Lots of colleges and universities have healthy food these days, but sometimes you just want to make something in your own room (maybe in your jammies even). And that’s ok! A tube of cinnamon rolls baked in a toaster oven is tasty, as is ramen from the hot pot at midnight, but they’re hardly “real food.” If you want to cook in your dorm room more than just once in a while, it’s a good idea to learn to cook something that is actually nourishing. Here are a few suggestions to help you take your dorm cooking game up a notch…
Get some basic equipment.
Before you start whipping up nutritious gourmet meals in your dorm, you’ll need some cooking equipment. You can get by with just a mini-refrigerator and an electric hot pot. Some dorms don’t allow anything more than that, but, if you have room for something else and the rules permit, consider one of the following to allow for more versatility:
- small toaster oven
- small electric skillet
- small microwave
- high-powered blender
- small slow cooker
Regardless of what cooking appliances you settle on, you’ll want a few tools to support your cooking endeavors:
- A small non-wood cutting board
- paring knife or small chef’s knife
- a spatula
- kitchen towels (wash them at least weekly)
- a couple containers with lids (they can double as mixing bowls or bowls for cooking in, depending on their material)
- a dish pan for washing and storing dishes (optional, but it will make washing up in the bathroom a lot easier)
Before purchasing cooking equipment for a dorm room, check with the school regarding wattage limits (important for microwaves) and any in-room cooking regulations. Some places will only allow an electric hot pot.
Make sure you have a heat-proof surface to put cooking equipment on—consider getting a large ceramic tile for this purpose.
Don’t overload the electrical outlet with lots of things plugged into an extension cord.
Store non-refrigerated food (and cooking utensils) in a covered plastic bin to decrease the chance of bugs taking residence in your room.
Wash cooking utensils and dishes right after cooking—don’t leave them sitting around (bugs again).
Use dish soap, hot water and a scrubber to clean cookware and utensils thoroughly.
Breakfast is easy—even if you’re half asleep.
If you’re a person who can’t seem to get yourself to the dining hall in the morning, we’ve got you covered. Of course, keeping a stash of protein bars and granola and stocking your mini-fridge with yogurt, fruit and some milk makes for a simple and quick breakfast, but if you looking for something more than that, consider planning the night before to get a head start on the prep. Here are some ideas:
- Overnight oatmeal – Assemble in a cup or jar and store in the mini-fridge.
- French toast – You could just buy frozen French toast and heat it up in a toaster oven, but homemade can easily be made by dipping your bread in egg and cooking in either a skillet or toaster oven (on a baking tray covered with foil). Use whole grain bread for a more healthful breakfast (for easy, you could use refrigerated, liquid eggs/whites for the batter). Top with jam, fruit, or yogurt or make it portable—spread some peanut butter in between two slices and you’ve got a sandwich to go.
- Quick or instant oatmeal – Mix it up in in a jiffy in the electric hot pot or microwave. (By the way, a box of quick oats is cheaper than buying little packets of instant oatmeal, and comes without all the added sugar found in flavored oatmeal packets.) Doctor up your oats with a shake of seasoning that registers on the tongue as “sweet,” like cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice, then add some fruit (dried fruit works, but fresh fruit or applesauce is good, too). Taste your creation before adding any sweetener (I like a tiny drizzle of maple syrup). A spoonful of peanut butter mixed in and banana slices on top is also tasty—no sweetener needed.
- Smoothie – Easily done in a personal blender or smoothie maker, of course.
- Eggs – Eggs are an inexpensive protein source that are also packed with other important nutrients. They’re also easy to make in a dorm room. Depending on the way you like your eggs, you could fry them a small electric skillet, boil them in a hot pot (some come with egg racks just for this purpose) or even poach them, bake them in a oven-safe dish in a toaster oven or microwave them (there are several microwavable egg gadgets for sale). While you’re at it, toss in leftover bits of veggies (good way to use up aging spinach or kale salad) you might have hanging around in the mini-fridge for extra nutrition and some fiber.
- Avocado toast – Toaster oven to the rescue again! Hearty whole grain bread simply toasted and topped with mashed avocado and your choice of seasonings is all that’s needed. Bonus points if you sprinkle on some veggies, berries, or add sliced hard boiled egg. Quartered cherry tomatoes with a grind of fresh pepper (worth adding to your seasoning arsenal) and a tiny pinch of salt make a great topping.
Get creative for hot lunch or dinner.
Getting to the dining hall for lunch or dinner is probably not as difficult as getting there for breakfast, but in case you don’t make it, consider these ideas:
- Pasta in the hot pot – If the pasta fits into the pot, you can cook it in the pot. Add some veggies to the pot (clear out those little bits of things hanging out in the fridge) while the pasta is cooking, and aim to use pasta that’s whole grain (or partially whole grain) if you can. Drain, then stir in some marinara sauce from a jar.
- Hot sandwich – Heat your favorite healthy sammy ingredients in the toaster oven for crispy bread or in the microwave.
- Homemade soup – Make one portion in the hot pot, or a larger amount in the slow cooker or microwave. Making soup yourself gives you more control over ingredients and sodium level, as well as lets you pack in veggies, beans and whole grains. Plus, leftovers!
- Microwave meals – If you’re going the ready-to-cook route with packaged meals, at least compare calorie levels, sodium levels, and protein content, then choose the option lowest in sodium and highest in protein that you’re willing to eat. Boost that meal with a piece of fresh fruit, a salad, or some raw carrots/celery/snap peas for crunch and fiber—most prepared meals are low on produce.
- Burritos/wraps/quesadillas – Basically anything you want to put in a tortilla or wrap will be pretty easy to do in a dorm room. This is a great option when you have leftover rotisserie chicken meat in the fridge, or just for a quick lunch meat or cheese and lettuce/veggie grab-and-go meal. Heating in the microwave or toaster oven is optional.
- Rice and beans – One of my standby healthy meals at home is easy to do with limited equipment. Use the microwave to heat a package of precooked rice (or cook your own in the hot pot or microwave), then rinse a can of beans and stir those in, along with some onion or garlic powder and smoked paprika. Fresh salsa is a good flavor addition–choose that over the jarred sauces to keep added sodium and sugar lower. Adding cooked meat is an option to up the protein.
- Pita pizza – Easily made in a toaster oven, the pita you use for sandwiches can also become a pizza crust. Pizza sauce (some comes in a squeeze bottle) you keep in your fridge or leftover marinara sauce topped with some shredded cheese and your favorite topping makes a quick and tasty meal.
- Roasted nuts – They’re so tasty and they smell so good when they’re cooking. Roast nuts in your toaster oven but keep an eye on them—nuts go from perfectly browned to perfectly burned quite quickly. Nuts are a filling snack packed with fiber, some protein and healthy fats. Keep an eye on your portion—1-2 ounces is a serving size (think 1-2 handfuls).
- Hot cocoa – Made with milk (protein, calcium and vitamin D!) and not water, cocoa can be just what you need either before or after trudging around campus on a cold day.
- Popcorn, of course! – Microwave a paper bag of plain popcorn (2-3 minutes, or until your hear about 3 seconds between pops) and season by sprinkling on smoked paprika, nutritional yeast (yes, it has nutrients!), cinnamon, or a no-salt seasoning blend (there are many to choose from in the spices section) to keep sodium and fat down.