Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Roommate Living: Your Food, Kitchen, and Sanity

Since freshman year of college, I’ve had approximately 15,000 roommates. Some are still my best friends, favorite people, and life partners. Others smoked crazy things too late at night. One remains the only unrelated adult I’ve ever yelled at. (Surprise! It was over the dishes.)

Whether you’re fresh out of university or shacking up with your significant other for the first time, living with other people has multitudinous benefits. It can save everyone involved a ton of cash. It can be a social opportunity, cultural experience, and culinary education. It can keep you from being plain lonely.

But if you’re not careful, it can also be a terrifying descent into a cohabitational hell, in which anger and discomfort become facts of everyday life. Living with the dishes guy? Was kind of like that.

The center of roommate karma is inevitably the kitchen. Maintain a zen-like equilibrium there, and your time together will be peaceful and harmonious. Forget to buy paper towels for the third week in a row, and you could find a severed goldfish head on your pillow.

That’s why it’s important to discuss food, money, and galley-related issues up front. It puts you on the same page, sets a precedent for the future, and prevents misunderstanding down the line. So, be open with your wants and needs. Ask plenty of questions. And remember the two most important things about living with anyone new:
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up. If your roommate isn’t doing her dishes and/or owes you money for olive oil, tell her. You can assert yourself and still be considered a nice person.
  • Don’t be a jerk. You’re sharing this room with others, and should always take their feelings into consideration. Play nice, do your part, and don’t make fun of Bob’s vegan macaroni and cheese.
With those ideas in the back of your head, the ensuing discussion should be easy. For reference, here are a few good areas to touch on, along with a ton of pertinent questions.


First and foremost, you and your roommate(s) have to feed yourselves using actual food. Broaching the edibles topic could set the tone for the rest of your talk, not to mention the rest of your lease. Tread carefully, be thorough and kind, and ask:
  • Will you share food? Will you share everything or just staples? Which staples?
  • Will you share cooking responsibilities? How will you split the job?
  • When will you cook? Should you set up a schedule? What meals will you eat at home?
  • Does anyone have dietary restrictions, allergies, or ethical issues?
  • Will any food be off limits? (ex: If there’s a peanut allergy in the house, it could be best to avoid ‘em altogether.)


Once you have food, you need ways to serve it. Your requirements could vary wildly, based on your diet and/or affinity for cooking. Plan ahead, use this checklist for guidance, and ask:
  • What kitchen equipment do you already own? Is it in good shape?
  • What do you need to buy? Where should you buy it?
  • Do you have any doubles (ex: two toasters)? Do you need the extra? If not, what can you do with it?
  • Who will keep new purchases (microwave, blender, etc.) if/when you move out?
  • Is there room to fit everything? (See: Storage.)


Here comes the hard part. Beyond rent, you’ll probably spend most of your apartment-apportioned cash on food and kitchen supplies. Splitting the bills can be tricky, and payment itself even harder. Stay positive and ask:
  • How will pay for the food you buy jointly? Will you split the bills or alternate months?
  • How will you pay for the kitchen necessities (tin foil, dish soap, paper towels, etc.)? What falls under that umbrella term?
  • Who will do the actual buying? Will you take turns?
  • Will you join a bulk store or CSA? What supermarkets, ethnic markets, and farmer’s markets will you shop at?
  • How will you handle coupons, sales, or memberships?
  • How will you handle restaurants and take out? Does that go in the budget?


Pots, pans, silverware, dishes, and appliances do more than look pretty: they take up space. And when square feet are at a minimum, having a storage strategy is vital. Consider your cabinets and ask:
  • Where will you store the food? How about the dishes? And cleaning equipment?
  • Will you split storage? Who gets which refrigerator shelf? What about the pantry and freezer?
  • Do you have enough room for bulk purchases?
  • Is there a way you can easily add extra shelves, cabinets, or pot racks?
  • Are you allowed to throw things out without permission, if it looks like it went bad? (Note: This comes up more than you think. It’s like a science experiment in there sometimes.)


