College can be a harrowing experience for budding foodies, picky eaters, and dieters. While the dining hall's gleaming buffets of kids'-menu fare send some students into a feeding frenzy, others flinch. Even those who don't incessantly worry about what was really under that fried coating can have a hard time getting a meal during dining-hall hours because of a packed class schedule. And the cost of take-out and overpriced sandwiches can really add up.
But busy students and choosier palates, rejoice! You can do it yourself with some basic tips and skills to make the most of your microfridge. Stock up on some pantry essentials, bust out the microwavable bowls, and hit up the farmers' market for seasonal, grown-with-love produce. You'll never have to ask how long that pizza's been sitting out again.
By cooking and keeping healthy snacks around, you'll cut back on processed foods and add more whole foods, lowering your chances of falling prey to the dreaded "Freshman 15." Some convenient but tasty foods to have around are non-fat plain or Greek yogurt, crudités, hummus, whole-grain crackers, and fresh produce (add the Portland Farmers' Market, a favorite of local chefs, as your friend on Facebook).
According to Kim Norbert, a registered dietician, it's easier to resist temptation — that midnight pizza, a pile of greasy fries — if you can whip up a healthier version of what you're craving. "They provide you so many unhealthy options that it's easy to go with the flow and do what everyone else is doing," she says. "Try to keep in mind that if you eat as close to the earth as possible, you're going to get a lot less fat in your diet, fewer calories, a lot less added salt."
However, Norbert emphasizes that you can't go without all the time. She recommends homemade nachos with baked corn chips (they're healthier than whole-grain chips, which are still fried), low-fat cheese, and salsa as a cheaper and more nutritious alternative to Mexican takeout. Tweak quickie microwave meals like ramen by using only half of the flavor packet for less sodium; choose plain instant oatmeal over the flavored type and spruce it up with raisins, almonds, or a little cinnamon and sugar.
If your dining hall allows it, Norbert suggests taking fruit for snacking and a portion of broccoli or other raw salad bar veggies back to your room to use later in omelettes, scrambled eggs, salads, ramen or mac 'n' cheese. For the noodles and macaroni, add the veggies while the water is boiling.
And don't be afraid to cook and try new things, even if all you have is a tiny microfridge set-up. You'll need some cooking skills when you move out into an apartment or you'll be blowing all your rent on high-calorie, prepared foods.
"No one has really shown [today's college students] what to do, and that cooking can really be fun," Norbert says. "You don't have to follow a recipe — you can do your own thing. . . . Play with your food a little bit."
Indeed, now that you have some convenient staples and snacks on-hand, you'll want to "kick it up a notch," to quote the great Emeril. One cannot live on oatmeal, granola bars, and whole-grain crackers alone.