Millie Hillman: Real Life College Student, Home Cook, and Vegetable Enthusiast
As I began the second semester of my freshman year at Scripps College in Claremont, CA, I knew I wanted to get off of the school meal plan. After dealing with chronic gastrointestinal issues that had worsened since moving west, my doctor suggested that I prepare my own food in the hopes of feeling better. It wasn’t that the food on campus was bad, exactly—Scripps students have access to all the dining halls across the 5 colleges that comprise the Claremont Consortium, for a grand total of 7 dining halls and a multiplicity of cafes—but after just 4 months at school it all began to taste the same, and was leaving me nauseated at best and causing me pain at worst. I am sure that it was not just the food itself causing me issues, but the rushed dinner times, lack of vegetables, and the short periods of time the dining halls were open for, which never seemed to coincide with my cycles of hunger.
Many colleges do not like to release students from their meal plan contracts, often citing concern for students’ health, a dearth of communal kitchens and resources, and a conception that dining halls facilitate socialization opportunities for students, especially freshmen. The main reason, however, at least for my college, seems to be that the almost mandatory meal plan provides massive amounts of revenue for the school; a 12 meal a week meal plan cost me about $3000 per semester, only a small portion of which ends up in the pockets of those who prepare and serve the food. In cooking for myself, I hoped to save money, prepare food that was easier on my stomach, and make mealtimes less rushed; cooking for myself each day allowed me time for mindfulness, slow reflection, and engagement with the processes and ingredients that made up my meals.
Having just finished my second year at Scripps College, I am pleased to recount that cooking for myself has provided a myriad of benefits. I eat healthier, make time to cook with friends individually, budget more thoughtfully, and above all, have a responsibility to myself (and to the food I prepare) to slow down each evening, relinquish stress over assignments and assessments, and to remember how fulfilling it can be to simply cook and eat.
Growing up, my parents were incredibly busy; most meals they cooked came together in under 30 minutes, and used pantry ingredients, as we tried to grocery shop as little as possible. My mother also kept an allotment, a patch of council land one could rent out to grow vegetables, keep bees, and use as an extension of one’s garden. In our own tiny garden, we kept chickens, despite living in London. I distinctly remember the joy I felt when, having little other food in the house, we sourced our dinner almost entirely from our gardens: that night we ate a frittata with home grown potatoes and zucchini, using eggs from our chickens and herbs from our porch. I had been learning about food rationing in England during WWII in one of my classes, and I felt as if I had truly exemplified the lesson of the day: make the best of what you have already at home. I felt this same satisfaction a few months after, when, in preparing dinner with my grandma, we chose to use the ingredients we had in the fridge rather than popping out to the grocery store; that night, we made chicken schnitzel, using flour instead of breadcrumbs. We also found some rather forgotten peas in the freezer, which were transformed with a knob of butter and Herbs de Provence.
Creating something out of nothing has become a challenge for me; at school, brainstorming dinner ideas from ingredients I already have is a fun change of pace after a day of academic classes. The summer I moved to the United States, in 2011, my brother and I marathoned the TV network show Chopped, marveling at the cohesiveness of the final dishes placed before the judges. Much like the challenges in Chopped, I try to look at what I have in my basket and in the pantry before I go grocery shopping, albeit with more usable ingredients: this saves me money, encourages me to try new flavor combinations, and provides a challenge (because regular cooking is just too easy, right?). At the end of this semester, I was attempting to use up all the ingredients I had in my mini-fridge, so that it could be defrosted and stored for the summer. This gave rise to a creation I will definitely make again; a flatbread with miso paste, a forgotten hunk of parmesan, and beet tops.
One of my biggest goals in cooking for myself was saving money, and so I have been strict with myself about a food budget; on a strict budget, it is important to me to make the most of the ingredients I have, which in turn reduces food waste. Living in Southern California, there is no lack of fresh produce, and more often than not, it is inexpensive and local. By mostly avoiding processed foods, buying in bulk, shopping at the farmer’s market, and making my own bread (for the most part), I have thus been able to splurge on some ingredients (like cheese) while remaining within my budget. Currently, I spend about $70 every two to three weeks at the grocery store alone, with another $10-$20 spent each week at the farmer’s market. In total, I spend a little under $200 a month on food, which includes eating out, coffees with friends, and organic ingredients.
While I will discuss buying in bulk, farmer’s market shopping, and a plant-based diet in future blog posts, I would like to introduce you to what truly helps me to save money on food and reduce my food waste: lazy meal planning. Meal planning or prepping can sound scary and rigid, but really, it makes sense to do on a budget. I do not meal plan in the sense that I know what I will be eating each night of the week, but before grocery shopping I browse recipes for inspiration. While I buy similar basic ingredients each trip to the grocery store, I try to keep a few recipes in my head while doing so; I pick up chard in the produce section and immediately think of Cumin Stewed Chickpeas, which I make at least twice a month, or I remember that I have stir-fry noodles at home, so I grab some scallions and a small cabbage. If I have some wilted greens in the bottom of my fridge, I may make a pesto or chimichurri to use for the week; if I am out of canned beans, I turn to my stockpile of lentils or dried beans before restocking.
Lazy meal planning is a three step process: I first examine my fridge for leftovers, and my pantry shelf for basics: what do I need to stock up on and what do I need to use up? How far can I stretch the ingredients I already have? Secondly, I will look at my calendar for the following week or two: how much time will I want to spend making meals, and will I need a lot of snacks? On busy weeks, I may want to make a big stew or soup, or cook lots of rice to make cooking that much easier for the week. Next, I will go to the grocery store or farmer’s market and see what inspires me that week: is it tomato season? Is kale on special offer? Or am I really craving corn on the cob? I will almost always make leftovers or cook extra grains. Lazy planning, pantry staples, and versatile produce ensure that I am never without something to cook. The longer I can feed myself without a trip to the grocery store saves me money and time. If in doubt, anything can be thrown into a frittata.
Millie Hillman is a part of the class of 2021 at Scripps College in Claremont, CA. She is studying psychology, with minors in french and art. She is passionate about good old fashioned farm to table cooking, spicy food, and farmer's markets.