This post is from KS contributing writer Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook, with photography assistance from her son Nicholas Efran, who knows how to read a label!
The trouble with teaching kids to cook is that they get into the habit of enjoying homemade food–and then they go off to college. Most universities require students to buy a meal plan. Most students find that there are times when they want to eat but the dining facilities are closed.
How in the world can college kids (in dorms) eat healthy foods?
By the end of my 3 years of dormitory living, I was preparing 2 meals a day in my room, on average. I didn’t have a stove, a refrigerator, or a kitchen-size sink. I didn’t even have a microwave or a toaster.
The skills I learned aren’t just for college students. Many people will at some point find themselves living in a place without a full kitchen or simply having to wait a while to replace a broken appliance. It’s good to know some work-arounds!tts
In some ways, this is a “Do as I say, not exactly as I did” article. I ate some things regularly that I now believe nobody should eat at all! I did all of my dorm cooking in an appliance I advise you not to use! But I’m going to recommend some better alternatives, because here at KS we are all about baby steps, making real food accessible and keeping it affordable.
I’m also going to point out that I survived this phase of my life and that my health actually improved over the course of those 3 years. Parents of college students are bound to worry, especially if the kids are eating junkier food than you’d feed them! But odds are, they’ll be okay.
Take a deep breath and get ready to pick up some tips that might help them eat a little more healthfully.
Why eat in the dorm instead of the cafeteria?
For me, it was mostly about money: My college expenses were a strain on my family, so I tried to economize where possible. I treated it like a game with the goal of spending as little money as possible!
Midway through my first year, I learned that my meal plan could be converted to a debit account for use at campus dining facilities. That gave me greater flexibility in how much I spent at each meal and how many meals I bought in a week. Money remained in my account until I spent it or left the university–so I made that money stretch!
Walking a short distance off campus to the supermarket, I could buy groceries to make meals that cost less than the cheapest campus food.
Were my dorm-made meals healthier than what University Dining Service was offering?
Well, both menus included a lot of white flour, salt, sugar, vegetable oils, and artificial coloring. Dining Service had a salad bar, whereas most of the fruits and veggies I fixed for myself were canned. I couldn’t have any fresh dairy, meat, or eggs in the dorm when I had no access to a refrigerator.
I typically ate at least one meal a day in a campus cafeteria, and in those meals I focused on eating all the veggies I could stand, plus yogurt, eggs, and meat. Pick up your nutrients where you can!
One tip I wish I’d learned earlier: Don’t drink soda just because it’s cheap! Drink milk or (free!) tap water.
My first dorm had no kitchen at all. The dorm where I lived the next 2 years had a tiny basement room that contained a beat-up electric range (with no oven rack!) and a sink that emitted a trickle of cold water, no hot. I had no refrigerator access until my third-year roommate let me share her mini-fridge.
Believe me when I say I can tell you how to survive without each of the Big 3 kitchen appliances!
Cooking Without a Stove
Microwave ovens can cook a lot of things, but they were more expensive in the olden days than now, and they take up a lot of space. (Katie has doubts about the safety of microwave cooking.)
Instead, I had a hot-pot, a plastic cylinder with an exposed heating element in the bottom, a pouring spout, and a lid. You plug it in and it heats up and stays hot until you unplug it. Simple and versatile!
The problem is the plastic. Heating food in plastic releases endocrine disruptors into the food. I really can’t encourage today’s students to use the same appliance I did!
Looking at what’s on the market these days, I found a stainless steel hot-pot that says you can cook noodles in it. This is what I would try if I were living without a kitchen now.
For my second year of college, I got a second hot-pot because I’d learned it was hard to get food flavors out of it, and I wanted unflavored boiling water for making tea and coffee. Any electric kettle would work for this purpose.
Unlike a hot-pot, a kettle designed for boiling water has an automatic shut-off safety feature. Chefman and Stariver make affordable stainless-steel kettles that have the heating element in the plug-in base so that the kettle itself is cordless for easy pouring.
You can check out all our Instant Pot recipes and tips here.
Just being able to boil water means you can make these foods and drinks:
- Instant oatmeal.
- Tea–caffeinated or herbal.
- Coffee–instant or made with a pour-over coffee maker. (Don’t fall for the K-cup craze!)
- Instant soups. Some are healthier than others!
- Look for a reasonable sodium level and some kind of vegetables or protein.
- Instant soups that are cooked in a paper or foam cup expose you to chemicals from the cup lining, so look for soup mix you can make in your own bowl.
With a hot-pot, you can cook anything that’s simply heated while stirring or is boiled in water. Here are some of the more nutritious options:
- Spaghetti with tomato sauce.
