The start of the school year brings a serious dilemma for today’s college students, far beyond which major or roommate to choose: whether to invest in the dining plan or pick up a spatula. With rising college costs dogging families, the decision can have a considerable financial impact. A meal plan can cost around $3,000 per year; with smart budgeting, cooking meals instead could cost half as much, or even less.
Even as college campuses are scrambling to offer increased options on dining hall menus, from vegan breakfast burritos to hand-rolled sushi, dormitories and on-campus apartments are being outfitted with full kitchens, making it easier for students to ditch the meal plan.
For my daughter, a theater arts major whose irregular rehearsal schedule does not always mesh with dining hall hours, moving from the dorm into a campus apartment with a kitchen after freshman year offered her a chance to eat on her own time — and required a crash course in basic cooking skills. A heads-up for other parents: Teach your kids how to cook real food — not just microwave meals — before it’s required for actual survival.
For gluten-free chef and blogger Phoebe Lapine, 30, the switch to home-cooked meals when she moved into an apartment for her junior year at Brown University was a welcome change and a valuable rite of passage. “It’s an important part of your pre-real-world education,” Lapine says in an email. “The first year out of college is one of the hardest for a 20-something. Many are moving to new cities, working long hours at entry-level jobs and learning to take care of basic needs on limited salaries. Knowing how to cook is a huge leg up.”
Priya Krishna, 25, started thinking creatively about cooking during her freshman year at Dartmouth College. “The dining hall is like a restaurant that you’re forced to eat at every night,” she says. “They are enormous feeding centers, and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. That’s why students start getting resentful about their meal plan.” Her solution was to consider how to “cook” inside the dining hall itself, using the available ingredients in new ways. That resulted in her cookbook, “Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks” (Storey Publishing, 2014).
“I did have a kitchen,” says Krishna, who lives in New York, “but I didn’t cook that often because I didn’t have time. I liked having the dining hall as a resource.”
Lapine, also a New York resident, agrees that time is the enemy for college students rushing between classes, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs while keeping up with schoolwork. “The grocery store was a 15-minute drive away,” she says. “Outside the college bubble, that seems close. But in campus life, that might as well have been a different city.” Because she went grocery shopping only every few weeks, shelf-stable and frozen food became Lapine’s go-to meal starters.
“Cooking with humble shelf-stable ingredients gave me a real appreciation for the simple act of throwing together a meal from cans, jars and freezer bags,” says Lapine. “It was very different from the meals I saw going down on Food Network, yet just as satisfying.”
Krishna’s approach, cooking within the dining hall itself, involved learning to mix and match items from different food stations, such as combining peanut butter, soy sauce, Sriracha and sugar to create a Thai-style peanut sauce for plain noodles. “Don’t be confined by the station,” she says.
Krishna also sees plenty of ways for students to take advantage of their home kitchens, by learning to keep things simple. “I’d make a cup or two of quinoa,” she says, “then add vegetables and sauce to make a stir-fry, and it only took a few minutes. And I learned so many ways to turn toast into something special, with eggs or vegetables or chicken and some kind of sauce. Toast was my savior.”
Because outfitting and maintaining a kitchen can be an expensive endeavor, both Krishna and Lapine recommend investing in a few key pieces of equipment: a sharp knife, a skillet and a stockpot are a good start. And they advise building a pantry of canned tomatoes and beans, frozen peas and spinach, and dried pasta and rice, along with fresh items such as bread, eggs, onions, potatoes, carrots, lemon and garlic, whose shelf life can be extended with proper storage.
Transitioning from the dining hall to the dining room offers both rewards and challenges, says Lapine. The experience of learning to navigate a kitchen while in college eventually led her to co-author “In the Small Kitchen” (William Morrow, 2011), a cookbook aimed at helping young novice cooks use their kitchens as a way to establish and maintain personal connections.
“Those first few months out, I felt myself very starved for the face time that I took for granted when all my friends lived on the same smelly hallway,” Lapine says about moving into her first college apartment. “Having some basic cooking skills allowed me to gather people around the same table, as we once had done every day in the dining hall.”
My daughter Maddie is now entering her senior year, and her cooking skills have grown exponentially, helped along by a summer spent working in a restaurant kitchen. One day she called from the grocery store looking for dinner ideas and ended up making a choucroute garnie all by herself. If she had stuck to the dining plan these last couple of years, that never would have happened — and I wouldn’t have yet another reason to be absurdly proud.
Most sauces are designed to develop flavor over a long period of time, which is a nice idea if you have the time to keep an eye on the stove. Or you can whip up five sauces in under five minutes each, using just a lidded jar or an electric blender. Even better, these sauces mix and match with one another or with other pantry staples in a variety of ways, so you can build new recipes: Add a spoonful of marinara sauce to the coconut curry base to create an Indian-style curry sauce; toss chicken strips and root vegetables with red wine vinaigrette for a quick marinade; or stir honey, cinnamon and vanilla extract into Cashew Cream to make a sweet dip for sliced apples.
A sheet pan, a handful of ingredients, and less than half an hour are all it takes to make fast meals full of oven-roasted flavor — not to mention that cleanup is a breeze. Rotate the pan halfway through the baking time to help ensure even cooking, and if you’re using an older oven that seems unreliable, consider spending less than $10 on an oven thermometer so you can set it to the correct temperature. It’s not uncommon for older ovens to be inaccurate by as much as 100 degrees.
Just as a cookie sheet can be put to work to make supper, muffin tins can make more than breakfast food. Layer wonton wrappers with ricotta cheese, vegetables and tomato sauce for individual lasagnas, or follow the same method with salsa and cheddar cheese for a Mexican-inspired version.
Although an electric blender may more commonly be used for making smoothies and shakes, it’s also a handy tool for sauces, soups and a host of other recipes, from hummus to salsa, especially if you don’t own a food processor. Be judicious when pushing those buttons, as ingredients can go quickly from chunky to pureed; it’s a good idea to take advantage of the pulse function if you want to retain some texture.
And here’s a pro tip to save your fingers from sharp blades when trying to clean that blender: As soon as you empty the contents of the blender, rinse it out with water. Then add a few drops of dishwashing liquid, fill the blender halfway with hot water, cover and place it back on the motor and run it on high for about 20 seconds. Rinse thoroughly and let it drip-dry.
Hartke is a D.C.-based food writer and editor. She will join Wednesday’s live chat at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.