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Freedom from frozen dinners

Resolving the post-secondary struggle between time, finances and food

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Horrifically long line-ups at Tim Horton's are a permanent fixture in MacEwan Hall. But even at 4:30 p.m., long past the usual lunch hour, the University of Calgary food court is appreciably busy. Students empty their wallets and fill their bellies with typical, if not particularly varied, fare from the many fast food joints.

Second-year mechanical engineering student Ali Mohebbian is a regular at this scene.

"Every week, every day," says Mohebbian, over a late lunch of rice, chicken and veggies nestled in a Styrofoam container. "I eat my lunch here and it's about $50 per week, just for lunch."

That's a hefty price tag for students looking to fill a basic need. Although you can make great food from scratch for a fraction of the cost, students often lack the time or skills to save money and eat healthier.

"My cooking is terrible," says Mohebbian, who relies on prepackaged groceries such as pizza, fries or chicken salad for dinner.

He says he would like to learn how to cook, but it is a daunting prospect.

"I have lots of work to do this semester, this term, and I have no time to try cooking."

Kick the kraft dinner

For food enthusiast and Higher Ground Cafe manager Dan Clapson, inspiration struck at the supermarket.

"Two guys walked by me with a cart just full of pre-packaged food," he says. "Frozen pizzas, ichiban noodles and stuff like that."

Motivated to give university students the chance to develop cooking abilities, Clapson spent the next few months designing and promoting a cooking class for university students, Kick the KD. Interest in the 10-week program soared beyond expectations and over 100 students submitted applications. I was one of them.

My main challenge is simply finding time to make food. I have basic skills and some innate ability, but I am usually too busy to try something new. I was surprised to be chosen to participate and asked Dan how he picked successful applicants.

"I enjoyed applications that were more invested," says Clapson, who ended up selecting 15 students with a broad range of cooking talents-- or lack thereof. Some of the students, like me, can cook but were looking to develop those skills further. Other students were complete beginners. All of us wanted to improve our eating habits.

"I did eat a lot of Kraft Dinner before I came here," admits Kick the KD participant and second-year chemical engineering student Stacey Waldal. "That's why my mom sent me the link to participate. It's quick and easy and I figured it wasn't as bad as McDonald's."

For Waldal and the rest of us, Kick the KD brought a host of alternatives into the spotlight, all of them much healthier than pre-packaged or fast food.

Culinary creativity

Coming to my first Kick the KD class at the Midtown Market Co-op, I was unsure of what to expect. I worried that we would spend a lot of time covering the basics and learning things I already knew, but I couldn't have been more wrong.

From the very first class, Dan Clapson had us jump right in and prepare different foods in smaller groups. The two-hour classes run weekly on Thursday evenings. Recently, a breakfast-themed class taught us all the art of sans-spatula pancake flipping. Half of a dismembered pancake ended up on the floor, but the rest of them disappeared quickly into our stomachs. The atmosphere is very casual and all fun-- a hands-on, get-messy approach where there is something for everyone to learn and do regardless of skill level.

"I'm a food blogger, I'm not a chef," explains Clapson. He hopes students learn at their own pace from the experience of cooking something new each week, develop a passion for cooking and realize it's not that hard to make good food.

"It's less about one teaspoon of salt," he says, "and more about creativity."

Originality and adaptation are encouraged in weekly homework assignments, which usually require us to put a new spin on a recipe we learned that week. Cooking rookie and third-year political science student Raphael Jacob is learning to devise his own creations using basic recipes as a springboard.

"I made the biscuits that we did last week, and I mixed in ham and cheese," he says, calling it his favourite homework recipe so far.

Waldal particularly enjoyed the assignment from a pasta lesson.

"I didn't know you could make pasta sauce, I just thought you always bought it in a jar," jokes Waldal, who adapted a pesto sauce recipe to suit her tastes. "I didn't realize it was so easy."

Following foodies

If you're looking for inspiration and cooking ideas, Waldal recommends following food blogs.

"I thought I would find them boring and they're not," she says.

Waldal now uses them as a resource for learning techniques and even discovering new restaurants. Clapson assigned each Kick the KD participant a food blog to read in their spare time, giving us broader exposure to new recipes and ideas. Waldal follows Tastes Better With Friends, a blog written by Ontario-dweller Ethan Adeland.

I've learned new skills and recipes from both the classes and from my own assigned food blog, Kitchen Magpie. A blueberry scone recipe from my food blogger, the Edmonton-based Karlynn Johnston, tasted divine when topped with stove-top jam from a recipe we learned in class.

To let us experience the other side of food blogging, Dan Clapson has opened up his own blog to Kick the KD participants. We write in with stories of our cooking successes and misadventures, allowing us to learn from each other even outside the classroom. Cooking can be a solitary hobby, but it doesn't have to be.

The cost of cooking

"I spend most of my money on food," says Jacob.

Although he lives at home, he still finds himself spending $25 a week on lunches and snacks while at school. A recent Studentawards Inc. study found that after personal care, eating out is the second highest monthly expense for Canadian university students. Groceries come in third.

Meal plans are mandatory for University of Calgary residence students. The cheapest plan available for first-years comes in at $2,935 and is, unfortunately, non-refundable. According to the U of C Residence Services website, this estimates a daily food allowance of $12.98. However, if you are not on a mandatory Chartwells meal plan but still spend $10 or more daily on food, you may want to reconsider your habits.

I rarely eat pre-packaged or fast food. Buying a full meal on campus happens maybe once a month and snacks are occasional. My roommate and I share most of our groceries. Even if we only have time to really break out the books and "cook" once or twice a week, we still make much of our own food and take sandwiches or leftovers for lunch. All this considered, my average food expenses come to $120 per month, or about $4 per day.

Treating cooking as a sporadic activity can give the false imprsion that it's expensive. If you purchase all the groceries necessary for making a meal at once, it seems to add up.

The key to eating on a budget is keeping a stock of kitchen staples. Having non-perishables on hand like canned or frozen fruit and vegetables, flour, pasta and spices lets you spread out cost over time. Keep your fridge stocked with staples like milk, eggs and produce.

My roommate and I regularly buy cheap produce like apples, bananas, carrots and cucumbers, but we also splurge on occasion-- asparagus or mango perhaps. With planning, I find I can eat and cook anything I like.

Lastly, remember to eat your food. Ignoring the contents of your fridge only wastes money when they go bad.

Expanding horizons

The Kick the KD program has helped me enormously by both introducing me to new foods and teaching me how to make time for cooking. My classmates are similarly grateful.

"I don't have such an aversion to spending time making meals," says Waldal. "I've found some joy in it, so I take the time. My eating habits have improved and I eat healthy rather than fast."

Jacob still considers himself a culinary novice, but acknowledges his skills have increased.

"I had literally zero knowledge," he laughs. "It's definitely an improvement from what it was before."

If Kick the KD has sparked your interest, the free program will return next year with Clapson running two classes: one for U of C students and another for Mount Royal University students. Clapson encourages students who applied unsuccessfully to try again in the fall.

Cooking doesn't have to be a complex skill to learn ­-- it can just be a fun activity you do. For students who want to cook, but don't know where to begin, Jacob recommends enlisting the help of a friend or family member. The first time you try making a meal, have someone who knows the basics with you and make it a joint project.

"I think that will give you the confidence necessary to continue from that point," he says. "The biggest thing for me is that I was afraid to start."

"You'll make mistakes, but you'll improve on those mistakes."

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