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Mia’s story: Cooking, culture and COVID-19 – commencing university during a crazy year

17 May 2021

Our experiences of COVID-19 have differed significantly, but for one group it’s added further complications to a situation that already involves upheaval and new beginnings.

Here we hear from student Mia who shares with us her experience of living away from home and her family in her first year of university and cooking in a kitchen shared with 10 other students.

I found my first week living away from home and my family very daunting and I think I cried for the whole week. However, despite my nerves, I was also very excited to begin my university experience and it wasn’t something I was willing to defer, despite Coronavirus taking over and defining much of 2020.

Sharing a flat and kitchen with nine other students and a social space with 20 students you don’t know could have been intimidating but fortunately, I made friends with my flatmates quickly and, armed with a few of my favourite recipes from home, I soon felt very settled.

My flat is culturally diverse as we share our space with students from Italy, Spain, Greece and France, and I have been exposed to many new foods – including gifts of local foods sent by their families.

So, although Coronavirus travel restrictions have prevented me from traveling abroad over the past year, I have been transported to other countries in a different way, through their food and by listening to their stories. Between us, there are a range of tastes and cooking abilities and learning from each other has been really beneficial. We share tips, like how to defrost meat or cook simple meals like scrambled eggs and I have even helped other students cook pasta – something they hadn’t ever cooked by themselves before – and shared recipes from my family, like a homemade pesto recipe. In return, I have learned how to make homemade tzatziki and various tapas dishes.

“I have learned how to make homemade tzatziki and various tapas dishes.”

I was used to cooking at home and had taken food technology as a GCSE subject, so I was confident in the kitchen before moving away to university. This meant that cooking for myself or eating healthily wasn’t an extra worry but budgeting for food was a new challenge. In the beginning, I found budgeting for my weekly food shop difficult and would easily spend more than I intended. I really wanted to save money for the summer and knew that I could do so by making a few changes to my food shop. I started by creating a meal plan for each week so that I could have a shopping list to work from and I also made a note to check the fridge and cupboards to see what foods I already had before going out to the shops.

To save money, I switched from buying branded products and instead chose supermarket own brands. I also bought frozen vegetables (like frozen stir-fry mix) and cut down on unnecessary expensive foods like hummus. I think being vegetarian has helped reduce my weekly food shop too, as vegetables are often much cheaper than meat products. These small changes have allowed me to cut my weekly food cost almost in half!

Photo by cottonbro from PexelsSharing a small kitchen with many other students takes lots of planning as fridge and freezer space is limited. I like to have a few ‘go to’ recipes, like a simple tomato sauce which goes well with various pasta dishes, vegetarian stir-fry (a frozen stir-fry mix makes this very easy!) and vegetarian bean burgers and sausages.

Batch cooking can be tricky as I only have one shelf in the fridge and freezer, but when I cook, I do tend to make a little extra food for tea so that I have leftovers for lunch. I have also started looking to social media for meal inspiration and recently my flatmate and I made a feta pasta dish, which is currently trending on TikTok.

Although my flatmates and I tend to cook individual meals in the week, we like to have a meal together as a social occasion, which we all look forward to. Sometimes we order a takeaway, but often we cook a big meal to eat together which has been a fantastic way for us all to bond as, despite cultural differences, enjoying food is something we all have in common. I’ve really enjoyed sharing the foods and recipes that me and my family enjoy at home with my flatmates – and have learnt lots from my flatmates to share with my family.

If you’d like to find out more about what food services Family Action offers visit our Food programmes area.