Throughout the hardest parts of the pandemic in 2020, I cooked, much like the rest of the world. I specifically curated three meals a day for my little family—just my parents and I—because it was one way to kill time and something that brought me enjoyment. Before I knew it, I was on a roll: watching cream thicken while making berry tarts, spreading out cauliflower-based dough for a frittata and trying hard not to break rice paper while making summer rolls. I even dedicated a whole week of my cooking to strictly vegan-only options: a week characterized by some glorious foods (blender-based peanut sauce) and some less glorious ones (almond flour brownies that failed to rise without the eggs). I consider 2020 the year I learned to cook well, feeling my way through the craft intuitively and honing my skills with repetition.
When I moved to New York City in the summer of 2021 to start attending NYU, I suddenly found myself in the kitchen of my tiny Greenwich Village apartment unsure of what to do. What was the point of cooking if I’d be the only one who would appreciate the food, the creation? The best part about making meals for my parents had been the simple generosity of it, the act of sharing. It seemed meaningless to invest time and money into something that would fill only my own stomach.
And yet. Human beings are creatures of comfort and habit, so I started my NYC solo cooking journey if only to alleviate the stress that comes with living alone in a major city at 18 years old and not knowing where, exactly, your life is headed. Picking up the spatula and taking out the pans again reminded me of a simpler time: when my family’s choices for daily lockdown entertainment were based solely on where we’d walk, what media we’d consume, and what we’d eat. A simpler time I, much like the rest of the world, took for granted.
Throughout my summer and beyond, I made a routine of stocking up on veggies, grains, and protein from Trader Joe’s, hauling the overstuffed shopping bags home, and whipping up nurturing and visually appealing dishes for myself from the ingredients. One time, I bought so much salad mix, chicken stock, cheese, and other staples from the store that the cashier asked if I was intending to take an Uber back home; on that occasion, I had to make a return trip for my second bag. The promise of a feta-loaded grain bowl offset the inconvenience.
I rarely referenced recipes, which made my culinary pursuits all the more spontaneous and exciting. On any given week, I’d create dishes like granola yogurt bowls, tofu scramble, prosciutto and avocado open-faced sandwiches, ground beef stir fry, haricots verts in sauce, loaded French toast, and pizza from scratch. To be sure, there’d also be lots of pizza-not-from-scratch (a.k.a. pizza from the nearest slice shop), frozen foods, and wholly unnecessary Uber Eats bagels. On average, though, I’ve learned to view each of my solo meals as a treat: a way to thank my body for the hard work it was doing, a way to save money in a notoriously expensive city, and a chance to break up the monotony of daily life.
I went as far as starting a food Instagram account, perhaps in an effort to make my college cooking experience more communal. I took great satisfaction in knowing at least someone out there might be inspired by my food photos and want to replicate what I had cooked. In fact, every time a classmate I’d never spoken to before came up to me to comment on how good everything looked on the Instagram page or my mom’s friends shared with her how impressed they were with my craft, I beamed inside. If at first I thought I couldn’t share the food I was making—living alone and all—I now realized this was a very real way in which I could. Being connected to others online, on the grounds of a mutual appreciation for food, felt comforting.
Since coming to the city, I’ve realized how few people my age know basic kitchen skills. That being said, I know I’m one of the lucky college students who has had the time, money, and space to hone my cooking. My biggest privilege, however, was watching my parents and grandma cook soulful Ukrainian dishes all throughout my childhood and learning to associate food with love, a simple giving back. Young adults that have a similar positive history of home-cooking and resources to cook for themselves should absolutely lean into the activity during their college years. Nothing compares to the pride that comes with making a meal from scratch and relishing in its aesthetics and flavors. At least for me, home-cooked meals are both something to look forward to each day and a tangible record of what I have already accomplished. Restaurants and dining halls—though beloved by many students for their glamour and convenience, respectively—can never match.
I still love my steak frites at French cafes and slightly overpriced avocado toasts, don’t get me wrong. But marinating your own beef? Mashing your own avocados and adding some freshly-cut cilantro to the mix? These tasks allow you to center in on yourself and partake in the ultimate display of self-love: creating something for you, by you. This is truly special, even if you’re the only one who will get to savor the final, plated product.