Five quick 5-ingredient 1-pan meals perfect for students or anyone cooking in a small kitchen

Plus swaps to help you omit meat, turn any leftovers into a fresh lunch, and tweak these to your taste.

Plus swaps to help you omit meat, turn any leftovers into a fresh lunch, and tweak these to your taste

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Sure, student kitchens are often pared down and tiny (what shared kitchen does not feel tiny!), but that doesn't mean the food coming out of them has to be lacklustre. With the following recipes, a single burner or just a hotplate and a pan, you can master meals that deliver the tastes you crave and pretty quickly too. These homemade, healthy-ish dinners prove that big, bold taste can come from just a few key items and smart cooking techniques step by super-easy step. 

And by 'just a few ingredients' we mean about five! Excluded from the five ingredients are the cooking staples kosher salt, pepper, flour, oil, and water. Oh, and you can make all of these in a single pan. All of the recipes make enough for 2 to 4, meaning you can share with your housemates or enjoy a homemade lunch the following day or two afterward. 

You'll find a dish for every weeknight, to get you started and to help you shop smarter (that means making a list and saving money).

Have fun with these dishes and make them your own, sticking to the techniques and quantities while replacing the flavour-bomb and core ingredients with ones that appeal to you. Head to the bottom of each recipe for the notes where you'll find a helpful tip, switch-up, vegan option or serving suggestion.

Korean Cauliflower Tacos

In a large high-sided skillet over medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Tip in 1 cauliflower cut into bite-sized florets, add 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and saute until very tender and golden brown in a few spots, about 10 minutes. To the cauliflower, stir in ½ cup Korean-style BBQ or dipping sauce (plus more if you like it extra saucy) and 2 teaspoons sesame oil, and then continue to cook until cauliflower is coated and sauce is bubbling, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle over 2 thinly sliced green onions and serve in small soft corn or wheat taco shells. Serves 4.  

Recipes notes: The cauliflower filling makes an excellent addition to a grain bowl for tomorrow's lunch.

Okonomiyaki-Style Omelet

In a large non-stick skillet over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add in 2 cups finely shredded green cabbage and season with ½ teaspoon kosher salt. Saute until cabbage is wilted and very soft, 4 to 5 minutes. In a small bowl beat 2 large eggs with ¼ cup all-purpose flour and ¼ cup water until mostly smooth and add to cabbage mixture, stirring to coat. Press mixture into a single, flat layer, cover and cook until eggs are set and the bottom of the okonomiyaki is brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Fold in half. Top with a squiggles of mayonnaise, ketchup and sriracha, to taste. Slice in half and serve. Serves 2. 

Recipe notes: For a breakfast-for-dinner sandwich option, nestle your omelet into a soft sesame bun and dive in.  

One-Pot Shrimp, Spinach and Lemon Pasta

In a large high-sided skillet add 12 ounces spaghetti (broken in half, if your skillet is on the smaller side), 2 tablespoons olive oil, the zest of 1 lemon, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, ½ teaspoon ground black pepper and 4½ cups water. Bring mixture to a boil and cook, tossing frequently with tongs so the pasta cooks evenly and prevents sticking on the bottom, about 6 minutes. Add 1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp (defrosted, if frozen) and 3 cups (3 good handfuls) baby spinach. Cook, continuing to toss with tongs, until shrimp is cooked through, pasta is al dente (slightly firm/not mushy when you bite into it, but definitely cooked) and most of the liquid has evaporated, 4 to 5 minutes. Squeeze over the juice of ½ lemon (about 2 tablespoons), toss again to incorporate and serve. For a thicker sauce, let the pasta sit, covered, for 5 minutes before tossing again and serving. Serves 4. 

Recipe notes: Play with this formula to make the dish your own. Follow the formula — 12 ounces of pasta, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, ½ teaspoon ground black pepper and 4½ cups water — and build from there. Try adding halved cherry tomatoes and sliced, cooked sausage for a spicy sausage and tomato pasta. Or, go for a creamy mushroom and pesto penne using penne pasta with a big scoop of cream cheese and prepared basil pesto, along with sliced button mushrooms before bringing the mixture to a boil.   

Chicken Thighs with Tomatoes, Chickpeas and Feta

In a large non-stick or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons oil. Sprinkle ½ teaspoon kosher salt over 4 to 6 (1½ to 2 pounds) skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs in their package. Add the thighs to the hot oil skin side down and cook until the skin is very crisp, about 5 to 7 minutes. Flip chicken and surround the thighs with 1 (14 oz) can fire-roasted diced tomatoes and 1 (14 oz) can drained chickpeas. Season everything evenly with an additional ½ teaspoon kosher salt. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer, partially cover and cook until the chicken thighs are fully cooked through with no pink remaining and juices that run clear (check for 165F degrees with a thermometer, if you have one), about 20 minutes. Top everything with ½ cup crumbled feta cheese and ½ cup torn basil leaves, and serve. Serves 4.  

Recipe notes: Pair this with crusty bread to soak up all of those delicious juices.    

Thai Red Curry Beef and Peanut Lettuce Wraps

In a large high-sided, non-stick or cast-iron skillet over medium/medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add 1 pound lean ground beef and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Break up meat and cook for about 10 minutes, or until fully cooked through and any water has evaporated. Stir in 2 tablespoon Thai red curry paste and ½ cup water, stirring and cooking until the water and curry paste have created a sauce and reduced, about 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in ½ cup roasted peanuts and ½ cup torn fresh basil leaves. Spoon into iceberg lettuce cups, wrap and enjoy. Serves 4.

Recipe notes: Make this vegan-friendly by replacing the ground beef with extra-firm crumbled tofu (press it to get all of the water out) or your favourite meatless ground or crumbles. 

Allison Day is the cookbook author of Modern Lunch. Find her online at and on Instagram @allisondaycooks


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