"Mom, the people who run our cafeteria also run kitchens in prisons!"
Not that there's anything wrong with that! While some colleges have famously good cafeteria food (St. Olaf is one), most dorm food can get a little tedious after awhile, and all that pizza and pasta can lead to the dreaded "Freshman 15" pound weight gain. How can you make that assembly line food taste a little more palatable?
TOP TIP #1 Bring Your Own Condiments
I'm not talking about ketchup and mustard here. Bring steak sauce and teriyaki sauce (or teriyaki steak sauce). A little worchestershire sauce can add that umami flavor that baked steak lacks. (You didn't think they had a grill back there, did you?) What about a little Sriracha for those steam-table eggs that were just about to turn green? It's entirely up to you whether you want to share your flavor boosters, but sharing is a good way to make friends in the cafeteria.
TOP TIP #2 Spice Blends
Just like tucking a bottle of Lea & Perrins in your backpack will make your mouth happy, spice blends will do the same. I like Penzeys Spices for these. They have a number of blends for every taste, they come in convenient glass or plastic bottles with shaker tops and they're also easy to take along with you to the cafeteria. My sons' favorites are Sandwich Sprinkle for pasta, Pizza Seasoning (duh), Beef Roast Seasoning for beef and Old World Seasoning for chicken. You can order a set of four or eight as a gift set. The Kind Heart gift set has a nice assortment for those who can't decide what to pick.
Now imagine it's winter, and the cafeteria requires a walk through the snow or the rain for food that's not so spectacular anyway? Or you end up studying late at the library and don't get home until after the cafeteria closes? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to cook something for yourself, when you're hungry? Most, if not all, college dormitories forbid open flames or heating elements in the dorm rooms. This means no hot plates, no rice cookers, no toasters, no toaster ovens and, many times, no coffee maker. (Don't worry, caffeine addicts, there will be at least one coffee shop on campus.) Most dorm rooms are small enough that small electric appliances would just be in the way anyway. What you cannot live without are a dorm-sized fridge and microwave.
TOP TIP #3 Check with Housing Office what size fridge/microwave is acceptable before you buy!
There's nothing worse than dropping a couple hundred dollars on a fridge only to have it taken away on move-in day. This information is usually on the "What to pack" list, but if it's not, it will be somewhere on the website or in the housing packet.
Decide with your new roommate in advance who is going to bring the fridge and who will bring the microwave. When choosing a fridge, look for one with a separate door for the freezer compartment. That will help keep your frozen foods frozen no matter how many times the door gets opened.
Microwaves are easier; they only need to fit the required wattage. However, if you have a microwave, you need microwave dishes to cook in.
TOP TIP #4 Some high quality dorm cookware
I'm going to recommend three Pampered Chef products, simple because I've been using mine for 15 years and they're still perfect. The Small Micro-cooker holds 1 quart of soup or ramen and has a strainer lid for pasta, mac-n-cheese or steamed vegetables, or to let steam escape when popping popcorn. The Large Micro-cooker holds two quarts and also has a strainer lid, for larger servings of whatever. And the Rice Cooker holds three quarts so makes up to 9 cups of rice at a time. Amazon reviews would have you believe it can cook a whole (small) chicken. I have not tried that, but you could certainly steam a chicken breast in there (or in the large micro-cooker) if you wanted.
As I mentioned, I'm calling out Pampered Chef because that is what we've used, and what I sent my boys to college with. The links and pictures are from Amazon, but you may well be able to get a better price from eBay or your local Pampered Chef consultant. Amazon also offers a number of other versions of these products. In addition to the cookers, you'll want to have a mixing spoon and spatula of some kind available. The cookers can double as mixing bowls, and they nest to save space under your bed.
TOP TIP #5 Check if your dorm has a shared kitchen and whether that kitchen is stocked with supplies
I've seen kitchen set-ups that run the gamut from a single kitchenette for the whole residence to two fully-stocked kitchens per floor. If you have the luxury of a fully-stocked kitchen, you probably won't need the cookware until you move out on your own. If the kitchen is lacking or inconvenient, sometimes it's nicer to heat a can of Spaghettios in your room instead of running down to the kitchen. Btw, both these kitchens are at the same college. The difference is the age of the dorm.
How about you? Do you have any must-haves for eating in the dorms? What about favorite recipes that require no heating elements? Leave a comment below, then check out my Dorm Cooking Pinterest board, and feel free to add links to your favorite recipes!
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