freezer space ... but for the stuck together issue, use the same trick as for a bag of ice -- just slam it down on a hard surface, and it'll break into smaller pieces. ... but I'd still rather go with some other vegetable than canned peas. (even some other canned vegetable ... just not peas) –  Joe Jun 23 '11 at 16:54
    
I won't down vote but I could not disagree more, I think the point is that they learn some basic cooking. I am in the process of teaching my nephew to cook (He is 19 and neither parent can do more than heat a ham or make spaghetti) He desperately needs basic knife and cooking skills or it will be top ramen and grilled cheese for life. –  Mike B Feb 6 '12 at 0:41
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Thomas Keller's Roast Chicken, it's simple yet delicious and provides a good base for everything going forward. A good first recipe for anyone to learn and roll out for groups, small and large. It will keep you full on the cheap and still impress your date.

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/My-Favorite-Simple-Roast-Chicken-231348

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YES. It's simple but elegant and delicious. Seeing your first beautiful roast chicken is a true confidence booster. Also, the carcass and drippings are the starting points for learning to make and use stocks, and thus a gateway to more advanced cooking. –  BobMcGee Jun 19 '11 at 6:57
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The one that leaps to my mind is the ubiquitous Spaghetti Bolognese! You can choose a very simple way of cooking it or do something more complex but if you can do a good one then it gives a lot of confidence for other recipes.

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Or a simple tomato/meat source with any pasts... and freezes very well. So can make enough for a few meals and the second and beyond are very very easy. –  Richard Jul 18 '10 at 9:33
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Since you mentioned Jamie Oliver: his website contains a handful of 'starter' recipes, http://www.jamieoliver.com/campaigns/jamies-food-revolution/get-cooking

The same page contains links to PDFs containing lists of basic cooking equipment, cupboard basics en basic kitchen hygiene rules as well.

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While everyone's mentioned spaghetti bolognaise, a recipe that definitely saw high rotation in my student days was Japanese curry, which is delicious and pretty easy to make (buy the stock cubes, and you just need potato, carrot, onion and whatever meat is on special, cubed). Another is Shepards/cottage Pie - mince, mixed vegetables, potato, an oven, cheese if you want. Nachos is also easy and inexpensive.

In saying that, pretty much any common recipe that has a low number of ingredients and requires little specialised equipment should be something a high school graduate should know (or at least be able to work out) how to cook.

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Any food that is cooked at home is a great idea! Being able to make the foods they grew up with will make the transition a lot easier, especially if they move somewhat far away (for school or work). Teaching them how to make your super-special-casserole-with-peanut-butter-and-spinach might be something they can't find in a cook book ;)

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I think they should know some basic stuff.

You should count eggs over easy with toast as a recipe.

They should also have one recipe that can feed a couple of people to impress friends. I found that lasagna served that purpose for me for while. It takes some time, but it is hard to mess up and it can be made and saved.

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I would suggest simple things that fill you up. Having been to university and cooked for myself I appreciate that time is not something that many people are willing to give to cooking. My list of things would include - mince and tatties - soup - spagetti bolognase - stir fry - a fry up (very important after a few beers on a Saturday night) - curry

Basically, if you can deal with the basics, mince, chicken, rice, pasta - then the world is yours in terms of cooking simple things - and then you can experiment

A good student cook book is always useful!

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My mother forgot to teach my brother how to cook at all, but being a very good home cook of the fifties she certainly taught him how to eat well! At 25 yo he wanted to impress his girl friend and his meal of choice was roast lamb leg and all the trimmings. Needless to say the phone call I answered ended up long and the tutoring over the phone was very trying on the person answering and explaining how he could achieve his dream. My suggestion is

  • 3 different breakfasts using packet foods (breakfast cereal), weekend breakfast hot meal and maybe breakfast on the run, homemade muesli bar.
  • 3 different lunch meals, soup (which may double as a starter), hot meal, sausages or pasta from basic ingredients, and a sandwich maybe with salad side.
  • 3 different full meals, one of steak, vegetable and/or potato salad, two of schnitzel and courgette with chips and three a roast meal of beef or lamb with roast vegetables.
  • Small cakes and scones and bread as an addition would break the cycle a bit of relying on the corner store overmuch. I can say that I would very much like to have the money spent on midday meals by my brother (1970-1990s) while he was working in an office as he never missed morning tea, lunch and afternoon and nothing was ever from home or a packet of biscuits from the grocery shop.
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+1 for soup. Excellent. –  BaffledCook Jun 20 '11 at 14:37
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The key here is understanding why the kid needs to cook. Sure, staying alive and saving money are good, but they're not really gonna motivate most kids past beans-on-toast.

No, the real motivator to teaching kids to cook is... "Babes absolutely dig boys who can cook". And vice versa, "The way to a mans heart is through his stomach".

So while I absolutely agree with all the really sensible stuff already suggested, let me add a couple more. These are specifically "low effort, high return" meals. They're designed to impress (well impress potential mates anyway.)