- Choose whole-grain pasta and a sauce that does not contain corn syrup or soybean oil.
- To cook it all in one pot: Boil pasta in water. Unplug and drain–if you don’t have a colander, hold back the pasta with a slotted spoon and tilt the pot slowly! Push pasta to one side of pot and add sauce. Plug in and stir constantly as it heats.
- Canned beans.
- Baby carrots. Simply boil them in a small amount of water with the lid on. Want seasoning?
- These Indian food pouches are yummy, made from real food, and sold in mainstream stores like CVS.
Cooking Without a Refrigerator
Your local climate and type of building will affect how long you can keep “foods that are supposed to be refrigerated” at room temperature without spoilage or mold. My experience was in upper floors of dry, well-ventilated dorms in Pennsylvania.
- Choose fruits and vegetables that are one serving each and can be stored at room temperature at least for a couple of days: apples, oranges, bananas, baby carrots, small zucchini, potatoes. Use them promptly.
- Trail mix is a healthy, filling snack that needs no refrigeration. Cheaper than pre-mixed: Buy a jar of peanuts and a canister of raisins, and mix your own!
- Many canned foods will last about 24 hours after opening the can. If you can eat only half a can per meal, scoop the rest into a glass jar or bowl with lid, immediately close it, and put it away from sunlight and heat sources. Make a plan to eat it soon!
- Honey never spoils. Use it instead of jelly in your nut-butter sandwiches!
- Natural peanut butter (with no added sugar or vegetable oil) says on the label that you should refrigerate after opening, but I never do, and it’s fine! Just use it up within a few weeks.
- Consider splitting a loaf of bread with a friend. A loaf is a lot for one person. It can get moldy as well as stale.
- Coconut oil is shelf-stable. Use it instead of butter or other cooking oils. (It also makes a great lotion for dry skin!)
In my dorm years, I used powdered milk all the time (for mac and cheese, for example). Science has since determined that powdered milk contains oxydized cholesterol that leads to premature cell death. Can you handle a little of that? It’s questionable. And it doesn’t taste quite like fresh milk.
Powdered rice milk and soy milk are also available. Because they’re cholesterol-free, they don’t have the oxidization issue. These taste similar to their liquid versions–which don’t taste like cow’s milk.
I’d choose any of these powdered milks over non-dairy creamer, which is made mostly of corn syrup and partially hydrogenated palm oil.
If you decide to use powdered milk, whether dairy or non-dairy, the most important thing to know is that it dissolves in cold water. Don’t sprinkle it into a pot of cooking food or a hot cup of coffee. Mix it up with cold water, stir until completely dissolved, and then add to your food.
Cooking (and Doing Dishes) Without a Kitchen Sink
In my experience, water from the bathroom sink was fine for cooking or making hot drinks. But when I wanted to drink cold water, I went down the hall to the drinking fountain. In addition to being chilled, drinking fountains usually have an extra filter that may improve the water’s flavor and/or safety.
It’s annoying to traipse into another room carrying your hot-pot to get water, and then go back again to drain your pasta…but it works!
When draining cooking water or rinsing beans, use a sink or shower with a good drain. (The few times I had to drain pasta into the drinking fountain because somebody was in the bathroom, it was very slow process because the fountain’s basin was so shallow and the drain was tiny.) Be kind and rinse the area when you’re done instead of leaving pasta starch or bean slime behind!
I lived in a dorm where 3 people shared a tiny bathroom with stall shower. I knelt on the floor to wash my dishes in the shower, then got up and rinsed them in the sink.
My friend Alisa let us borrow her bathroom to create this photo tutorial! All the dishes shown here, except the glasses, are literally the same items I had in college and have used regularly since.
A large-ish mixing bowl is a versatile thing to have! You can wash your dishes in it as well as mix food or make salad or punch. (Another option is to have a plastic dishpan just for washing dishes.)
The first step is to clean the sink. It took me months to realize that putting my dishes in the sink where my suitemates washed their hands and spat out their toothpaste was the reason I caught every illness they had!!
Then, turn on the shower and close the door/curtain while the water gets hot. Put dish detergent in your big bowl or dishpan.
Turn off water. Place bowl on the floor where the water falls.
Close the door/curtain most of the way, leaving just room for your arm to turn on the hot water until the bowl is full. Thin streams of water falling a long distance make great suds!
Add dishes to the soapy water. Wash each one, then turn around and place it gently in the sink.
Stand up. Rinse each dish and dry it.
Pour the soapy water from the bowl into the shower drain, and rinse and dry the bowl.
