University is not a gastronomic heaven but if you learn to cook, it can nourish body and soul
Posted on October 11th, 2012

Dr Hector Perera       London

The appeal of University, it always seemed to me, was that never again would I enjoy so much freedom with such little responsibility. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young, was very heaven!” as the poet Wordsworth put it on one of his more positive days.

In many ways, there has been a revolution in our food knowledge, if not eating habits, in recent years, although it has been more of an Italian revolution than a French one. Oceans of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar have washed over our kitchens carrying pallets of pasta and grilled vegetables with them.

I started cooking while I was attending to University because I didn’t like at all those fast foods and takeaway foods but still I had University canteen food just for lunch. They are full of saturated oils, salts, additives, colourings and expensive.  When I was doing my advanced level in Sri Lanka, four of us got together and cooked the food. When I came here, I knew how to cook. I discovered that food was not just nourishment for the body, but also that cooking was balm to the wounded soul.

Many survey reports clearly showed that the students in UK Universities are lack of confidence of cooking on their own because when they lived at home comforts with the parents, they depended on them to provide with cooked food, not only that to wash their clothes as well. They were dreaming to come to a University and now when they do, the other problems come up. One of the main problems is eating, whether to cook and eat or eat takeaways?

I had a chance to speak to a few students then one of them told me, “I’m trying my best to eat healthily, but I never know what to make that is fast and easy.” Further she said, “Time, or the lack of it, is the number one problem”. Then she explained further this way. Her shared kitchen isn’t big, and grocery shopping is time-consuming. Without a car, it’s a 30-minute bus ride from campus to the closest supermarket. With her hectic schedule, she can only realistically go shopping once a week. She relies heavily on quick carbohydrate-based foods, such as instant oatmeal, bagels, toast, rice and crackers. “I like to eat chicken, vegetables, salads, soups, casseroles and stir-fries,”  She continued, “All in all I just want to be eating healthier, more nutritious food that I can call meals.”

With these factors in mind, I really developed many simple, healthy and hearty recipes for University students like for this girl. They’re all designed so they can cook many of their dishes on the weekend and freeze the leftovers for weekday meals. I have also included a meal schedule for busy students so that they can plan and make a week’s worth of meals with minimal shopping and prep time. 

For 20-year-old Andrew, a student at a University in Glasgow, getting to grips with cooking for himself on his first time away from home was a real learning curve. Now totally at ease in the kitchen, he said that he looks on the experience as literally life-changing.

“To be honest”, Andrew says, “before I left home for University, I didn’t give a great deal of thought to how I would feed myself. I had learned some basics so I was able to make a few things, like spaghetti bolognas, the student staple diet, and he was more concerned with all the other challenges in front of him, particularly the academic ones!

“I think it was when I realised there is only so much spaghetti bolognas one can eat then I started to think cooking for myself might be important after all. Weeks and weeks of trying to keep up with difficult new work, and socialising into the wee small hours with new friends, eventually takes its toll.”

Coping – or Not Coping?

“At first I couldn’t believe that snacking on nothing but junk food and sometimes skipping meals altogether could have serious effects. But on my first visit home after a few months, the family’s comments on my unhealthy appearance made me take a long hard look at the way I was coping – or rather not coping.”

Andrew admits that he was losing focus with his studies. He had much less energy than before and, worryingly, he was starting to look flabby. “That did it,” he admits. “After a lifetime of healthy home cooking I was suddenly living mainly on junk food. My diet and lifestyle were taking their toll on my system and I desperately needed to turn things round.”

Equipped for the Job

He returned to University armed with a new pan or two and some cooking lessons from Mum under his belt. “I resolved to fill up on as much fresh food as possible, not difficult since I’ve always enjoyed fruits and vegetables”, said Andrew. “I took time to seek out the best and cheapest places to shop. I got to know the best times to find the freshest produce and when to pick up a bargain.”  

Did that mean an end to the fun times?

Did this mean that Andrew was suddenly living completely differently, cut off from the diversity of University life?

“Good heavens, no”, he admits. “I wanted to enjoy everything about my experience of University – the friends, the new interests and the social side as well as the study that would hopefully mark out my career. But it took some reorganising and a commitment to set aside time to eat more healthily. The upside is it all became easier as time went on”.

Good Therapy

“ƒ”¹…”Within weeks of changing to a diet of healthy, freshly cooked food, my concentration powers, my energy and my appearance were all improving. Also it was becoming easier and quicker – the shopping, the food preparation, the cooking – and, something I didn’t expect, I was actually enjoying it.”

Getting organised pays dividends. He got into the habit of preparing double portions for the fridge or freezer. He would buy fish, or chops or chicken portions, wrap them in a parchment parcel with vegetables, and chuck the whole thing in the oven. It saves on pots and washing up and is a pretty foolproof tasty meal. And he tried most of the time to have breakfast. One tip he would pass on is to do some washing up as you go along and just leave it to drip – he never dry dishes.

He said, “It’s good to keep a stock of frozen vegetables to save time, and to eat whole grain foods which fill you up for longer. At exam time, when time is really short, and I’m starving, I can whip up a filling omelette in minutes.”

“And taking an hour or even less to prepare and cook a healthy meal or two still leaves me plenty of time for everything else.”

