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Two healthy dinners for the college student just learning how to cook

Because not everyone comes into college as a seasoned chef

Baked salmon, sweet potatoes and brussel sprouts is a surprisingly easy dinner to make.
Baked salmon, sweet potatoes and brussel sprouts is a surprisingly easy dinner to make.

My family always cooked while I was growing up. A typical week in my house consisted of four to six home-cooked meals and one to three trips out to restaurants. My mom was the baker, preparing dozens of cookies and always trying out different cake recipes. My dad made dinner most of the time, choosing from a handful of classics he kept on repeat. 

Most days, I would come home from long days of school and soccer practice to piping hot tuna casseroles, turkey tacos, grilled chicken and rice or even the classic Sloppy Joe. And Thursday was always pasta night — no questions asked.

Despite this, for a lot of my childhood, the kitchen didn’t interest me. The fanciest meal I think I ever made for myself until I was 15 was a box of Annie’s Mac and Cheese. Over time though, as my relationship with food changed, I became more invested in making meals for myself. I started helping my dad cut vegetables, prepare salads and stir pasta — among other tasks. 

I found myself learning to love time in the kitchen for the break it gave from school work and for the laughs with my family it provided. I learned to love the aroma of freshly-baked brownies and the effort that went into making the perfect banana bread. 

When I went off to college, I didn’t know how I was going to do it all on my own. The thought of not having my parents there to help me or show me how to make something was daunting. And touching raw chicken? Forget it. 

Fast forward a year and a half, and I have made things I would have never thought possible. From avocado-tahini pasta to meatloaf, I’ll try anything now. But just because I can certainly doesn’t mean I do, and most of the time, I find myself sticking to two simple classics — baked salmon with sweet potatoes and stir-fry.  

How to make baked salmon and sweet potatoes

This one is my favorite. You can ask my roommate — I make it at least two times per week. Salmon is a great protein, packing nutrients like omega-3s, which promote heart health and prevent inflammation. Most grocery stores in the Charlottesville area carry salmon for a decent price, like Trader Joe’s, where you can get multiple portions for under $10. Whole Foods has pre-sliced, individual fillets available for $5 to $6 as well.

If you choose to buy the salmon pre-seasoned, all you have to do is turn the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and cook the fillet of salmon for 14 to 18 minutes. I know that’s a broad range, but I like my salmon COOKED, so I opt for 18 minutes. If you prefer it rare, take a peek at 14 minutes. Rare salmon will have a deep, pink/reddish color inside, while cooked salmon will be a light, faded pink. I also broil mine on high for a couple minutes to get it a little crisp on top. 

If you don’t buy pre-seasoned salmon, all the better. My go-to recipe for a single fillet is one-quarter cup of coconut aminos (lower in sodium than soy sauce), one-quarter cup of honey or maple syrup and 1 tablespoon of ginger. If I don’t have that on hand, a tablespoon or two of store-bought barbecue sauce does the trick. A simple combination of olive oil and lemon goes a long way as well. The possibilities are endless! Just mix your sauce together and let your salmon marinate in it for 30 minutes before you bake it the same way as above. 

If you don’t have an oven, but you have a stove, you can also cook the salmon in a pan. Just heat the pan with some oil (olive or avocado works and tastes great), and place the fillet on medium heat for four to six minutes per side. Keep an eye on the salmon and don’t forget to turn your kitchen fan on.

For the sweet potato, I prefer to just rinse a whole potato, wrap it in foil and bake at 400 degrees for an hour, or until it gives slightly. You can also place a whole sweet potato in a microwave-safe dish and microwave it for six to seven minutes. Slice and enjoy, or top with some brown sugar and cinnamon for more flavor. If a whole sweet potato doesn’t interest you, you can also cut the sweet potato into cubes and drizzle with some olive oil then add salt and pepper and bake at 400 for 30 to 35 minutes. All of these make for easy, delicious preparations.

Lastly, I like to add something green to my dish. I rotate between broccoli and brussel sprouts, both of which are great when seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted in the oven alongside your sweet potato for the same 30 to 35 minutes.

How to make stir-fry

This option is equally delicious and failure-proof. What I like more about this dish is the abundance of vegetables that you can throw in, and the versatility of options you can use as a base. My favorites are brown or black rice, quinoa or spaghetti squash. 

For the base: if cooking rice or quinoa, just follow the instructions on the package. For spaghetti squash, carefully slice a squash in half and spoon out the seeds. Place face down on a baking dish and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes or until the sides give slightly. Then use your fork to pull the inside, and it will come out looking like spaghetti! It’s simple and delicious. 

For the sauce: mix one-half cup of water, one-quarter cup of liquid aminos (or soy sauce), 2 tablespoons honey and 1 teaspoon garlic powder in a bowl and set aside.

For everything else, find a protein of choice — chicken makes a great option. For chicken, slice into pieces and sauté in a pan with a bit of sesame oil until cooked through (about five to six minutes) and set aside. You can also use shrimp, tofu, tempeh or beans as a choice of protein. Next, prepare the vegetables by chopping them. You can really add however many vegetables you want. My favorite combination is carrots, mushrooms, cabbage, red pepper, sugar snap peas and broccoli — all the broccoli. Place the vegetables in a pan with almost all of the sauce, sauté for three to four minutes on medium-high heat, add your protein of choice, turn down the heat to low and let it simmer, adding the rest of the sauce, for about five minutes. 

Combine all parts in a bowl and enjoy!

Isabel Salken is a Food Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at