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Dining in the Dorm Room Tips and Recipes to Help You Stay Healthy in College

When first starting college, eating well isn’t always a top priority. For many students, college is their first time feeding themselves every day, which can make dining halls and eating out extra tempting. To make matters worse, dorms aren’t always equipped for elaborate cooking. However, staying healthy in college is important, and it isn’t as hard as it seems. Read on to get easy healthy eating and dorm cooking tips along with cheap, nutritious recipes that keep students focused and nourished term after term.

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Perks of Dining In

It may seem daunting at first, but cooking in one’s dorm instead of eating out or going to the campus dining hall is well worth the effort. Some staple tools and ingredients, a handful of reliable recipes and a bit of practice will have students reaping the following benefits of dorm room dining in no time:

  • Save Money

    A 2014 data report found that millennials spend 44 percent of their food budget on eating out. Between delivery fees, charge minimums and a growing gap between the costs of eating in and eating out, that’s a ton of money that could be saved and used elsewhere.

  • Be Healthy

    Sometimes it’s tough to make healthy choices when the menu is full of tempting but not-so-nutritious items. Students who cook at home have the ability to make food that is as delicious as it is nourishing.

  • Cook on Your Own Schedule

    Dining halls have limited hours, and restaurants don’t always operate at speeds suitable for busy student schedules. Cooking at home allows students to make food when it’s convenient.

  • Gain Skills, Pride and Independence

    Cooking is an essential life skill that everyone should learn, and the sense of independence and accomplishment that comes with making a meal from start to finish can be a great confidence boost for those just learning to live on their own.

  • Learn About Food

    The life of a new cook can be tough, but once they get started, students may find that learning about various foods and how they interact with one another when prepared different ways is as satisfying as the delicious end results.

  • Get Social

    Inviting people over for potluck study sessions is a great way to build relationships and socialize without having to pay the price of going out.

  • Relieve Stress

    Scientific studies show that creative tasks like cooking and baking not only help people feel relaxed and happy, but they also give people a sense of personal growth. Cooking can help students stay mentally healthy too!

7 Easy Substitutions for Healthy Eating

Eating well in college doesn’t have to be a drastic lifestyle change. Between back-to-back classes, study sessions and work, snacking is going to happen, but that can be a good thing. Making a few changes to their grocery lists can help students turn junk food into awesome brain fuel that will keep them going throughout the day.

Dorm Room Eats & Recipes

Meals

Depending on what their space can accommodate and what appliances they have around, students can make a variety of easy, healthy meals in their dorms. Students can try out these recipes with inexpensive ingredients and a few key tools and appliances.

What you’ll need:

  • Refrigerator
  • Jar or other small storage container
  • Rolled oats
  • Milk of choice
  • Yogurt

Optional add-ins and toppings

  • Peanut butter
  • Banana
  • Honey
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutella
  • Berries
  • Coconut
  • Vanilla
  • Nuts
Cooking Instructions/Serving Suggestions

Mix oats, milk and yogurt in a jar or other container. Stir in any other add-ins. Refrigerate overnight or a few hours during the day. Add toppings before eating. (Five Heart Home)

What you’ll need:

  • Oven or toaster oven
  • Skillet or baking sheet
  • Bowl
  • Fork
  • Knife
  • Avocado
  • Egg
  • Salt
  • Optional spices and condiments
Cooking Instructions/Serving Suggestions

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Beat an egg with a fork, blending the yolk with the whites. Pit the avocado (scoop out a little extra flesh to make room for the egg if using a Haas avocado) and sprinkle some salt in the pit holes. Slice off a bit of the back of each avocado half so they rest flat. Place the avocado halves in an oven-safe skillet or on a baking sheet, scoop some egg into each half, add toppings and then bake in the oven for 16-18 minutes. (Tim Ferriss, Huffington Post)

What you’ll need:

  • Skillet
  • Stovetop or hotplate
  • Knife
  • Cutting board
  • Can opener
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1-inch cube of fresh ginger
  • 1 ½ tablespoons curry powder
  • 8 ounces fresh or frozen spinach
  • ¼ cup water (optional)
  • One 15-ounce can tomato sauce
  • One 29-ounce can chickpeas
  • Naan bread
Cooking Instructions/Serving Suggestions

Dice the onion, mince the garlic and mince or grate the ginger. In a skillet over medium heat, sauté onion, garlic and ginger with olive oil until the onions soften (about 3-5 minutes). Add curry powder and sauté for another minute. If using fresh spinach, add it to the skillet with ¼ cup water. If using frozen spinach, add it to the skillet without any extra water. Drain and rinse the chickpeas and add them to skillet with the tomato sauce. Stir well and let the mixture heat for about 5 minutes. Serve with naan bread. (Budget Bytes)

