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Ditch the college dining plan? 10 ways to make off-campus cooking work.

Solomon, in his college kitchen. (Courtesy of the author)

When our son Solomon started college last year in Philadelphia, he loved almost everything about it — the fast friends he made, his cozy (okay, tiny) dorm room, the stimulating classes, the seemingly endless array of clubs and activities.

His single disappointment was the food. Having been on lots of college tours with both of our kids, I was surprised. Some schools we visited touted their dining hall’s farm-fresh ingredients, quinoa bars, vegan and gluten-free options, and made-to-order omelets.

But Solomon said the food tasted mass-produced, overly salty, dry and uninspired. And for a young, active student, the quantity simply was not ample. Also, dining-hall hours did not sync well with his sports-practice schedule, and the “dining dollars” that could be used in other campus restaurants did not cover a meal.

This year, Solomon was eager to live off campus, in part to have a kitchen, drop the dining plan and prepare his own food. Solomon’s kitchen confidence grew while he was in high school, and he cooked at friends’ off-campus houses whenever he could during his freshman year. But I was a little surprised he felt ready to shop and cook on top of his classes and outside activities. My mom instincts also told me to make sure he did not resort too often to takeout and food trucks or to subsist on bagels and energy bars.

Solomon and I decided that he would use an app (he chose Fudget) to track his food expenses for his first month of school so that we could plan for the money he would need each semester. We could all see how his budget was spent, and whether there were ways to trim or tweak it.

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Solomon’s freshman dining plan (which was mandatory) cost $2,543 per semester, or between $600 and $700 per month. On top of that, he purchased at least one meal and one snack per day off campus, which added about $300 to his monthly food expenses. Fudget told us that, with Solomon cooking, the monthly food cost is about the equivalent of what we spent on the dining plan, but without the outside add-ons, so his food costs are actually about one-third lower.  Other students I’ve spoken to are able to feed themselves for much less, even half of that. But Solomon lives in an expensive area and is an athlete trying to gain weight (he aims to consume about 4,000 calories a day), so his food costs are higher than average.

Although other students surely cook more affordably and/or with more variety than Solomon, here’s how he and other students I spoke to suggest making off-campus cooking and eating work well.

1. Eat at least two meals a day at home. Solomon shops in advance for breakfast, dinner, and snacks (see No. 2) and often buys lunch for about $5 from the food trucks that line his campus. Students could save money by packing their lunches if they don’t have time to go home between classes.

2. Shop for snacks, too. Solomon stocks protein bars, bananas, apples, grapes, beef jerky and smoothie ingredients so he’ll have something to grab on the run between meals or to munch on while studying.

3. Decide how — and how often — you will get to the grocery store. Solomon is lucky to be able to walk two blocks to a store, which is expensive but convenient. He tries to stretch his grocery trips to every 10 days or so. Other students I spoke to use a car, take a bus, or share an Uber or Lyft to get to the store. Sometimes they use frozen vegetables after the first week and supplement between grocery trips with fresh produce from a closer, but smaller, market.

4. Make a list before you go to cut down on waste and cost. In addition to your staple recipes (see No. 7) and snacks, decide on one or two new recipes to try before going to the grocery store and add those ingredients to your list. That way, you will not buy random items with no plan to use them.

5. Set ground rules with housemates about food and cleanup. In most shared housing, “the kitchen is the tensest part of the house — it’s where most of the drama arises,” Solomon says. Establishing and following ground rules is key. In his house, the basic rule is: You eat what you buy. If you want to eat something you did not buy, ask the housemate who did. Tension can be even higher around keeping the kitchen clean. The occasional house meeting may be needed to reiterate or renegotiate the ground rules — perhaps over a communal pot of veggie chili.

6. Don’t expect too many “family meals” with your housemates. Housemates, even if they are close friends, often have very different schedules. But when they happen, often spontaneously, group meals are a treat, especially if everyone pitches in on the ingredients, cooking and cleaning.

7. Master a few basic recipes. Because college students need to shop efficiently, waste as little food (and therefore money) as possible and get meals on the table (or couch) fast when they are hungry, Solomon suggests learning a few “go-to” recipes. He says that with eggs, cheese, rice, canned beans, almond butter, spinach, avocados and bread, he can make at least 6 different meals, (fried eggs, rice and beans, fried rice, and his famous almond butter, avocado and spinach sandwiches, for example). For breakfast he stocks bagels, eggs, milk and cereal.

8. Embrace the slow cooker. Students can dump beans, meat, vegetables and spices in the pot in the morning or early afternoon and have a hot and nutritious meal such as this Spicy Szechuan Turkey and Green Beans when they get home — plus leftovers for days. Solomon also uses a rice cooker so he can enjoy chili or stew over cooked rice for a more filling meal.

9. Stock basic spices: With five to 10 basic spices, college students can enhance and vary basic meals without having to get too creative. For example, rice and beans can take on an Indian flair with curry powder or a Mexican flavor with chili powder and cumin. Some basic spices and seasonings to stock in a kitchen (in addition to salt and pepper) are chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, garlic powder, Italian seasoning blend, Adobo seasoning, Creole or Cajun seasoning, and Greek seasoning blend.

10. Splurge only occasionally. Once we see how inexpensive meals at home can be, it can seem silly to go out for a $10 hamburger and fries when you can make four burgers and fries for that much at home. But Solomon has also learned to surrender to the occasional splurges for special occasions. Although friends can sometimes throw off your budget, being part of their celebrations is well worth it.

Aviva Goldfarb is a mom of two, a family dinner expert, and founder and chief executive of The Six O’Clock Scramble, an online healthy family meal planner.  Get inspired with some easy recipes for kids, teens and adults on her YouTube channel. She has created a free e-cookbook for college students.

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