 Survey reports

More undergraduate students said they could not afford to cook a main meal every day, compared with postgraduate students. A survey said 86% of respondents learned to cook at home, 27% learned at school and 7% taught themselves or used a cookery book.  More females (32%) than males (17%) learned to cook at school.

 First year students were least likely to eat fresh vegetables, salads and fruits and the percentages rose steadily in line with the number of years in study.  Students living alone were much more likely than those living with other people to eat fresh vegetables and salads or meals prepared from raw fish, and least likely to eat ready-made or other convenience foods. More students who lived with their families than those who lived alone or with other people said they regularly ate food prepared from fresh chicken and other fresh meat. Students who lived in University accommodation were most likely to buy food regularly from a University canteen.  All respondents who cooked their main meal from fresh or raw ingredients once a week or less were asked to identify which of a defined list of factors explained why they did not cook a main meal regularly.  The most frequently identified issue was lack of time (57%), followed by “ƒ”¹…”I usually eat pre-packed/convenience foods or meals’ (40%).  Lack of knowledge of cooking a variety of foods was an issue for just over one quarter of respondents (27%), with money being an issue for one fifth of respondents (21%).  A very small proportion of respondents (4%) said that they did not know how to cook at all.

Adverse implications of poor diets.

 It is widely accepted that a poor diet has implications on health. Poor food habits are associated with an increased risk of health problems later on in life. High levels of salt, saturated fat and sugar in ones diet contribute to the development of chronic illnesses such as obesity, non-insulin dependent diabetes, and

Cardio-vascular disease, CVD (Ha & Caine Bish, 2009; House, Su & Levy-Milne, 2006)

 Need cooking programmes to promote healthier diet and lifestyles.

 Poor dietary practices in students such as these may be in England, obesity alone was estimated costing the National Health Service (NHS) £4.2 billion in 2007 with the cost spiralling to an estimated £6.3 billion in 2015 (Martin, 2008).

Evidence from several studies suggest on average, undergraduate students commonly consume unhealthy diets high in salt, saturated fat and sugar and low in fruit and vegetables.

These findings support the need of an educational intervention in cooking to promote healthier diet and lifestyles. Poor dietary practices in students such as these may be due to a lack of confidence to cook, low skill levels, poor knowledge of food.

My energy saving scientific cooking

For years I have been cooking at home based on my energy saving scientific techniques. I am sure my kind of cooking certainly would help these University students to cook at the University flats or in wherever they live. I have to understand these students have arrived after hard competitive studies. Now they are in University, they have no time to waste on long process of cooking.

 Celebrity cooks are just entertainers

I have witnessed so many famous and even celebrity cooks give cooking demonstrations in the TV; I think actually these programmes are more entertaining than educational. They sometimes cook rushing, cracking jokes, even running, sometimes shouting at the other helpers, toss the food in the air like jugglers, sometimes set fire and sometimes the food even catches fire. For these cooks, that’s entertaining than cooking. Most of the times, either the food fuming with oil and spices and sometimes these escaping volatile vapours catches the cooking pans or sometimes they purposely set fire to the cooking pans.  I am sure they have their own reasons to cook that way and show off their expertise to the public, certainly would not help these young graduates.

I have noticed they do not give any scientific explanations at stage of cooking, may be because they are unaware of the scientific explanations. They have the experience but they haven’t explained, why they cut the food into smaller pieces for example onions, carrots and tomatoes or even fish and chicken. What happens when they mix the ingredients, spices with the food they intend to cook? What chemical and physical changes take place as the foods are cooked?

I am sure these University students are quite knowledgeable to understand some of my scientific explanations such as area of reactions increases, rates of reactions are faster with the increase of surface areas. When the ingredients are mixed for example with fish or chicken, some chemicals adsorp, some absorb when there are intermolecular and intramolecular reactions taking place even at room temperature. The word adsorp means stays the surface and for all these I call chemi-sorption. The foods are bad conductors of heat so they have to be gradually cooked than subjecting to sudden changes of temperature.

The escaping streams of volatile oils and vapours from spices, likely to condense, once they lose the kinetic energy or settles on colder surfaces. If someone cooks on fuming, steaming hot things on the fire, would you not agree some of these volatile vapours deposit on them? Would you think these young girls and boys would like to walk around to their lectures with these food smells or sometimes I called CHICKEN COLOGN OR CURRY COLOGNS on them? Actually they deposit all over on their face, hair, clothes then on hands, anywhere else? No wonder they are tempted to eat junks than cooking that way.

I certainly cook differently, scientifically, energy saving and also with time saving. I also used my techniques to cut down any food smells depositing on the people who cook. I have a feeling these methods are absolutely helpful to these University students who need to cook and eat than depending on unhealthy junk foods. You might say, “How do we know for sure”?

 Please let me remind that I still have my challenge but this time I have doubled that money from £2500 to £5000. If any scientist, an environmentalist or energy saving expert could disprove my scientific technique to say that my method doesn’t save energy then I would give away that challenge money. On the contrary, according to science every action has an equal and opposite reaction so what reward would I get if I proved my ideas? I suggest someone to give me a chance to show these in TV to the public to decide then to thousands of University students.

 My kind of scientific energy saving cooking ideas certainly help these University students get the confidence of healthy home cooking, cook economically also learn how to save energy scientifically. I was lucky to achieve British University education; I wish I could help these University students to cook confidently Any comments please [email protected]

 

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