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.
Sheet pan suppers and muffin tin meals
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.
ROOT VEGETABLE AND APPLE HASH BAKED WITH EGGS
MAKES 2 to 4 servings
Pantry staples potatoes, onions and apples are a classic combination of sweet and savory flavors for just about any meal of the day. Baking the eggs right on the baking sheet makes for a no-fuss, no-muss meal in minutes, plus a quick cleanup.
Feel free to mix and match the ingredients according to whatever you have on hand - different types of potatoes, onions and apples will work equally well here, from Yukon Gold potatoes to Vidalia onions to Honeycrisp apples.
- 2 russet potatoes, peeled, then cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 red onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 Granny Smith apple, cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 Cripps Pink apple, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt, or more as needed
- 4 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Toss the potatoes, onion and apples with the oil and salt on a rimmed baking sheet until evenly coated, spreading them in an even layer.
Roast for 30 minutes or until the vegetables and apple begin to brown and soften. Push aside some of the hash to create four spaces for the eggs, then carefully crack each egg into one of the cleared spaces.
Roast for 5 minutes or until the whites of the eggs are just set but the yolks are still runny.
Season with the pepper and more salt, if you like. Serve warm.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 4): 280 calories, 9 g protein, 33 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 185 mg cholesterol, 670 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 11 g sugar
SHEET PAN CHICKEN FAJITAS
4 to 6 servings, Healthy
Five minutes of prep yields a flavorful dinner with little cleanup, thanks to a sheet pan and a handful of ingredients. Tossing the chicken and vegetables with the Basic Red Wine Vinaigrette allows for some extra layers of flavor, although vegetable oil will work fine. Thinning Cashew Cream (see recipe, Page E9) with a little water and lemon juice offers a quick alternative to sour cream when there's no time to run to the store.
Flank steak, or portobello mushrooms can be substituted for the chicken with no change to the cooking method.
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast halves cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
- 2 green bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced
- 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons Basic Red Wine Vinaigrette or vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 6 flour tortillas, warmed, for serving
- Vegan sour cream, for serving (may substitute a Cashew Cream mixture; see headnote)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Toss together the chicken, peppers, onion, garlic, vinaigrette or oil, chili powder and salt in a large mixing bowl until evenly coated. Spread on a large, rimmed baking sheet and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until vegetables are tender and chicken is cooked through, stirring halfway through cooking.
During the last 5 minutes of baking, wrap tortillas in aluminum foil and place in the oven until warmed through, or wrap the stack of tortillas in clean, damp paper towels and microwave on HIGH for 1 minute.
Divide the fajita mixture among warm tortillas; serve warm with sour cream.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 6, using vinaigrette): 140 calories, 18 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar
MINI LASAGNA CUPS
12 servings, Healthy
A package of wonton wrappers and a muffin pan combine for handy single-serving portions of lasagna, ready to grab and go for a quick lunch or dinner. This version is made with vegetables straight out of the freezer but is easily adaptable to your favorite fillings, including crumbled Italian sausage, mushrooms and bell peppers.
You'll need a standard muffin pan with 12 wells.
Wonton wrappers are available in Asian markets, and they also are commonly found in grocery stores these days, often in the produce section.
MAKE AHEAD: The cups can be assembled a day ahead, covered and refrigerated in the pan until ready to bake. The baked mini lasagna cups can be refrigerated, covered or individually wrapped, for up to 3 days.
- 1 cup frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
- 1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
- 1 teaspoon seasoning blend
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups low-fat shredded mozzarella cheese
- 36 square wonton wrappers
- 1 cup frozen diced carrots, defrosted
- 1 1/2 cups Marinara Sauce
- Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Wrap the defrosted spinach in a few layers of paper towels and squeeze out any excess moisture, then transfer the spinach to a mixing bowl with the ricotta cheese, the seasoning blend and salt, stirring until well incorporated.
Place half of the mixture in a separate mixing bowl; stir in 1 cup of the shredded mozzarella.
Use cooking oil spray to lightly grease the muffin pan. Fit a wonton wrapper into each well with the corners of the wrappers up and over the edges of the well.
Evenly divide the ricotta-spinach blend in each wonton-wrapper-covered well, then fit in another wonton wrapper on top. Then divide the diced carrots among the cups, and then top with a generous teaspoon of the marinara sauce. Fit a third wonton wrapper over the sauce.
Evenly divide the ricotta-spinach-mozzarella blend mixture on the last layer of wonton wrappers, then finish by evenly dividing the remaining marinara sauce, about a tablespoon of shredded mozzarella, and some freshly ground black pepper. (At this point, you can cover the entire pan with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight.)
