Top | Features

Midnight oil

(article, Josey Duncan)

[%pageBreakSettings maxWords=700]

College cuisine — that definitive oxymoron — has typically been synonymous with pizza delivery, ramen noodles, and limp salad bars. With late hours and busy schedules, plus little or no kitchen access and irregular cafeteria and grocery options, collegiate living can make healthy meals seem almost impossible. But against all the late-night-snacking odds, plenty of the nation’s approximately 17.5 million college students are eating just fine. 

Many are preparing simple, inexpensive, even healthful meals in their dorm rooms with just a few appliances and easy-to-find ingredients. Others are benefiting from the increased array of options in campus eateries. And some are learning to cook, cooperatively, in kitchen-equipped campus housing.

h3. The DIY kitchen

Many colleges, of course, have strict policies prohibiting certain appliances in campus housing — toaster ovens, for example, can be as much of a fire hazard as scented candles. But a wisely assembled collection of small appliances can enable anyone to whip up simple meals in a dorm room (or, for the post-college crowd, an under-equipped office). The MVP list? Mini-fridges, rice cookers, microwaves, electric teakettles, toaster ovens, hot plates, Crock-Pots, and George Foreman grills. 

[%image promo-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/CurtPickens" caption="Quesadillas are easy to make with the aid of a mini-fridge and a microwave."]

At Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a 2007 psychology graduate named Elana (who declined to reveal her last name) says that as a student, she relied on her rice cooker to produce tasty and simple sushi. “Senior year, I basically lived on vegetable sushi rolls,” she writes in an email. “I always kept a package of nori wraps in the cupboard. I just put rice in the rice cooker for 40 minutes while I read, then filled it with whatever vegetables were in the fridge. Most excellent!” 

Another innovative use for a rice cooker comes from Chelsea Faith, a 23-year-old vegan musician who lives in Alameda, California. “I might suggest my ‘throw everything in the rice cooker’ strategy,” she emails. “You put the usual amount of rice and water in the cooker, add maybe a quarter cup of soy sauce and other seasonings you might have, and whatever vegetables you have in the fridge. I usually put in some bok choy, broccoli, tofu, frozen peas — all of which are really cheap.” 

Faith cautions dorm chefs to remove their concoctions promptly when they’re done cooking: “Otherwise, if you let it sit there on the ‘keep warm’ setting, it will make your veggies turn mushy and lose their color.” 

Gina Collechia, 20, a Kentucky native who now attends Reed, suggests spicing up simple canned tomato soup (easily heated up in a microwave) with garlic salt, pepper, and a little Parmesan cheese. Rachel Leaf, a 20-year-old Reed student from Minneapolis, Minnesota, swears by her own tasty invention: popping a piece of buttered bread in the toaster oven for 30 seconds, sprinkling it with salt and pepper (and cheese, if she feels like it), then dipping it in vodka marinara sauce. 

Other quick snacks include the Pseudo-Quesadilla: Shred cheese on a whole-wheat tortilla, then place it in a toaster oven or microwave. Once the cheese melts, remove the quesadilla and dip it in plain yogurt and fresh salsa. No cooking appliances handy? Stock up on fresh fruit (bananas or apples, sliced and then spread with peanut butter, are filling and fast) and veggies (dip carrot sticks, celery, radishes, cucumber slices, and raw broccoli in creamy salad dressings). And try to avoid the junk-food aisle at the campus store; seek out nearby grocery stores or even farmers’ markets for locally grown seasonal produce. 

For dessert, Ellen Green, a Reed student who’s studying abroad at the American University in Cairo this year, suggests her no-cooking-required favorite: Chocolate Butterscotch Peanut Clusters. 

“You just need a bag of chocolate chips, a bag of butterscotch chips, and a container of Spanish peanuts,” Green explains. “Mix both kinds of chips together in a bowl and melt them in the sun (in the summer) or on top of your dorm-room radiator (in winter). Then mix in the peanuts and drop clusters of the mixture onto a plate or a cookie sheet covered in wax paper. Let them cool and you’re done.”

h3. The cafeteria makeover

Beyond the dorm room, the campus cafeteria these days is often undergoing changes, ditching the iceberg lettuce and frozen fries for fresher, more creative fare. 

The Farm to College program encourages schools across the United States and Canada to source ingredients from local farmers. At Middlebury College in Vermont, for example, the school annually spends $875,000 (out of a yearly food budget of $3.5 million) on local farm products that range from apples to dairy products to meat.

The Palo Alto-based Bon Appetit Management Company, a national food-service provider, declares on its website that it writes its cafeteria menus based on the seasonality and availability of regional products, with priority given to sustainably or organically produced ones. When applicable, the company also marks food as healthy, vegetarian, vegan, local, or organic to help students make informed choices. 


h1. Hitting the books

Cookbooks for college students constitute a mini-genre all their own. Here's a sampling.

[%bookLink code=1580171265 "The Healthy College Cookbook"], by Alexandra Nimetz, Jason Stanley, and Emeline Starr

[%bookLink code=0764124951 "Cooking Outside the Pizza Box"], by Jean Patterson and Danae Campbell

[%bookLink code=096621370X "The Kitchenless Cookbook"], by Suanne Beverly

[%bookLink code=0446679615 "The Starving Students' Cookbook"], by Dede Hall. Hall wrote a vegetarian version of this book, too.

[%bookLink code=0961539011 "Where’s Mom Now That I Need Her?"], by Kent P. Frandsen. Check out the companion book, Where's Dad Now That I Need Him?

[%bookLink code=1593373031 "The Everything College Cookbook"], by Rhonda Lauret Parkinson

[%bookLink code=0882664972 "College Cookbook"]_, by Geri Harrington


Even when dining in a conventional cafeteria, it’s still possible to make good food choices. A few whole-grain, low-sugar cereals are usually available, along with fresh fruit. Loading up a plate with salad fixings — even if the only lettuce offered is iceberg — is still generally more wholesome than greasy pizza or burgers. And choosing iced or hot tea (made yummier with lemons or honey) instead of soda cuts down on chemicals and calories. 

A good rule of thumb is to avoid the processed foods in favor of the whole foods — in other words, eat foodstuffs in their purest, simplest state.

h3. The cooperative life

Many universities also offer on-campus housing co-ops, where meal planning and cooking duties are shared with other students. Jacob Levine, 23, a 2007 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, spent two of his college years living in university co-ops, and thought the food was “super good.” 

Everyone, Levine says, had to help out in the kitchen. “I spent one hour a week making a gallon of hummus for people to eat throughout the week,” he says. “We had dinner Friday through Sunday, \[and\] there was tons of food all the time for us to make our own breakfast, lunch, and midnight snacks.”

Living in the co-ops, says Levine, meant healthier eating as well as community life.  “At the co-ops we actually knew what was in our food,” he says. “We saw the ingredients in the kitchen and we saw our housemates cooking it.”

Dorm room, cafeteria, or co-op, one thing is certain: college cuisine no longer has to be an oxymoron. With a little creativity and a willingness to seek out good food, gastronomic satisfaction can be right around the mini-fridge corner.

p(bio). Josey Duncan is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

reference-image, l

feature-image, l

promo-image, l