(Where do you put the dishes as you dry them? It depends on your bathroom. Alisa’s has some counter space. My bathroom in the dorm didn’t, so I put them on the radiator and windowsill.)
Use Real Dishes!
I recently saw an article on “How college students can be more green” that tentatively suggested maybe not using paper plates all the time.
Seriously?! Why spend your money on instant garbage? Like I said, I still have a lot of the dishes I bought in college–even though most of them came from dollar stores. Great investment!
These are the basic dishes I recommend having. You might want more than one of some items so you can have a guest eat and drink at the same time you do.
- cereal/soup bowl
- big spoon for cooking
- can opener
- measuring cup (The one shown in the photos is a small Pyrex cup with lines for tablespoons and milliliters as well as fractions of a cup. These are currently available at Big Lots.)
- mixing bowl
- colander, if you’re going to drain a lot of pasta or beans.
- If you have access to a stove, a 4-cup saucepan with lid is the most versatile pot.
Don’t buy plastic dishes! Choose ceramic, glass, or stainless steel. However, you might want to save free plastic cups to reuse for cold drinks.
Consider buying a bowl with a tight-fitting lid–you can use it as a bowl and as storage for leftovers! Another great way to store leftovers is in the empty jar from nut butter or spaghetti sauce.
The #1 Unbeatable Tip for Saving Money on Beverages
Drink water. It comes out of the tap for free (in a place where you don’t pay the water bill). Keep it frugal and just add a squeeze of lemon or lime.
#2 Tip: When you want a hot drink, have tea. It is far easier to prepare than coffee, and plain black tea costs much less than coffee–100 teabags for $2 or so. Tea also costs less than packets of hot chocolate or instant cider mix, and it has no calories or added sugars. It’s easy to find low-priced tea that’s free of artificial flavors and colors.
If your beverage is to keep you alert, tea typically has less caffeine than coffee. I’m glad that I used only as much caffeine as I really needed to get my work done in college so that I had some sensitivity left when I had to ramp up my caffeine consumption as a new mom!
Now that I’ve given some practical advice…
8 Things I Can’t Believe I Used to Eat
8. Minute Rice with bottled teriyaki sauce. As a meal. Quick-cooking rice does have some minerals and a little fiber and a little protein, as well as added vitamins…so it’s about as nutritious as
7. Froot Loops. Actually, I bought the cheaper, store-brand highly-sweetened breakfast cereal with artificial colors and flavors. Give me a little credit for cutting them 50/50 with unsweetened oaty O’s cereal to make my snack mix for late-night studying. But why didn’t I think of trail mix earlier?!
6. Canned jellied cranberry sauce. I mean, I’ll still eat this at Thanksgiving, but I now know it isn’t a fruit. Throughout my college years, I assumed it was and used it as a fruit in my menus. I was about 27 when I actually read the label and learned that jellied cranberry sauce is nearly half sugar (by weight) and contains only trace amounts of Vitamin C and fiber.
5. Packets of Noodles & Sauce and similar pre-seasoned side dishes. These usually have weird ingredients, tons of sodium, and a surprising amount of sugar–and not much nutrition.
4. Pop Tarts. They’re a dessert, at best, not a breakfast!!
3. Bloolaid. I drank a lot of Kool-Aid in the dorm because I could mix it up by the glass, unlike other beverages that would go bad without refrigeration. It was cheaper to buy the packets of Kool-Aid powder and a bag of sugar and mix up a jar of beverage mix, than to buy the pre-sweetened stuff. One day I came upon a sale on a discontinued flavor, which was powder blue and tasted unlike anything in nature. I spent $1 on those packets at 4c each and had a lifetime supply of that Bloolaid. What I mean is that, by the time I got through 12 1/2 gallons of that blue junk, I did not want any more Kool-Aid for the rest of my life!
2. American style pasteurized processed cheese food. I found that the individually-wrapped slices could be stored without refrigeration for up to 3 weeks before the texture got weird, and they never got moldy or seemed really spoiled. You’d think that would’ve clued me in that “cheese food” isn’t really cheese and maybe isn’t food, but no.
1. Flat Coca-Cola that had been at room temperature for a week, boiled in the hot-pot to kill any mold. I only did this once. I mention it here as a cautionary tale: This does not make a good hot toddy after a long, stress-venting walk in the cold. Not even with rum. Your guest will not thank you. (Sorry, Amul.)
P.S. Another non-academic thing I learned in college was how to line-dry my laundry! When you’re paying by the load, skipping the dryer cuts the cost in half. Click here to find the laundry line-drying system that works for you to save money and energy while making your clothes last longer!