Bake (middle rack) for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the cheese on top is melted, browned and bubbling.
Serve hot, or let cool completely before storing.
Nutrition | Per serving: 150 calories, 9 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 580 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar ---
SHEET PAN MOROCCAN SPAGHETTI SQUASH
2 to 4 servings, Healthy
While a spaghetti squash can look a little daunting because of its thick yellow skin, it is actually not that hard to cut through with a sharp knife. Just start at the stem and push the knife around lengthwise until you get back to the stem on the other side; the squash should then easily split into two.
Spaghetti squash has a pleasing texture that, yes, does mimic spaghetti, but with a buttery flavor. Roasting the chickpeas and the currants on the baking sheet with the squash gives them a toasty, caramelized flavor, while the spaghetti squash seeds add crunch.
- 1 spaghetti squash (about 4 pounds), cut in half lengthwise, seeds reserved
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the seeds
- 15 ounces canned/cooked no-salt-added chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 1/2 cup currants
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon seasoning blend, like Trader Joe's 21 Seasoning Salute
- Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place the squash, cut sides down, on a baking sheet.
Coat the squash seeds with a little oil, then spread them around the squash halves. Roast for 15 minutes, or until the inverted squash halves are almost tender.
Meanwhile, toss together the chickpeas, currants, garlic, seasoning blend and 2 tablespoons of oil in a mixing bowl until evenly coated.
After the squash and seeds have roasted for 15 minutes, spread the chickpea mixture around the squash on the baking sheet; return to the oven and roast for 15 minutes or until the squash is softened to the touch.
Transfer to the stove top (off the heat). Invert the squash halves. Use a fork to shred the squash flesh into noodle-like strands.
Top with the chickpea mixture and the roasted squash seeds. Season lightly with salt and pepper; serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 4): 400 calories, 11 g protein, 68 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 350 mg sodium, 14 g dietary fiber, 29 g sugar
BLENDER BROCCOLI CHEESE SOUP
3 servings (makes 3 cups)
Developed originally for a high-powered blender such as a Vitamix, this recipe is easily adapted to a standard blender and allows for plenty of variation depending on what you have on hand.
Frozen broccoli, both stems and florets, is a good option here. But when you want to use fresh broccoli, just steam it until it is tender first; raw onion will work as well, but cooking the onion until soft helps to minimize the sharpness. You can freeze tablespoon portions of cooked onion in advance (see FOOD-QUICK story). Cashew Cream adds a little creamy texture, but the cheese provides plenty of creaminess if you don't have Cashew Cream already made.
MAKE AHEAD: The soup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
- 2 cups no-salt-added vegetable broth
- 3 cups frozen broccoli, defrosted, plus a few florets for garnish
- 2 tablespoons Cashew Cream
- 2 tablespoons diced onion
- 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, plus more for garnish
- Freshly ground black pepper
Combine the broth, 2 1/2 cups of the broccoli, the Cashew Cream and onion in a blender; begin to blend on low, then gradually increase to high until pureed and smooth.
Add the remaining 1/2 cup of broccoli florets; pulse a few times to retain some texture. Pour into a medium saucepan; cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes, stirring a few times, then stir in the cheddar cheese until melted. Taste, and season with salt and pepper, as needed.
Serve warm, garnished with florets and cheese.
Nutrition | Per serving: 240 calories, 14 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 440 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar
FAST BLENDER TOMATO SOUP
4 servings (makes 4 cups), Healthy
This creamy soup has a secret: There's no cream - or even butter - in it. Instead, bread and olive oil emulsify in the blender with the other ingredients to create a rich texture, making it easy to put together with a handful of pantry ingredients in just a few minutes.
The original recipe was made using a high-powered blender, such as a Vitamix, which has the capacity to both heat and blend the soup; it has been adapted here for a standard blender. You will just need to finish the soup on the stove after it's blended to allow the flavors to meld.
MAKE AHEAD: The soup can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 1 slice white or whole-wheat bread (crusts removed), torn into 1-inch pieces
- 28 ounces canned, no-salt-added whole peeled tomatoes, plus their juices
- 1 cup no-salt-added vegetable broth
- 1 teaspoon seasoning blend
- Freshly ground black pepper
Combine the oil, garlic, onion, bread pieces, the tomatoes and their juices, the broth and seasoning blend in a blender; begin to blend on low, then gradually increase to high until pureed and smooth. Pour into a medium saucepan; cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes, stirring a few times. Taste, and season with salt and pepper, as needed.
Nutrition | Per serving: 270 calories, 3 g protein, 22 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 560 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar