My first apartment was a 1000 square feet of space that I shared with seven other women. It had four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, and a kitchenette. The apartment was on a college campus, and I was not allowed to look at it before I made my deposit. I was very surprised to learn that the kitchenette contained only a small refrigerator, microwave, and two outlets for other small appliances. There was no range or oven, and a very limited amount of counter, drawer, and cabinet space. Unfortunately, I had already opted out of a campus meal plan while under the mistaken belief that I could easily prepare meals in my apartment. With nothing else to do, I taught myself how to cook with only a kitchenette.
My first step was to add a few items to what was given to me. I bought a small toaster oven and a hot plate. This purchase cost me less than $40 ($20 per appliance at the back-to-school sale at my nearby mass merchandiser), but if I had more money I would have bought a small convection oven (about $80). These items, combined with a frying pan, sauce pot, measuring cup, a set of plastic storage containers, and two big plastic spoons (one slotted, one not) were all of the specialty cooking equipment I needed. I also had two place settings of dishes (dinner plate, bowl, glass, and saucer) and four sets of silverware.
To stock the fridge each week, I started by figuring out a few menus that I knew I could make. Since I was sharing the fridge with seven other people, I wanted to make sure that I bought as little as possible, and that what I did buy would not produce any objectionable smells. I could store shelf stable goods in my room, so I decided to go with canned fruits and vegetables whenever possible. As a group, my roommates and I decided to keep some staples on hand such as butter and milk that everyone could use (as these items would often disappear and not be replaced, however, I quickly learned to just stock them on my own).
To make menu planning simple, I planned to cook a few similar meals every month. Breakfast was typically cereal or a granola bar (I’ve never been a big fan of breakfast). Lunch was a sandwich and a piece of fruit or a chicken salad. The most complicated part of this was the grilled chicken breast. To make it, I would buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts on sale (deboning chicken when you have roommates and spotty garbage service should be avoided). These would usually come in giant packages, but since I had very little time during the week I would cook all my chicken on Saturdays. I could get three pieces in my frying pan, and I would flat grill them with the hot plate. I would then cut five of the chicken breasts into small pieces and wrap each piece separately in plastic wrap. To make a salad in the morning, I just cut up lettuce and tomatoes, added shredded cheese, and placed my frozen packet of chicken strips on top of the bowl. I carried dressing in a little cup with a lid, and by lunch time my chicken had thawed and was ready to eat. I could also use the chicken to make sandwiches if I got bored with salads.
Dinner was more of a challenge. While a lot of my roommates stuck with frozen entrees or TV dinners, I wanted something a little bit tastier. In addition to salads, soups, and sandwiches, I learned to make a few simple meals. Hamburger Helper makes a variety of dinners, and browning the meat is fairly simple with a frying pan and a hot plate. Once you know how to brown hamburger meat, you can also make tacos (great if you are sharing meals with other people). Spaghetti and meatballs is a bit tricky with just one burner. The trick is to use the burner for the spaghetti noodles, while making the meatballs (out of pre-cooked hamburger meat; cook some on Saturday after you make the chicken) in the microwave. To make microwave meatballs, mix one pound of pre-browned hamburger meat with one cup of ketchup, two tablespoons of Italian seasonings (use a store bought blend or experiment on your own with garlic, oregano, and red pepper), an egg, and cup of breadcrumbs. Roll the mixture into balls and microwave the balls on a plate for about 2 minutes. Heat up store bought sauce in the microwave, and combine with the noodles and meatballs. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, toast garlic bread in the toaster oven.