Conscientious Cook: Beyond Ramen

A College Survival Manual for Cooking Quick, Hearty Meals

By Annie Fenn // Photographs by Taylor Glenn

Young, college-bound person, take a peek into the family fridge. What do you see? Someday soon, when you are off at school, you’ll likely dream about all this great food right at your fingertips.

Soon you’ll be relying on the dorm cafeteria for most of your meals. Dorm food CAN be great, but most of it is not. Chances are, when hunger strikes and the cafeteria is closed, you’ll want something quick, easy, and filling to eat. So you need some know-how for cooking simple and nutritious meals on your own.

Why bother to learn?
Well, a steady diet of processed foods will zap your energy, kill off beneficial gut bacteria, and weaken your immune system, making you vulnerable to every virus that’s going around. And eating fast food—especially too much, late at night—will quickly lead to weight gain: the notorious “freshman ten,” or, let’s face it, “fifteen.” You don’t want to look like the guy from Super Size Me by the end of your freshman year.

Think of cooking as an essential life skill, like driving a car and balancing a checkbook. Maybe your parents got through college eating three-for-a-dollar packets of ramen, but you don’t have to. Consider this your survival manual for eating healthy while away from home.

Master a few essential cooking skills
Start with eggs. Make sure you can fry, scramble, and hard-boil an egg; perfect the omelet. Move on to pasta and rice. Learn how to doctor up a can of beans. Refine your favorite smoothie recipe. Practice a few two-, five-, and thirty-minute meals (see sidebar). When the late-night munchies hit, you’ll be ready with a fast, healthy meal. And you won’t have to resort to Domino’s.

Enlist your parents
Ask your parents to put together a small cooking kit for you. A few basic spices—cumin, oregano, sea salt, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and ginger—can really do wonders for cafeteria food and will make it more nutritious. Pack a bottle of your favorite hot sauce, soy sauce, and Thai fish sauce. Athletes should add healthy calories by dosing everything you eat with good olive oil.

Check out the food scene
Once you get to school, check things out. College sophomore Riis Wilbrecht recommends spending time your first week really checking out the cafeteria offerings. “I found great food items at the end of the school year that I had never noticed because I was always rushing through,” he says.

Wilbrecht, a Division I Nordic athlete, struggles to get enough calories at college while he’s in training. “Greek yogurt saves me,” he says. “I eat tons every day, along with the smoothies and rice bowls I make in my room from cafeteria leftovers.”

The New Care Package
A shipment of favorite cookies will always be appreciated, but also include whole foods like nut butters, olive oil, salted nuts, tea bags, homemade granola, honey, dates, almond milk, and Real Ramen ingredients (see recipe). Tuck in a gift card to Whole Foods Market or to other health food grocers close to campus for a nutritious splurge.

And don’t forget to include packets of instant ramen—college kids still rely on it for fast, filling meals. But avoid the trans fat, MSG, and sodium-overloaded brands of your youth. Look instead for instant noodles without palm oil, such as Thai Kitchen Lemongrass Rice Noodles, Koyo Ramen, and Ka-Me Stir-Fry Noodles.

Wilbrecht is looking forward to moving into an apartment this year so he can cook in a real kitchen. “But I did pretty well cooking in the dorm with just a Magic Bullet [blender] and a rice cooker,” he says. “I never would have survived if I just ate the cafeteria food.”

Two-, Five-, and
Thirty-Minute Meals

“I never would have survived if I just ate the cafeteria food.”
– Riis Wilbrecht

In two minutes …

The Nutter Butter Smoothie
Ingredients: 1 frozen banana + 2 pitted dates + 1 scoop nut butter + water, coconut water, almond milk, or milk
Directions: Combine ingredients and blend until smooth.

Beyond Cinnamon Toast
– ½ avocado + olive oil + sea salt + cayenne pepper
– cream cheese + jam + turkey
– hummus + sliced hard-boiled egg + Sriracha hot sauce
– almond butter + sliced banana + honey + cinnamon
Directions: Toast 1 slice of good bread and top with one of the above.

In five minutes …

Rice Bowl
Ingredients: leftover rice + chicken, beef, or tofu + greens
Directions: Warm in a microwave. Top with soy sauce, fish sauce, peanut sauce, Sriracha hot sauce, peanuts, and nori (roasted seaweed).

Thai Wrap
Ingredients: salad greens + chicken + cucumber + tomato + peanut sauce, smeared on a tortilla
Directions: Roll it up burrito-style.
Peanut Sauce: peanut butter + hot water to thin + honey + sesame oil

In thirty minutes …

Pasta with Marinara Sauce
Ingredients: 1 can whole tomatoes with their juice, smooshed up by hand + 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil + ½ onion
Directions: Simmer for 25 minutes. Discard the onion and season with salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and oregano (if desired). Serve over pasta with Parmesan cheese.

Creamy Beans
Ingredients: 1 can of black or pinto beans with water from can + 1 tablespoon butter + several dabs of hot sauce
Directions: Cook over low heat for 30 minutes. Serve with rice, toast, or put an egg on top.

Quick Bolognese
Ingredients: 1 pound ground beef, cooked and drained + ½ onion, chopped, + 3 minced garlic cloves + 1 can whole tomatoes smooshed up by hand
Directions: Simmer for 20 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, olive oil, and oregano (if desired).

Red, Green, or Yellow Chicken Curry
Ingredients: 1 teaspoon curry paste + coconut milk + broth + chicken + frozen peas
Directions: Saute curry paste with cream top from coconut milk until thick. Add rest of coconut milk, broth, or water to make a sauce. When bubbling and thick, add 2 cubed chicken breasts and peas. Serve with rice, hot sauce, and pita bread.

Real Ramen
Ingredients: 2 cups chicken broth + one 2-inch piece kombu (kelp) + 1 garlic clove + 1 tablespoon soy sauce
Directions: In a hot pot, place chicken broth, kombu (kelp), garlic, soy sauce, and simmer for 20 minutes. Discard kombu. Smash up garlic into the broth. Add nonfried instant noodles like Koyo Ramen (discard flavor packets) and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add toppings like raw veggies, beef jerky, bacon, shredded chicken, tofu, and hard-boiled eggs. Season with Sriracha and soy sauce.
Option: For miso ramen, make broth with 2 cups chicken broth + 1 tablespoon miso paste.