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15 gifts for a college student who loves to cook (or eat)

Send them back to school in style.

David Watsky Senior Editor / Home and Kitchen
David lives in Brooklyn where he's spent more than a decade covering all things edible, including meal kit services, food subscriptions, kitchen tools and cooking tips. Since earning a BA in English from Northeastern in Boston, he's toiled in nearly every aspect of the food business, including as a line cook in Rhode Island where he once made a steak sandwich for Lamar Odom. Right now, he's likely somewhere stress-testing a blender or researching the best way to make bacon. Anything with sesame is his all-time favorite food this week.
Expertise Kitchen tools, appliances, food science, subscriptions and meal kits.
David Watsky
8 min read
$150 at Best Buy
Calphalon air fryer combo oven
$115 at Our Place
The Always Pan: $115 with special code
$72 at Walmart
NutriBullet Pro 900 series blender
$160 at Best Buy
Ninja hot and cold brew system
$24 at Jot
Jot Ultra Coffee concentrate subscription
$64 at Amazon
Instant Pot DUO mini pressure cooker
$17 at Walmart
Aroma non-stick rice cooker
$29 at Amazon
Prep Naturals glass meal prep containers
See at Hello Fresh
HelloFresh meal kit delivery service
See at Freshly
Freshly prepared meal delivery service
See at Universal Yums
Universal Yums snack box subscription
See at Goldbelly
Goldbelly gift certificate

Because time is a flat circle now more than ever, college graduation and back-to-school are happening pretty much at the same time. While we don't know quite what to make of it, if you've got a kid graduating and forging out on their own or one leaving the quarantine nest and heading back to their college dorm and, um, forging out on their own, they'll probably appreciate some kitchen, cooking and coffee gear.

No matter what phase of college your bright young student is in, a lot of the required equipment remains the same. Caffeine is paramount, of course, so coffee-related gifts are always a good idea but so are food rations, cookware, dorm-friendly appliances and snacks. Lots and lots of snacks.

There are always the classics -- mini fridges, hot plates, dorm-sized microwaves -- but college cuisine doesn't have to be all instant ramen and boring dining-hall grub. In fact, college-aged kids these days are probably more culinarily advanced than ever before so we've got ideas that go way beyond the basics. If you're sending a would-be foodie off to school, here's what to get them so they'll eat (and drink) well all semester, even if they don't necessarily know how to cook.

Our suggestions run the gamut from helpful tools to food-delivery services, so there's something to suit every student -- and help them maintain social distancing, too.

Read more: 13 great kitchen gifts for grads

Oh, how things would have been different if I'd had one of these in college. If you haven't jumped in on the craze yet, air fryers imitate classic fried foods -- which college students famously love --  but without the grease, fat and calories. Whether it's frozen empanadas, french fries, chicken wings, fingers or even veggie sticks, food comes out crispy and moist but never oily. There are plenty of air fryers that just air fry, but I love this combo oven, which can also toast bagels, roast a chicken, reheat leftovers or bake a pie if you need it to. 

This trendy little frying pan does the job of a few other pieces of cookware -- steamer and saucepan to name a few -- and it's incredibly easy to clean, making it the perfect gift for a busy cook with minimal kitchen storage space. Best of all, the multipurpose Always Pan is on sale, down to $115 with discount code GOODTASTE30.

You can read my full review of the Always Pan here and snag one while it's $30 off.

Smoothies are one of the easiest ways to start the day and they're equally good for snacks and quick liquid dinners if it comes to that. This blender is compact (a plus for small spaces) and includes two blending cups with to-go lids, making it great for students who always seem to be running late to class (or Zoom meetings, as the case may be). For college cooks, you might consider a blender with a built-in heating element that's equally handy for warm soups and sauces, but if smoothies are the top priority, this bullet blender gets the job done. It may or may not also make a mean frozen margarita for post-exam celebrations ... for those aged 21 and over only, of course.

For a slightly sleeker -- and more expensive -- personal blender experience, we recently tested out the brand new Beast Blender that was developed by the founder of NutriBullet and liked it a whole lot. It's got good weight, lots of power and looks as cool as any small blender I've seen. 

Read our NutriBullet Pro 900 review.

College students need caffeine, so some kind of coffee maker is highly advisable, whether it's a simple drip coffee maker, a convenient and compact single-serve K-cup machine, a low-tech French press or even a fancy Nespresso maker for the lucky ones. For variety's sake, though, this jack-of-all-trades coffee maker is a great contender. It can handle regular coffee as well as cold brew and even tea, with separate settings and baskets for beans and leaves (loose or bagged). It even has a fold-away frothing arm for latte-style drinks, so it'll save money on Starbucks runs as well as limit unnecessary public outings. It includes size settings too, so you can brew a full carafe or a single cup.

Read more: Trusty reusable coffee mugs

Read our Ninja Hot and Cold Brewed System review.

You can't go wrong with a good set of knives or even just one solid chef's knife to make college cooking easier and more fun. These Berghoff knives are sleek and modern and come in all black or with wood ash handles. You buy them as a set or just snag the 7.5-inch chef's knife for $40.

If a coffee maker isn't an option but an electric kettle or microwave will be on hand, consider sending them off with some Jot Ultra Coffee concentrate. Each bottle makes 14 cups of coffee and as a perpetual iced coffee drinker, I can say Jot holds up in a taste test and it's as simple as simple gets. 

