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The Dos and Don’ts of Sharing A Kitchen with Roommates |

The Dos and Don’ts of Sharing A Kitchen with Roommates


Photo: Aaron Thomas (Unsplash)

August marks that magical time of year college-town residents know so well: The Descent of the Undergrads. All across the country, hordes of young adults are signing leases, scouring Goodwills and IKEAs for furniture, and preparing to live on their own for the first time. God help us all.

It’s Freshman Orientation Week at Lifehacker! This week, we’re covering ways to snap out of your summer haze and into an autumnal blitz of activity, whether you’re actually heading to campus for the first time, getting your own kids ready for school, or looking for ways to just be more productive in the classroom of life. So velcro up your Trapper Keepers, students. Class is now in session.


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It’s easy to dunk on naive college kids, but I wouldn’t be where I am today if I’d stayed in the dorms. At the time, splitting rent on a house in Portland was way cheaper than room and board, so I lived off-campus three out of four undergrad years. (Barely a decade later, the estimated mortgages on all those houses are three times what my friends and I once paid in rent. Party!) Shitty, poorly appointed rental kitchens were where I figured out that no matter where life took me, I wanted cooking to be a huge part of it.

That’s not to say that it was all rainbows and butterflies. The kitchen is truly the heart of the home, and anyone who’s lived with roommates has, shall we say, a more nuanced understanding of that old cliché. Kitchens feed resentment and bitterness just as easily as they produce joy and, unless you and your roommates communicate directly, you’re in for a very bad time. Here are some guidelines to help you get off on the right foot.

Do Set Clear, Easy-to-Follow Ground Rules

The first thing that any group sharing a kitchen must do is communicate about their expectations for cleanliness. Everyone’s definition of “clean” will vary, but basing your cleaning standards on usability is a great place to start. “Usable” means you can use the space immediately—a few dirty plates in the sink isn’t a huge deal, but leaving dirty cutting boards, knives, pots, and pans on every usable flat surface forces the next person to clean before they can cook.

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Cleaning shared cookware, wiping down the counters, and sweeping or mopping up any big spills as you go should be plenty, but talk it out and come up with standards that will work for you, including how to split deep cleaning. Once you’ve figured that out, write it down and make the document easily accessible via Google Drive or Dropbox. (This is a good place to keep digital copies of your lease and utility bills, too.) While you’re at it, make a YouTube playlist of cleaning and maintenance techniques—like how to clean a dishwasher filter, reset your garbage disposal, load a dishwasher, properly heat a stainless steel pan, and clean gas or electric stovetops—and share it around as well.

Don’t Make A Fucking Chore Wheel

In a perfect world, every household member would spontaneously contribute equally to the care and upkeep of a shared domicile. Theoretically, chore wheels bring us closer to this egalitarian, utopian dreamland; in practice, they shunt the responsibility for keeping a space clean onto (usually) one person, who not only has to identify and assign the tasks but also remind everyone else to do their work. This person—don’t @ me—is almost always a woman.

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If societal attitudes towards domestic labor are a nicked artery, chore wheels are akin to slapping on a Band-Aid and praying for the bleeding to stop. Don’t use them. Instead, establish what “clean” means and kindly, respectfully hold yourself and your roommates responsible for keeping it up. It’ll take some patience, but will ultimately be worth it.

Do Talk Explicitly About Money

College is expensive, and your roommates’ families are probably paying for it in a different way than yours. Splitting costs equally is only fair if everyone can afford to throw in the same amount. If your food budget is extremely tight, be upfront about your boundaries and stick to them. If you have access to familial wealth, use it for good: cover a larger proportion of shared household supplies, buy gas for roommates who drive you to the store, treat the house to pizza during finals, or all of the above. No matter where you’re coming from, you have a responsibility to know what you can afford and be honest about it—and never pass judgment on your roommates’ financial situations.

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Don’t Go Full Co-Op

It’s tempting to wax idealistic about family-style dinners and a communal fridge—especially if this is your first time living with close friends—but unless everyone is committed to the co-op lifestyle, you’re setting yourselves up for frustration and hurt feelings. A fend-for-yourself approach to meals provides the flexibility that hectic student schedules sorely need. That said, living with lots of people can make for a cluttered, redundant pantry. If you can, pool money and split economy size packages of staples like rice, oil, and spices—plus cleaning products and paper goods—to optimize storage space and save money.

Don’t Buy Expensive Cookware

College houses beat shared cookware to shit, which makes fancy copper-lined sets and flimsy, bargain-basement nonstick pans equally terrible decisions in their own special ways. High-maintenance cookware won’t get the upkeep it deserves; cheap nonstick pans will scratch and dent inside of a few weeks. This is why stainless steel is my cookware material of choice, especially for people with roommates. It’s affordable and oven-safe, it works great on even on the shittiest electric ranges, and it’s all but impossible to ruin.

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Cheap knives are also where it’s at. I, a real-life culinary professional, swear by Kiwi knives, which are ludicrously sharp, lightweight, well-designed, and dirt cheap—practically perfect in every way. Their thin stainless blades dull a bit faster than heavier ones do, but on the upside, they basically sharpen themselves. If you can’t find Kiwi knives in your area, any affordable stainless-blade chef’s knife will do the job—just get a good steel and learn how to use it. (A pull-through sharpener isn’t a bad idea, either.)

For all you stress bakers out there, skip the cutesy nonstick pans and go straight for food service-grade stuff. Aluminum corrodes in the dishwasher, but is otherwise unbeatable when it comes to durability and heat distribution: two or three half-size sheet pans, some cake or pie tins, and parchment paper is all you need. As for equipment, invest in a sturdy hand mixer—stand mixers are amazing, but they absolutely suck to pack and move—and a digital scale.

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Do Label Absolutely Everything

So many kitchen communication problems could be solved by a few rolls of masking tape and a pack of Sharpies. Buy some, put them somewhere visible, and make it house policy to label everything that goes in the refrigerator—from condiments to takeout to leftovers—with your name and the date you opened it. Oh, and don’t forget the plastic soup containers: durable, stackable, and cheap enough to lose or toss, they’re the perfect communal food storage solution.

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Any guide to living with roommates would be incomplete without a discussion of emotional labor, but unfortunately, that’s the sort of life skill you learn by doing—not by reading an essay. As hard as it is, try to remember that not everything is about you. Your roommate who leaves dishes around probably isn’t actively trying to ruin your life, so keep the frustration out of your voice when you ask them to pick up. Similarly, a request to clean up your messes is not a personal attack; just do the thing, and take care of it next time without being asked. (If you struggle with not being an asshole—which, honestly, most nineteen-year-olds do—the iconic MetaFilter thread on emotional labor is available in convenient .pdf form. It should be considered mandatory summer reading.)

The entire point of college is to meet and learn from people different from you. Communal living can be exhausting, but it’s a valuable crash course in what it means to participate in society—which is more important than any degree. Have fun, clean up your messes, and don’t be an asshole; it’s the least you can do.

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