College students these days have packed schedules. When you’re rushing around campus all day, it can be hard to find the time to eat a meal, let alone cook one. That’s why most students rely on their school’s meal plan. These days, meal plans give you lots of food options to choose from, including off-campus eateries that can serve up meals late into the night.
But this convenience comes at a high cost. According to the Hechinger Report, the average college meal plan costs $4,500 for three meals a day, eight months a year. That works out to about $18.75 per day. By contrast, the average American household spends about $7,200 on food for a whole year, or $7.80 per person, per day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As a student, you can save a lot of money by doing some or all of your own cooking. If you live in an apartment, it’s just a matter of getting yourself some basic kitchen tools and a good cookbook. But even if you live in a dorm, you can use a few creative tricks to prepare some simple meals at home. You may not be able to replace your entire meal plan, but even downgrading from a full meal plan to a partial one could save you thousands of dollars each year.
Sharing a Communal Kitchen
Many college residence halls have a communal kitchen that all students can share. Unfortunately, using it isn’t always pleasant or convenient. Other students don’t always clean up after cooking, so it’s not unusual to come into the kitchen and find someone else’s week-old dirty dishes piled in the sink.
The key to avoiding problems like this is communication. Often, students who leave a mess in the kitchen don’t mean to be rude – they just don’t realize that the cleaning staff isn’t going to come in and clean up after them. Putting up a sign in the kitchen gently reminding people to clean up after themselves could be enough to solve the problem.
If that doesn’t do the trick, you can try talking to the other students directly. Call a meeting of all students in your dorm who use the kitchen and work out some ground rules for sharing it. In addition to cleaning, you can address issues like how much storage space each student can use and how to label your food so others know it’s off-limits. Maybe you can even agree to get together and cook a group meal once a month.
Talking through these problems with other students can also help prevent bigger problems down the road. Sometimes, if students don’t take care of the kitchen properly, the school will put a lock on the door and require students to sign out a key to use it. Making a plan with other students can help you avoid this situation and keep the kitchen open to all.
Of course, even if your dorm kitchen isn’t locked, it isn’t necessarily convenient to use for every meal. If you live on the fourth floor, it’s a pain to go down to the first floor in your pajamas every morning just to boil an egg for breakfast. However, you can still use the shared kitchen to cook up a big batch of something every few days – chili or spaghetti, for instance. If you save the leftovers to reheat later, this one dish can provide you with dinner for several days in a row.
Tools for Dorm Cooking
If your dorm doesn’t have a kitchen, “home” cooking is a little more challenging – but not impossible. With the right tools and a little creativity, you can whip up a surprising variety of dishes in the confines of your dorm room.
While you can’t fit a full-sized stove or oven in a dorm room, there are several smaller appliances you can use to do many of the same jobs. The most useful gadgets for dorm cooking are:
- Microwave Oven. If you can only make room for one appliance in your room or suite, choose this one. With a little practice, you can learn to cook almost anything in the microwave. Microwave cooking also has the advantage of being a lot quicker than preparing the same dishes in a standard oven – a big benefit when you’re on a tight schedule.
- Mini Fridge. Although you can cook complete meals with only canned and shelf-stable ingredients, having a fridge to store fresh food gives you a lot more options. It also allows you to store your leftovers, so you can cook one meal and have dinner for the next night as well. Many dorms these days come equipped with mini refrigerators, but if yours doesn’t, consider investing in one. They cost around $100 to $150 new, and you can get one for even less if you buy it secondhand from a departing student. Plus, when you graduate, you can resell it to another aspiring dorm cook and get back a good chunk of what you paid.
- Coffee Maker. Lots of college students practically live on coffee, so being able to brew up a cup at any hour of the day or night is a major convenience. However, a coffee pot isn’t just good for making coffee. You can also use the carafe to cook oatmeal, soup, and ramen noodles. You can boil eggs in the pot and heat up a grilled cheese sandwich on the burner. This video from Chowhound even shows how you can make a complete meal in the coffee maker – steamed veggies, rice, poached salmon, and chocolate fondue.
- Rice Cooker. Despite the name, a rice cooker can make a lot more than plain rice. According to The Kitchn, you can use one to prepare oatmeal, risotto, polenta, beans, lentils, and even frittata.
- Toaster Oven. These little ovens can cook pretty much anything a regular oven can, as long as it’s in a small enough pan. You can use one to roast chicken or sausages, cook up quesadillas, and bake delicious desserts, such as muffins and fruit crisps. It’s also the perfect tool for reheating pizza or French fries so they come out crisp, not soggy. And, of course, it’s also good for making toast.
- Panini Maker or Mini Grill. Panini presses make lunches easy and fun. As long as you have bread on hand, you can make a tasty grilled sandwich using just about any ingredients. If you upgrade to a mini grill, such as the famous George Foreman grill, you can also use it to cook up various meats.
- Blender. This tool can be your ticket to healthy homemade smoothies, which make a quick and easy breakfast. If you choose a mini blender, you can even use the blender container itself as a to-go cup. A blender is also great for making dips, blended soups, and even homemade ice cream.
- Slow Cooker. If you’re really serious about cooking as wide a variety of tasty, healthy meals as you possibly can in a small dorm room, a slow cooker is the appliance to use. With a slow cooker, you can prepare an amazing variety of foods – soups, stews, pot roasts, beans, grains, and desserts. You can even use it to bake bread!
Before you rush out and buy all of these gadgets, be aware that colleges don’t always allow you to have them in your dorm. At some schools, a mini grill, toaster oven, or even a coffee maker could be banned as a fire hazard. So, before you show up at school with a toaster oven in tow, check with your school’s housing department to find out the rules.
Along with your appliances, you’ll need a few basic kitchen tools. Since you don’t have a full kitchen, you don’t need the same collection of cookware required to cook a meal on the stove – and you wouldn’t have room to store it, anyway. However, you’ll probably want the following basics:
- Microwave safe dishes – at least one plate, one bowl, and one mug
- One sharp knife and a cutting board
- A set of utensils – fork, knife, and spoon
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Containers for storage – zip-top plastic bags or sturdier containers of plastic or glass
In addition, if you are using a communal kitchen, you’ll need at least one good-sized pot and one pan. A pot with a strainer lid is best, since it allows you to drain pasta or beans without having to use a separate colander.
There’s no need to spend a lot of money on these basic cooking supplies. You don’t need them to last forever; they just have to get you through your college years. You can find cheap versions of a lot of these items at the dollar store, and if they break, you’re only out a dollar. You can also pick them up secondhand at thrift stores and yard sales, or use hand-me-downs from relatives.
The Right Ingredients
Dorm-room cooking shouldn’t mean a steady diet of ramen noodles. Those little packets are cheap and easy to make, but a steady diet of them won’t give you the energy you need to power through your classes. By choosing the right ingredients, you can eat healthy in college, even without a real kitchen.
Staple foods are the ones you should always keep on hand because you can use them in a wide variety of recipes. Here’s a sample list of staples for campus cooking:
- Bread (including tortillas or pitas)
- Peanut butter
- Pasta and pasta sauce
- Grains, such as rice, oatmeal, couscous, or quinoa
- Canned or dry beans
- Canned or frozen veggies and fruit
- Canned tuna or chicken, or shelf-stable tofu
- Olive or vegetable oil
- Spices and seasonings, such as salt, pepper, chili powder, Italian seasoning, and any other favorites
These staple foods are all fairly cheap, and most of them will keep at room temperature, so they don’t take up precious space in your tiny fridge. You can supplement them with a selection of fresh fruits and veggies and even some fresh meats.
Grocery shopping poses three major challenges for students:
- Limited Selection. Some college campuses are pretty far from the nearest supermarket. Convenience stores, either on or off campus, usually carry only a limited selection of items, with a focus on packaged foods and perhaps a few ready-made sandwiches. In circumstances like these, finding fresh fruits and veggies can be a challenge. One option is to shop at your local farmers’ market, if there is one. If the nearest farmers’ market isn’t close to campus, try getting a couple of friends together to make an excursion so you can stock up on produce. If that’s not an option, you may have to get by with canned or frozen fruits and veggies. They’re not quite as good as fresh, but in a mixed dish like a soup or casserole, you can hardly tell the difference. You can also pick up dried vegetables, such as carrots, corn, and onions, and soak them in water to make a passable substitute for fresh veggies.
- Limited Space. A tiny dorm-sized fridge doesn’t provide a lot of space to store fresh food. This is another good reason to focus on shelf-stable foods, such as canned or dried beans and veggies. You can make whole meals out of nothing but packaged foods, or use mostly packaged foods with a touch of fresh produce or herbs to perk them up.
- Limited Budget. The whole point of skipping the school’s meal plan is to save money, so it defeats the purpose if you spend too much on groceries. Unfortunately, it’s a fact of college life that stores on or near campus tend to jack up their prices, knowing that hungry students have no better alternatives. To get around this problem, try asking older students who have been around campus for a few years which stores have the most reasonable prices. If there are no good options nearby, try looking farther afield. Find out which discount grocery stores are closest to campus. If you don’t have a car, bum a ride off a friend who has one so you can make one big trip and stock up on staples at a good price.
Now that you have your dorm “kitchen” stocked, it’s time to start cooking. With these few basic ingredients and tools, you can prepare a surprisingly wide variety of healthy meals – breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks.
1. Breakfast Recipes
Cold cereal makes a quick and easy breakfast, but you don’t have to limit yourself to that. Even with just a microwave, you can prepare lots of tasty breakfast options, such as:
- Scrambled Eggs. It’s easy to make scrambled eggs in the microwave. Just beat one or more eggs in a microwaveable bowl or mug, adding salt, pepper, or cheese if you like. Then heat it on high in 30-second bursts, stirring the egg each time until it’s as firm as you like it. You can also make this into an omelet by cooking some chopped veggies in your bowl for a minute or two before adding the eggs.
- Poached Eggs. If you prefer your eggs poached, crack one egg into a bowl and cover it with about 1/3 cup of water and a dash of vinegar. Cover the bowl and cook it on medium power for one minute. If it’s still not done, keep cooking in 20-second bursts until it’s ready.
- Bacon. How about some bacon to go with those eggs? To make it in the microwave, sandwich your bacon strips between a few layers of paper towel and cook on high for about one minute per bacon strip. If the bacon doesn’t look quite done, don’t worry; it will continue to cook and crisp for a few seconds after the power goes off. The paper towel will soak up all the grease, so all you have to do to clean up is toss it in the trash.
- Overnight Oats. For a healthier breakfast, try this simple overnight oatmeal. Put half a cup of rolled oats in a jar or bowl with half a cup of milk and any flavorings you like – fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, cinnamon, or whatever floats your boat. Stir the mixture, cover it, and let it sit overnight. The oats will soak up all the milk and be soft and ready to eat in the morning. You can pop the jar in the microwave to heat it up or simply top it with milk and eat.
- Breakfast Parfait. Another great way to enjoy oats is in a granola parfait. Just layer granola in a bowl, mug, or mason jar with yogurt and the fruit of your choice. You can also make this with a Grape-Nuts-type cereal in place of granola. These breakfast parfaits can be made ahead of time and stored in your mini fridge for up to a week, so all you have to do is grab one on your way out the door.
- Mug French Toast. If you have a little more time in the morning, try this microwave French toast recipe from Pretty Prudent. Butter the inside of a microwave-safe mug and fill it with a slice of bread torn into chunks. In another mug, beat together an egg with a few tablespoons of milk, and cinnamon or vanilla to taste. Pour this over the bread, then nuke it until it’s done to your liking.