Jot coffee extract is made from organic, Fair Trade, and sustainable coffee beans from Central and South America and certainly beats most instant coffee granules. It can be enjoyed as cold brew or added to hot water or milk for a more traditional cup of joe. You can sign up for a subscription (and save between $4-$12 a month) as well.

Some like it hot. So for bold and beautiful beans to make hot coffee, I'd suggest Trade. The subscription service has some of the best coffee from small roasters across the country, like Gimme! from the East Coast, Sightglass from the West Coast and Intelligentsia from Chicago, on the third coast.

As far as coffee subscription options go, you can get two 12-ounce bags of classic blends for $25 total per delivery ($12.50 per bag), or a single amazing coffee bag from one of 400 roasters for between $15 and $22 per delivery (shipping included for both options). Trade takes you through a few coffee onboarding questions to suss out your preferred coffee lover roasts, and if you need freshly ground coffee, they even let you select your usual brew method for the perfect grind size. You can even sign up for a personalized cold brew subscription.

You can also shop Trade's vast collection of roasts and send a one-time gift or few bags of coffee to help kickstart your college grad's entry back into the real world.

If the dorm allows it, an Instant Pot is a no brainer for today's college students. It truly can do almost anything: Make morning yogurt, boil perfect eggs, make big batches of protein to stretch into meals all week long and even pull off easy desserts. A smaller 3-quart mini Instant Pot is perfect for dorm-bound students without a lot of room to store leftovers.

If the Instant Pot seems like too much of a splurge or just too bulky, consider a rice cooker instead. You can find more sophisticated models, but even the most basic one makes perfect rice every time with the touch of a button (and keeps it warm for hours). But did you know they're also great for cooking other things? They can handle any other grains from quinoa to couscous, as well as beans and porridge, even soups and steamed entrees. Get one of these for your foodie student, throw in The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook and they'll be all set to whip up easy breakfasts, lunches, dinners and desserts -- like oatmeal, risotto, polenta and rice pudding -- mostly all in one pot. Who needs takeout?

A good set of food-safe containers is a must-have for meal prep and storing leftovers, homemade or otherwise. Normally, they're also great for packing snacks and lunches to take along to class. But even if that's out of the question for a while, they can go on a socially distant picnic/study sesh as long as the weather's nice. This set of five compartmentalized meal prep containers is made from heavy-duty borosilicate glass, has lock-on lids to guard against spills and is microwave-, freezer- and oven-safe.

Even the most enthusiastic cook will be pressed for time once school begins, but a meal kit delivery service is a huge help. Not only does it save time spent on grocery shopping and figuring out what you want to eat, but it cuts down on food waste with perfectly proportioned ingredients. And thanks to detailed recipe instructions, even novice cooks can pull off impressive meals.

There are plenty of meal kit delivery companies to choose from and many offer plans for special diets including vegan and gluten-free selections. Every Plate is a good option if you're on a tighter budget but pretty much all of them offer a new customer discount of one kind or another. In fact, check out our list of the best meal kit sign-up offers and see if one might be right for your college kid.

A similar option for those without full dorm kitchens is a ready-made meal delivery service, where it's all heat and eat (and sometimes not even heat). We reviewed Daily Harvest, a plant-based, superfood-centric meal delivery service that includes breakfast and snack options as well as lunch and dinner, but again, you have your pick of meal delivery services.

Freshly, for instance, promises gluten-free, all-natural, single-serving meals for lunch and dinner with no refined sugars and also offers vegetarian, dairy-free, low-carb and paleo plans. All meals come fully cooked and just require a brief spin in the microwave. Prices start at $9 per meal (with the 12 meals per week plan) and go up to $13 per meal (with the four meals per week plan).

Read more: Best healthy meal delivery services for 2021

Like caffeine, snacks are one of a college student's best friends -- and like meal kit and meal delivery services, there are now scores of snack food delivery boxes to keep one well supplied with between-class nibbles. Many of them, including Graze and NatureBox, put a premium on healthy snacks, which could be helpful for anyone concerned about the infamous freshman 15. There's even a keto-oriented Keto Krate snack subscription and vegan options like Vegan Cuts. Other snack subscriptions focus on international treats. Bokksu and Japan Crate send Japanese snacks every month; ZenPop sends Japanese ramen and sweets.

Universal Yums switches it up and ships a box of snacks from a specific country like France or South Korea every month, packed full of goodies often hard to come by in the US. Choose from three box sizes, starting at $17 per month. It's sure to be a bright spot in any stressed student's routine and might help assuage the pain of not being able to study abroad right now.

Somewhere in between meal kit delivery services and snack boxes lie grocery delivery services. A Thrive Market subscription could be the perfect gift for your college-bound food fan, especially now that social distancing is so important. This membership-only online grocery store offers organic and non-GMO snacks, pantry staples, drinks and more -- including meat and fish for those with the means to cook them -- at prices up to 50% off retail. They also sell organic bath and beauty products for when it's time to restock the shower caddy. An annual membership equates to $5 per month and you can try it for a full month risk-free.

When all else fails, a gift certificate to Godbelly should do the trick. Through this sprawling online food marketplace, your college kid can order Texas barbecue or bagels and lox from New York's best delis to be sent safely to wherever they are. When they just can't stomach another slice of cafeteria pizza, this will be exactly the culinary vacation they need.