1) Bread. It's ridiculously simple to make. And is almost impossible to do wrong once you've got the knack of it. People are easily impressed when you make the bread itself. It's the original high-return, low-skill food.

2) Pasta. No, I don't mean boil-up shop pasta. I mean mix flour and egg to make pasta. The real secret here is the little pasta-roller-machine-thingy. (A great off-to-college-gift). Fresh pasta is as different to dry pasta as mud is to chocolate. Again it takes a few practice goes, but once you've got it, it's pretty much fool proof. As a bonus pasta is the perfect "starter" to endless pasta-dish variations. And fresh pasta needs no more than salt, pepper & olive oil.

3) Dessert. Ok, a good meal is good, but a good dessert is how it's remembered. Here I recommend learning something you really like to eat. And it should be chocolate. People who don't like chocolate are, well, not important.

4) a "One Pot" stew. Something cooked long and slow. Not watery, but something deep and rich and gorgeous. It should be pretty "fail safe". Which leads to...

5) Mashed potato. Like pasta, goes with lots of things, is trivial to do, and can be used with all kinds of dishes.

6) Breakfast pancakes & French toast. Anyone can fry bacon, but pancakes & french toast are just as easy, but a little more original. And the ladies can throw fruit on it. While on the subject of breakfast, an ommlette is also easy (and impressive).

7) Cheese fondue. Ok, it's terribly 70's, but they don't know that. Again it's "one pot" - it's not expensive, it's highly social and a lot of fun. Plus it goes well with stale (home made) bread. The basic cheese sauce is a good skill. Just use reasonable cheese and some white wine.

8) Pizza. (It's just the bread with stuff thrown on top.) Did I mention people are easy to impress?

Of course the key is to make food the kid likes. Things that are hard to get wrong, after they get the hang of it. Things that are made to "impress". Of course their access to stoves and ovens will likely affect things, as will access to reasonable ingredients, so variety is good.

One last thing - don't start too late. In our house everyone is expected to cook - and teenagers (from 13) are required to make one family meal every week. My son (14) already cooks bread (almost every day by choice), pizza, curries (indian and thai), as well as burgers and so on. He's allowed to cook anything he wants, so he cooks what he likes. We moderate frequency though, and try and get a new meal in every month or so. By the time he goes to college he'll know everything he needs to know. Yesterday was "Fathers day" here, so the 8 and 10 year old made me a cheese ommlette on toast. And it was delicious.

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Way to go, especially on the 'reason' side. I guess that's why I would teach/learn a musical instrument :) –  BaffledCook Jun 20 '11 at 14:40
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Things you like.

And that failure is an option‐not everything works. Sometimes you will create an inedible mess, learn and move on.

For me the first core recipe was a very basic Chilli Con Carne (tinned tomatoes and beans and other short cuts included). These days, >30 years later I still cook a rather more sophisticated version.

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For college students, I think they should learn how to make simple meals that can easily make left overs for the week. Some of my personal favorites are:

  1. Fajitas: Marinate meat and cook with some bell peppers and onions. And you can pick whatever toppings you like.
  2. Chili: Excellent for cold weather and takes maybe 30 minutes (or at least the recipe I use)
  3. Spaghetti Sauce: Everything tastes better fresh. Also, I have found that left over spaghetti sauce will make excellent sauce for lasagna.
  4. Get a George Foreman grill and you can make anything you want. All you need then is the seasonings!
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This made me think about my early cooking days when I had a baby and a toddler to care for. The meals I made were mostly everything mixed together in a pan and baked in the oven for two hours. I would add some sort of meat (like chicken thighs for example) chopped onion, mixed frozen veggies. And then I would pour a can of mushroom soup over top, cover with foil and bake. Voila- tasty ,Easy to make and not many dishes to wash....plus the food would cook evenly and was quite moist so easy for small children to eat. Something else I learned early on was how to make a white sauce with a basic roux and then flavor it with whatever seasonings or flavors desired for the meal. (Usually a garlic cheese sauce) I would cook the meat separately (baked usually, ovens keep your hands free for dealing with the little ones), usually with a simple seasoning or marinade (soy sauce worchestershire sauce and garlic, salt & pepper). I would cook some veggies and a starch and then mix the white sauce with them. I know this post was asking about cooking for college students, but I think the experience of cooking when you have small children to look after is similar in that you would like things on the easy side because you are consumed with something else. So... just another idea thrown out there.

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The following can all be cooked in quantity (with minimal equipment) and store/reheat well:
- chili
- meatloaf
- roasted chicken
- baked chicken with sauce (you can vary the sauce)
- lasagna, tuna-noodle casserole, mac & cheese, etc

To this I would add basic vegetable techniques; veggies don't have to come out of a can and turn into overcooked mush.

Also eggs and other breakfast foods, as others have already covered, and fish -- baked salmon is easy and forgiving.

Finally, the "meals for company" chapter in The "I Never Cooked Before" Cookbook is a good next step.

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Kraft Mac and Cheese with smoked sundried tomatoes and lump crab meat.

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