There are plenty of other great hot breakfasts you can prepare with a mug and your microwave. Do a quick search on “microwave mug breakfasts” and you’ll find lots to choose from – microwave coffee cakes, muffins, quiches, breakfast cookies, and more.
2. Lunch Recipes
For an easy lunch that you can eat on the go, you can always fix yourself a sandwich. Bread and peanut butter are easy to keep on hand, and you can use your mini fridge to store cold cuts, hummus, or cheese.
However, you can get tired of sandwiches after a while. If you’re craving a more elaborate lunch, here are some options you can prepare between classes:
- Pita Pizza. Here’s an easy pizza for one you can whip up in the toaster oven. Just top a pita (regular or whole wheat) with pasta sauce, cheese, and your favorite toppings, slide it onto a baking sheet, and bake it until the cheese is bubbly – about seven minutes. If you don’t have a toaster oven, you can microwave the pita for about 80 seconds on high instead, but it won’t be crispy. This mini pizza also works with a split English muffin in place of the pita bread.
- Homemade Mac and Cheese. There’s no need to settle for boxed macaroni and cheese. It’s easy to whip up your own in the microwave from scratch. First, combine 1/2 cup macaroni and 1/2 cup water in a microwave-safe bowl. Heat it for two minutes on high, stopping to stir it if the water starts to boil over. Continue cooking in two-minute bursts, stirring each time, until the noodles are tender. Then stir in 1/4 cup shredded cheese and 1/4 cup milk and zap it in 30-second bursts until the cheese melts into a creamy sauce.
- Mason Jar Salad. For a fast lunch you can eat between classes, try a mason jar salad. First, mix up a simple vinaigrette dressing and pour it into the bottom of a mason jar. Then add layers of your favorite salad ingredients – whole grains, veggies, fruits, nuts, beans, or cheese. Put heavy ingredients like beans toward the bottom and greens on top, so they don’t get soggy. You can make this ahead of time and stash it in the fridge for up to three days. At lunchtime, give the covered jar a quick shake to coat everything with the dressing, grab a fork, and take the whole package with you.
Leftovers from last night’s dinner also make a quick and easy lunch. Store them in a microwave-safe container, and all you have to do is give them a quick zap to heat them up.
3. Dinner Recipes
When classes are over for the day, you can devote a little more time to cooking something special for dinner. Here are a few easy, healthy dishes for dorm-room cooks:
- Pasta. This is a go-to dinner for many inexperienced cooks. It’s easy to prepare, either in the microwave or on the stove in your dorm’s communal kitchen, and there are lots of ways to serve it. You can dress it with a basic red sauce or pesto sauce from a jar, or toss it with veggies, meat, cheese, or seafood to make a heartier meal.
- Steamed Veggies. Cooking fresh vegetables in the microwave is easy. First, chop up your veggies and put them in a bowl with a splash of water. Next, cover the bowl with a plate and put it in the microwave. Last, cook on high until the veggies are tender. Cooking times vary depending on your microwave and the type of vegetable, so check them after two minutes, and keep going in 30-to-60-second intervals after that. Be careful when you uncover the bowl, since there’ll be a lot of hot steam trapped under the plate.
- Steamed Fish. Fresh fish is also very easy to prepare in the microwave. Just put your fish fillet on a small, microwave-safe dish and heat it on 50% power in one-minute increments until it’s tender and flaky. You can use any kind of fish and dress it before cooking with the seasonings of your choice. Here are two sample recipes: Simple Microwave Salmon from Healthy Aperture and Asian Flounder from Cooking Light.
- Oat Risotto. Risotto is perceived as a time-consuming, labor-intensive dish. However, if you substitute oats for the traditional arborio rice, you get a much quicker-cooking version that you can prepare in the microwave. Mix a cup of oats with two cups of broth in a large bowl, then heat it for two minutes at a time, stirring after each interval. You can add veggies, such as frozen peas, after the first two minutes.
