7 cooking tips and recipes for college students and teens

Nathan Law

What’s the saying about teaching a man to fish and he’ll never be hungry? The same sentiment might apply when teaching a kid to cook. I’m writing for all you parents or caretakers who’ve got a kid about to graduate and move on. For the last year, while our niece […]

Courier Journal food columnist Dana McMahan, left, has been teaching her high school niece how to cook during her senior year in high school.

What’s the saying about teaching a man to fish and he’ll never be hungry? The same sentiment might apply when teaching a kid to cook. I’m writing for all you parents or caretakers who’ve got a kid about to graduate and move on.

For the last year, while our niece lived with us during her senior year at the wonderful Saint Francis School, my husband and I have tried to teach her the only real-life skill we probably have: how to cook.

I don’t mean just the act of preparing a meal, but how to menu plan, budget, grocery shop, use (and modify as needed) recipes, whip things up without a recipe based on what you have, and keep a clean kitchen. If we did nothing else with our year together, I think and hope we succeeded at that. 

I’ve been thinking about what to send her off with as she heads back to her home state and sets out on her own path, and I hope these ideas are helpful if you have a grad in your life you’d like to make sure can feed themselves well, wherever they go from here.

A couple of great cookbooks

This Moroccan tagine is from

Yes, our niece mostly looks at Pinterest or TikTok for meal ideas when it’s her night to make dinner, but I did get a couple of books on others’ recommendations that have proven to be pretty amazing for a novice in the kitchen.

Tasty Every Day: All of the Flavor, None of the Fuss,” from BuzzFeed’s Tasty website, and “Start Simple: Eleven Everyday Ingredients for Countless Weeknight Meals” by Lukas Volger were winners. Recipes are approachable for a complete novice, but not dumbed down, and most importantly, were delicious without fail. 

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Solid multi-function cookware

Le Creuset Dutch Oven

In my food writing for some national outlets, I’m lucky to score some products to try out for review from time to time. Some are more useful than others. My favorite, especially for someone just starting their own kitchen? An all-in-one pan/wok/stockpot/Dutch oven called the Duo from Proclamation Goods.

Now I swear by my French copper, an amazing Butterpat cast iron skillet, and the Le Creuset I’ll have forever, but if I could have only one thing in a small apartment,  it would be this workhorse kit that comes with a skillet and a “hybrid” pot and lid to fit both. There’s literally nothing you can’t make with this trio, and although it’s spendy at almost $400, they offer a lifetime warranty.

I can promise the kitchenware I started out with didn’t offer any such thing (and are long gone). 

A not-so-basic starter kit

A collection of Bourbon Barrel Foods' soy sauces.

It’s been fun showing a teen just how much difference using good ingredients, even when it comes to staples like salt and condiments, can make. (A fine French mustard is a revelation if you’ve only ever had the yellow stuff and it’s been so much fun introducing a young person to the world of tastes that await!)

We keep sea salt I pick up in Paris, good olive oil, and a pepper grinder by the stove, and I think a basket with those things plus great mustard, my favorite soy sauce and smoked paprika from Bourbon Barrel Foods would make a lovely grad gift. 

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One good knife

Heimerdinger Cutlery Co. has been a staple on Louisville's business scene for more than 100 years.

We all know how much chefs love their knives. And for good reason. Using a sharp, finely crafted blade is a game-changer when you’re prepping dinner. I’d never want to send someone out in the world with a cheap chintzy knife, so a visit to Heimerdinger Cutlery Company, 4207 Shelbyville Road, to pick out a chef’s knife that fits their hand best would be pretty sweet (for anyone, not just a kid graduating). 

A signature dish

These eggs topped with breadcrumbs and greens are from

We all have the one dish we can count on, no matter what. You know how to make it in your sleep and you could make it for company in a pinch if need be. It’s comforting, it’s delicious, and you don’t have to think about it. Our niece found hers in a southwestern-style salad in one of the cookbooks. Maybe you have a favorite of your own you can pass on the recipe for. Or your kid has made a dish a few times; offer up some genuine praise and encouragement and it can naturally become their dish. 

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A real-world how-to

Courier Journal food columnist Dana McMahan turned the farm fresh eggs, vegetables and herbs from her first Farm+House order into a frittata.

Yes, we’ve done lots (and lots) of recipes, including some pretty advanced ones. I was so proud the day I came home to find our niece making homemade gnocchi just for fun. But life is full of a lot of random weeknights when you’re busy and just need to eat and haven’t been to the store and there are all these bits and bobs in the fridge that need to be eaten.

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