Are Waitrose taking the piss(ata)?

A critical reflection on Waitrose's new essential range for students

What are you stocking up on for your kitchen essentials at university? There are some classics staples in every student kitchen – pesto and pasta are no doubt among the most popular items.

Student diets are famously carby and convenience-based (who has the time for cooking when you’ve got a essay deadline at 8pm and pres at 9pm?). We have all lived with someone who can put away an abnormally large number of slices of toast. And then there’s the person who loves a ready meal or something frozen and easy. But when was the last time you saw someone knock up a hungover lunch using cider vinegar, rose harissa, or bouillon powder? Anyone? Nope, me neither.

Yet they all, of course, feature on Waitrose’s essential Freshers list.

Waitrose’s list is well intended but simply ignores the fact that most students are not going to crack out the bouillon powder to create a broth when you can put together something that hits the spot much more quickly and with far less faff. I mean, we didn’t even actually need to read the list in order to know it was probably not going to consist of a simple list of rice, stock cubes, and tinned tomatoes.

On the other hand, Waitrose has a point – hear me out. Quite frankly, there are a lot of really bad cooks in Oxford (I’m totally @ing the token veggie of the kitchen, who puts frozen and often unidentifiable things into the oven). You don’t need to enjoy slaving for hours over a stove, but we can’t totally criticise Waitrose’s attempts at just, you know, making student food less carb-on-carb, more nutritious, and not tasting of beige or salt.

Homemade sauces made of veggies cheaply available in Tesco, and herb plants that you can share with the other people in your kitchen can go a long way, and make you feel less like a couch potato yourself come fifth week. I’d also like to deviate from my semi-rant of kitchen frustration just to do a shout out to the simple stock cube – the genius underdog of the amateur, lazy person’s culinary palate.

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Here’s my moment of honesty though – I have my own food essentials that are just as weird and ‘nonessential’ to most as Waitrose’s list. My painfully middle class beginning of term shop included a burrata (or two), pink Himalayan salt, Romanesco broccoli, and two different bottles of fish sauce (can’t have enough umami, amirite?).

Perhaps that list seems even less attractive to many and less versatile than Waitrose’s list. But when I have foods that I really like cooking with, I make food that I actually look forward to eating rather than making do with food as bland as a Freshers’ Week essay.

Waitrose’s list may not feature products that are very affordable or appeal to everyone, but if you are flavouring everything with your pot of chilli powder or decent quality soy sauce, it can stop your lecture-filled world from falling apart.

When it comes down to it, it’s fun to mock the Waitrose stereotypes (I can embarrassingly say that a comment of mine once featured on ‘Overheard in Waitrose’), and we love to hate that stereotype. But even if you’re not about to whip out a harissa-marinated feast on a Wednesday night, maybe we can see Waitrose’s list as a massive kick up the arse to students everywhere. Maybe they were trying to teach us to season food and reconsider the monotony of student kitchen dinners. So buy some stock and herbs, but don’t forget your pasta and pesto, because they are everyone’s essentials.

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