If you’re using your dorm’s communal kitchen, you have even more dinner options. You can use the stove to whip up a batch of stir-fry, a pot of soup, or a big batch of chili. It’s easy to find recipes for these and other inexpensive dinner dishes online.
4. Homemade Snacks
Part of college life is staying up late, either studying or partying. When the midnight munchies hit, you can open up a bag of chips, but it’s not the healthiest choice – or the most satisfying. Here are some great noshes – both savory and sweet – that you can make to cure your cravings at any hour of the day or night:
- Microwave Chips. You can turn fresh potatoes into a healthier, tastier version of potato chips in the microwave using this method outlined at The Kitchn. You can also use a similar technique to make even healthier chips out of kale. Just remove the stems from the kale leaves, toss the leaves with a bit of olive oil and salt, arrange them in a single layer on a plate, and zap them for about two minutes. If they’re still not crisp, keep going in 30-second bursts until they are. These kale chips will keep in an airtight container for up to a week – if you don’t gobble them all up immediately.
- Popcorn, Your Way. Popcorn is also an easy, healthy snack – unless you buy those overpriced little bags, drenched in fake butter. To make a healthier and cheaper version in your room, put a few tablespoons of popcorn in a plain paper bag, fold it over a couple of times, and heat it on high. This usually takes about three minutes, but microwaves vary, so turn off the power once popping slows to a few seconds between pops. Then you can flavor your popcorn the way you like it, adding salt, pepper, chili powder, cinnamon, Parmesan cheese, or anything that strikes your fancy.
- Fruits and Veggies with Dip. Fresh fruits and vegetables are healthy snacks that don’t require any cooking at all, but they can be a little boring. To add some interest, whip up a batch of dip to go with them. Veggies are great with homemade hummus, which you can make in the blender using a can of chickpeas seasoned with olive oil, tahini, garlic, lemon juice, and cumin. For sliced fruit, you can make an easy dip by mixing yogurt with peanut butter.
- Microwave Nachos. If you need something a bit more substantial to fuel your late-night study session, try a batch of nachos. These are super easy to make in the microwave. The key is to lay the chips out on a plate and heat them on high for 30 to 60 seconds by themselves, which helps them stay crispy. Then pull the plate out and top the chips with cheese, sliced peppers, beans, or meat, and zap them again until the cheese melts.
- Bruschetta. If you’re having a few friends over, impress them with some homemade bruschetta. All you have to do is mix chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned) with garlic, olive oil, basil, and salt. Mix this up ahead of time and let it sit in the bowl so the flavors blend. Then serve it over small pieces of toast (if you have a toaster) or crackers.
- Mug Cakes. Sometimes, you just have to have something sweet. That’s a perfect time to make a mug cake in the microwave. The basic chocolate mug cake, outlined at AllRecipes, is a classic, but you can also find recipes online for dozens of other kinds. There are mug versions of apple pie, pumpkin pie, and even cheesecake.
One hazard of dorm cooking is that you have to take care to clean up after yourself. Leaving scraps of food lying around is a good way to attract unwanted roommates, such as mice and cockroaches.
Make sure to sweep up any stray crumbs, and if you don’t have a dorm kitchen to use, wash your dishes in the bathroom sink. A dish wand with a sponge head and a hollow handle that holds soap makes the process quick and easy. Dry the dishes with a cotton dish towel, or lay them out to dry on a towel spread on top of your desk.
Of course, cooking a delicious meal in your dorm is also a good way to attract your human roommates, begging for a share of the food. If you’re planning to save your leftovers for another meal, you may need to label them with your name before storing them in a shared fridge so no one else will scarf them down.
But if you do have enough to spare, have a heart and share the goodies with your friends. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to make a big batch on purpose once in a while so you can offer food around to other hungry students. If you get a reputation as the person who always has tasty food to share, you might just find yourself the most popular person in your dorm.