How to eat well, in four somewhat easy steps

A guide to getting food right, for students and other newbs.

Eating well is a concept. It’s a set of principles that anyone can live by that has little to do with how much money you have or how busy you might be. Some, if not most, of the world’s most beloved cuisines were developed by those with the least means and with things that most considered not worth eating. 

Up until now, you might have been used to eating home cooked meals prepared by Mom and Dad with the occasional trip to a restaurant for a birthday or special occasion. Not much can be expected from you in terms of creating a diet based around eating well — but I believe in you.

Sure, if you were like me when I left home, your main focus was attending school with enough dedication to appease your parents and not flunk out, and to conduct a social experiment on how much beer an 18-year-old can consume within a 12-month period. The research is still on-going but the results are leaning towards an absolute shit-ton. So if you’re going to be stressed by school work and poisoning yourself with cheap booze a few days a week, then perhaps you should also treat yourself to some dignity and civility by being the person who looks like they’ve got their shit together. You might party but god-damn if you don’t eat well.

Below is the simple set of principles that will allow you to make best use of this city whose bounty when it comes to access to good food knows no rival. 

1. Learn to cook

Seriously, learn to fucking cook. I don’t mean learn to boil pasta and heat up a jar of tomato sauce, I mean learn to make food from scratch. Someone along the way is likely to buy you a copy of a Jaime Oliver book, or give you an old copy of The Joy of Cooking — these are dead weight to you. Jaime Oliver’s books are meant for middle-aged women back from a trip to the Amalfi coast or who just recently heard of Morocco. I had those books when I was in school and I never used them. I eventually became a professional cook and I still never used them. Why? Because they require a basic level of cooking to use them, they require a deep well-stocked pantry and the recipes are hard to follow. Learning to cook well is about learning a few basic techniques that apply to all different types of ingredients and making those techniques work for your tastes and for your budget. I recommend checking out the recipes from Bon Appétit (especially from Healthy-ish and Basically), where you’ll find tested, easy to follow recipes that focus on methods and techniques that make cooking less intimidating, plus a lot of recipes have videos so you can see the process happen from start to finish. 

2. Make the right upgrades to your pantry

It’s true, if you want to really eat well you’re going to have to spend more on some things, but it doesn’t mean you have to go broke in the process. The cool thing about food is the difference between the generic and the exceptional can be as little as a dollar or two. A cheap can of metallic tasting tomatoes might be 99 cents but for $3 you can get beautiful cans of rich flavourful organic San Marzano tomatoes, which is going to turn your pasta sauce game waaaaay up. Go for the cheap upgrades that really do the heavy lifting, primarily butter, olive oil and salt. Buying cheap-ass butter and olive oil is like trying to dry yourself off after a shower with a garbage bag, you can go through the motions and you’ll be drier than when you started but you didn’t really get the job done, did you? These fats serve as the basis for so much of good cooking; starting with something mediocre leads to something mediocre. Buy some good kosher salt, and a little box of Maldon salt — the kosher salt is for cooking and the Maldon is for sprinkling on top. You know how restaurant food just tastes better, it’s because they use good salt, and salt is flavour. 

3a) Learn how to eat at restaurants

You might live in a dorm room, or in a place with four other slob roommates. I once lived in a place where the oven had been claimed as a nest for a family of mice. Shit is tough, you’re not going to be cooking all the time. There are a ton of places, many nearby to school, where you can eat well and for cheap. Meat is something that ups the price of a meal dramatically, so start getting to know where you can get great meatless options that are actually good. Check out Nilufar for falafel pita that costs $2, or Thali, where a vegetarian plate with three curries, rice, naan and salad runs you $10. Fuck fast food. It seems easy but more than the fact that it’s bad for you, you’re actually paying a massive mark-up for that trash: $10 for what costs them about a dollar to produce. Be open-minded and learn to love “ethnic” food. Maybe you didn’t grow up eating Haitian food or Lebanese food — that’s actually great, I wish I could rediscover all that food for the first time, there are ample places in town, many open late that are serving super delicious food that will fill your belly for less than $20. I’m talking pho, hand-pulled noodles, dumplings, dosas, thalis, bibimbap, shawarma, falafel, banh mi and more.  

3b) As for the fine dining options, do them right or don’t do them at all

I’m sorry to be so blunt, but nothing is more annoying or a bigger waste of time than to have a cute young couple show up to a high-end restaurant that they can’t afford only to split the cheapest appetizer, the cheapest main and a glass of wine each. You may think it’s swanky to take your date out to a cool restaurant you’ve heard about, but you’re still going to be spending a good amount of money to go there even if you cheap out. My advice, save the high-end stuff for when you got a baller date who will pay for everything, or a visit from the folks. If neither of those are an option, save up some cash and take your date out to a bring-your-own-wine. Booze at restaurants is often the biggest burden, so take advantage of places that let you bring a bottle of wine in the door — you’ll often save more than 50 per cent of the cost of a bottle in a restaurant and you free that cash up to spend on the meal. Au Petit Plateau, Luna and Punjab Palace are a few of my favourite spots. 

Montreal’s food and drink is first class and globally respected. I have no doubt that you’ll figure out the drinking part, but if you spend your time eating pizza from the metro and crushing Subway subs four times a week, you’re fucking up. Use this advice and you’ll not only be making the most of your city but you’ll actually be participating in one of the most interesting food scenes in the world. You’re fortunate to have all this at your fingertips, because you could have gone to Queen’s, and Kingston ain’t got shit. ■