What you’ll need:

  • Microwave and bowl OR stovetop/hot plate and pot
  • Plate
  • Knife
  • Cutting board
  • 2 apples (try gala, Fuji or granny smith)
  • ½ cup fruit (try ¼ cup blueberries and ¼ cup strawberries)
  • 2-3 tablespoons shredded coconut
  • 2-3 tablespoons granola
  • 2-3 tablespoons sliced almonds
  • ½ cup chocolate chips
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil (optional)
Cooking Instructions/Serving Suggestions

Thinly slice the apples and cut additional fruit into bite-sized pieces. Using either a microwave or a stovetop, melt the chocolate with coconut oil for a smooth chocolate drizzle, or melt the chocolate on its own if coconut oil is unavailable. The chocolate can burn easily, so be careful. On a plate, layer apple slices, and drizzle chocolate sauce over them. Continue adding layers until all the apples are used. Top with additional fruits, another chocolate drizzle, the coconut, granola and almonds. Eat as is or refrigerate to let the chocolate harden. (One Good Thing by Jillee)

What you’ll need:

  • Microwave
  • Microwave-safe bowl with lid
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • ½ onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • 2 ½ – 3 cups broth
  • ½ cup white wine* or water

Optional combinations:

  • Butternut squash, sage leaves and parmesan
  • Mushrooms, thyme and parmesan
  • Bacon (cooked and crumbled), kale, mushrooms and parmesan
Cooking Instructions/Serving Suggestions

In a large microwave-safe bowl, add butter and onions. Microwave for 1 ½ minutes on high, stirring after 30 seconds to distribute butter. Add garlic, rice and 2 ½ cups broth. Cover loosely with microwave-safe lid or cover and heat at 50% power for 2 minutes. Remove and stir, adding more broth if necessary. Heat for another 2 minutes at 50% power. If you are able to legally obtain white wine, add it now. If not, it’s okay to omit and use water or broth instead. Add squash or mushrooms if using. Loosely cover and heat for another 2 minutes at 50% power. Add additional ingredients, except parmesan, and microwave for another minute. Add parmesan and eat hot. (Sarah Jones, Brit+Co)

What you’ll need:

  • Food processor
  • Refrigerator
  • Plastic wrap or wax paper
  • 1 cup nuts
  • 1 cup dried fruit
  • 1 cup pitted, dried dates
Cooking Instructions/Serving Suggestions

Combine all ingredients in a food processor. (A high-powered blender may work instead, but your standard blender will likely burn out, so be careful.) Pulse the mix a few times, and break up the dates if they start to clump together. Then process the mixture continuously for 30 seconds or until the ingredients get a crumb-like texture. Scrape any stuck ingredients off the sides of the bowl or from under the blade, and process for another minute or two until the ingredients form a ball. Dump the ball onto a sheet of wax paper or plastic wrap and press it into a thick square. Wrap and chill for at least an hour. Cut the bars and eat at chilled or room temperature. Bars can be stored in the fridge or freezer. (Emma Christensen, Kitchn)

What you’ll need:

  • Slow-cooker/crockpot
  • Ladle or large spoon
  • Two forks
  • Cutting board
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 pound dried lentils
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • One 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 ½ teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 2 ½ teaspoons cumin
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Cayenne, to taste (optional)
  • 7 ½ cups chicken broth

For topping:

  • green onions
  • cilantro
  • Greek yogurt
Cooking Instructions/Serving Suggestions

Use cooking spray to grease the inside of the slow-cooker. Add all ingredients except for the toppings to the slow-cooker and stir to combine. Cook on high for four hours or low for eight hours. When soup is done cooking, remove chicken breasts and shred them using two forks. Place the shredded chicken back into the soup and stir to combine. Top with green onions, cilantro and Greek yogurt. (Show Me the Yummy)

What you’ll need:

  • Blender
  • Microwave or pot and stovetop*
  • Three or four large tomatoes
  • Small bunch of basil
  • One or two cloves of garlic
  • Optional seasonings and spices
Cooking Instructions/Serving Suggestions

Clean tomatoes and basil and peel garlic. Put all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. *If the blender has a “soup” button, use that to heat the soup while it blends. Otherwise, heat blended soup on the stove or in the microwave. Add salt, pepper or other seasonings to taste. (Heather, BlendHappy)

Healthy Snacks for the Dorm Room

Meal prep is a beautiful thing, but sometimes a quick snack is more realistic—and more tempting—than a full meal between classes or while studying. Healthy snacks are excellent ways for students to stave off hunger and stay focused without breaking out the pots and pans. Below is a sampling of quick, healthy foods that store well, can be eaten as is and can easily be combined to make a variety of other snacks to provide a much-needed brain boost to students.

