Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Roommate Living: Your Food, Kitchen, and Sanity

This was first published in April 2010.

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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