Though dishes are 90% of the issue, cleaning goes deeper than washing your coffee cup. In every kitchen, there are counters to wipe, floors to mop, and microwaves to liberate of caked spaghetti sauce. If this is left to one person - or worse, not done at all – things will very messy, both dirt-wise and relationship-wise.
  • How quickly will you have your dishes done? Will you split the responsibility? How?
  • How often will you light clean (counters, sweeping, etc.) the kitchen? Who will take care of this?
  • How often will you deep clean (oven, refrigerator, etc.) the kitchen? Who will take care of this?
  • Who will take out the garbage? How will you handle recycling?
  • Who will take care of repair issues as they come up? Are you handy? Will you be the point person for the landlord?
  • Who will keep track of and replace cleaning tools (Lysol, sponges, etc.)?
  • Should you create a cleaning schedule?
If you address all of these questions up front and periodically revisit them through the course of your cohabitation, you and your roommates/loved ones can enjoy a sparkling, relatively stress-free household. What’s more, you can apply the concepts to almost every shared room in the house, whether it’s the den or the shed you use to make illegal moonshine.

Readers, what about you? Do you have any roommate rules to follow, especially in the kitchen? How about horror stories? You know we loves us some o’ those guys.

(Excellent letter photo from Passive Aggressive Notes.)


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Anonymous said...

In our house, there are three of us between the ages of 29 and 40. While we each buy our own random items (snacks, breakfast stuff, shampoo, etc), we nearly always eat dinner together at home.

It just happens that I am the roommate who most enjoys grocery shopping and cooking; as such, I do almost all of the shopping for our shared items (TP, cleaning stuff, etc), and then the bill is split three ways with repayment due by the end of the week.

I prepare 90% of our dinners and am in charge of keeping the kitchen area running smoothly (clean, organized, mopped, etc); my roommates divide the other household chores. Each of us has our areas of chore-related preference, but we all generally pitch in where needed, too.

It may not work for everyone, but it works for us and keeps us from, you know, eating each others' livers with fava beans, etc. :)

Rachel said...

Equipment: Clearly spell out any special handling instructions needed for equipment you already own. This includes stuff that's not dishwasher-safe, your seasoned wok that should just be wiped out with a damp towel and not cleaned with detergent, etc.

If you have fairly nice T-FAL cookware, be sure your roommate knows not to use a metal fork to scramble her eggs in it. Just as a random example that of course never happened to me.

Anne said...

I currently share a house with 7 other people. At the beginning of our lease, things quickly descended into anarchy and so even though the idea felt a little childish, we made a chore wheel. It has actually worked out pretty well and it keeps the person with the lowest tolerance for mess from always having to clean up everyone else's stuff (*ahem*). This may not be necessary for advanced renters, but for college kids and recent grads, I think it's important to at least put in writing who will do what. It

Sara said...

If I only I had seen this about seven months ago, when my current roommate moved in and promptly began driving me nuts by not rinsing her dishes after using them. (I asked her to, nicely, twice. She'd do it for a week or two, then stop again.) At this point, it's not worth it anymore, especially because I'm only in this apartment for seven more weeks (not that I'm counting).

And after I move out, I'm going to be living ALONE. And happily, no doubt. :D

Stacy said...

Some great tips, thans so much for sharing!

Megan said...

After a failed attempt at a chore wheel in our previous larger household, my roommate and I split overall household duties based on interest. The kitchen could burn down before he noticed, so I do the light cleaning, and I hate taking the garbage out, so he does that. It's perhaps a bit more work for me, but it's worth it to never have to touch our dumpster!

We don't have any problems with food sharing, but that's because I'm health conscious and lactose intolerant, and he's nut-allergic and from Minnesota (read: cheese obsessed). We decided a long time ago to only share what we knew was communal: mustard, coffee, ice-- or anything declared "open".

As for horror stories... I could tell plenty, but the best was a former roommate who would regularly cook an enormous pot of lamb curry and then leave the pot --unrefrigerated-- on the stove for a week! He would reheat it on the same burner and fill a new bowl every night. It would grow a central nervous system after a week or so, and we'd have to force him to throw it out. Then he'd leave the pot soaking, full of curry and mold-fur, for weeks... needless to say, we're much better friends now that we're no longer roommates.

midwestgrrl said...