  • Hummus
  • Chocolate milk boxes
  • Peanut butter or other nut butters
  • Fresh, frozen and dried fruits
  • Oats, rice and other grains
  • Whole wheat tortillas
  • Simple granola or energy bars
  • Yogurt
  • Fresh and frozen veggies
  • Nuts or low-sugar trail mix

Must-Have Dorm Cooking Tools & Appliances

Dorms can be tricky spaces for those new to cooking. Luckily, there are tons of easy, healthy recipes students can make with just a few tools and appliances. Schools have varying restrictions on what types of appliances are allowed, so students should check their campus housing policies before buying any of the following items.

Food Storage Containers

Containers like Tupperware or Pyrex are a must for students who hope to save leftovers. Bonus! Pyrex and other glass containers are oven safe and can be used for baking and roasting as well as storage.

Microwave

Dorms with communal kitchens usually have a microwave, but students in rooms with kitchenettes should consider getting one for themselves, especially if it’s their only way of heating food.

Blender

While less essential, blenders are extremely versatile and don’t take up much space. Soups, smoothies, sauces and purees are a cinch with a good blender. Students might consider ones that double as to-go cups.

Pot and Pan Sets

While pots and pans don’t need to be extensive, a dorm room set should have a range of sizes to accommodate different cooking needs. Students without stovetops or hot plates can forego this.

Slow Cooker

Students without ovens or stoves will find electric slow cookers or crockpots extremely useful for whipping up large batches of food. Throw in the ingredients before class and come back to a hot, delicious meal.

Food processor

Food processors aren’t often a high-priority for every student, but students who find themselves making food with lots of prep work or making mixes a standard blender can’t handle, should consider a small food processor. Vegan students will find these especially useful.

Hot Plate

Not every dorm will allow hot plates, as they are open heat sources, but if permitted, students without stoves should pick one up. Hot plates are like a portable stovetop that plug into a standard outlet.

Toaster Oven

Like hot plates, some dorms will not allow toaster ovens. However, they can often triple as microwaves, ovens and toasters, so students limited on space and appliances should go for one of these if allowed.

Mini Fridge

Many dorms come equipped with mini fridges, but if they don’t, students looking to store leftovers and ingredients with short shelf lives will want to invest in one.

Knife Set, Can Opener, etc.

It’s a challenge to be in the middle of cooking and have to figure out how to open ingredients without a can opener. Students should go through a handful of recipes ahead of time to see what basic tools, like knives, graters and measuring cups, they’ll use often.

Interview with an Expert

Rachel Paul is a Registered Dietitian who focuses on guiding students and recent grads through the college food scene and cooking for themselves. She is finishing her PhD in Nutrition and Behavior Change at Columbia University in NYC. For more info go to www.instagram.com/collegenutritionist.

When students are first attempting to cook new foods, how should they get started?

Take a few minutes to think about what foods you like and don’t like. Buying foods you don’t like means you’re probably just going to be wasting money. If you’d like to start cooking with a new food, buy the smallest size you can first to see if you like the taste before you invest in buying a larger amount.

Also, refer to some sources! Learning from the pros doesn’t just have to take place in the classroom. If your mom is a good cook, definitely ask her for some tips first.

What are some common healthy eating myths or mistakes that students make when learning how to cook in small spaces like dorms?

Thinking you’re going to change 100% of your diet immediately. I totally get it—you want to be 100% healthy now, but buying too many groceries and too many kitchen supplies is often wasteful. Stick with buying only the basics when you’re first getting a handle on making food for yourself. You can always buy the fancy appliances later if need be.

Having too much snack food available is another common mistake. Stocking up on tons of non-perishable food is not necessarily a good thing to do. We tend to lose self-control, so when you’re studying late at night and have an endless supply of graham crackers or peanut butter, you can risk overeating.

How can students stay on track with healthy eating, especially with busy schedules, tempting nights out and college stresses?

Tracking what you’re eating with an app like Lose It or My Fitness Pal is an excellent way to understand what foods keep you full and what foods are wasteful. You definitely don’t have to track every day, but tracking is one of the best educational tools that is not only easy to use, but is also free!

Planning ahead is also key. Either buying pre-packaged single servings of snacks for late night studying or creating single serving portions yourself is one of the best things you can do to stay on track with portion size and avoiding overeating. Look in the grocery store for 1 to 1.5-ounce packages of nuts, individual cups of yogurt or string cheese.

What additional advice do you have for college students looking to eat in and stay healthy while in school?

You probably have more resources at your hands than you realize. Typically, there’s a dietitian on staff at every college’s health clinic you can meet for free with your college health insurance. Also, there are often dietitians and health coaches on staff at university cafeterias who can help you navigate the food scene, whether you have a specific food allergy or just want to get a better picture of what’s available on campus.