I've lived alone for many happy years, though I'll soon be cohabitating with my boyfriend. I don't expect any kitchen issues there, though -- we both love to cook, and we love our kitchen equipment.

I did have a high-maintenance and slightly bonkers roommate once who saw no problem with allowing me to provide all the milk, butter, salad dressing, paper towels, etc. Once, she brought home a half-dozen chocolate bars and put them away in a cabinet, remarking that I could eat them or use them however I liked, because someone had given them to her and she would "never eat them." So over the course of the next several months I used them in recipes or nibbled on them after dinner, only to have her start slamming cabinet doors one night when she couldn't find them. Make up your mind!!

ScienceandtheCity said...

There's nothing that makes me doubt the inherent goodness of human beings like living in close quarters with them. At least, that's true of unrelated people that I'm not in a romantic relationship with. I am somehow always the one with the lowest tolerance for mess, so I always do the cleaning.

My last roommates (a couple) didn't buy toilet paper for 6 months, even when I asked them. When I finally refused to buy more they started using tissues from a box in their room. Then I bought a roll of TP just for myself that I would bring with me to the bathroom and I didn't tell them about it, resulting in what I like to call the TP cold war of '09. When they finally ran out of tissues (a week later!) one of them finally went to the drug store and bought more TP and then complained for the next two days about how much she hates going to the drug store because the cashiers are rude. Really? Because I LOVE going there so much :/

Allie said...

Wow, I really wish I'd had this list in college! Particularly senior year.

Picture this: Roommate A and B are sick of always doing the dishes, because roommate C hasn't done a load since... ever. They (passive-aggressively) decide to wash all their own dishes immediately after use. Any dishes that cannot be washed immediately are stored in A and B's bedrooms until they can be washed, dried, and replaced in the cupboards.

A week later, we are out of forks and cannot see the sink anymore. Roommate C then comments, "um... would one of you mind doing some dishes?" Um, yeah. We have been. Every single dish in there is yours. "Oh..." 2 days later, roommate C breaks down and does all the dishes after attempting to eat cereal with a table knife.

PC said...

This would have been a good plan last year.

I had a roommate who had no concept of sanitation, a disastrous situation when there are 5 people living in a house plagued by bug problems. Cockroaches everywhere. Ew.

She didn't seem to be bothered by her moldy pot of rice, chocolate milk left to stratify and grow on the counter, or the Everest-like mountain of dishes in her personal dish bin.... ever. Weeks would pass before she finally ran out of dishes and was forced to wash enough to make her next meal.

After disposing of a two week old bag of tomatoes (mostly liquified by that point) that she defended as "a piece of still life art" we all went a bit ape s*** on her.

Some people really just need to be aware that there are other people besides themselves.

Elyas said...

Hi, thanks for the good tips. Thanks for sharing.

Catering Equipment said...

You really need to spell out everything from the beginning. General stuff can be turned into a simple contract and all parties must sign. Verbal agreement is great but someone will always deny the whole thing! As for daily and weekly chores, you must work out a little roster and take turn to do the chores. That's why it's called share accommodation.

Shade said...

so far, this is my first serious co-habitation. Most of the major problems have been avoided, although I had to start buying nasal strips to stop 'the snoring noise' I was apparently making at night.
She has 'taken out' my trash several times because she didn't like the look of it, which I'm not complaining about, it's just..odd. My main gripe with her is that she
gets up at 6am every day and cooks something involving curry almost every day. Yes, even weekends. She is vegetarian and is luckily not one to comment on my food choices(although once she suggested I should 'cut back on refined sugars' after I got sick...) Besides that, and despite our highly different sleeping schedules(I Am SO a night owl, and despite not being loud at night, she's a light sleeper, so if I want to stay up I have to leave the room we share. She, however, goes to sleep at 8-10pm and wakes up at 6am.) we have avoided most of the major hiccups, because we each have our own small fridge and food storage/eating areas.
I suppose next year when I'll be sharing a kitchen I'll have a much higher risk of stumbling across someone's ideas of proper kitchen etiquette. *shrug*