Photo: Margo Roy
INGREDIENTS GALORE The Portland Farmers' Market.
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 at Nutrition Works in Portland, 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.
From a foodie perspective, Trap Landry, executive chef at the Black Point Inn in Scarborough, advises students to stick to cooking basic dishes based on boiling water, and then put a spin on them. "It's almost like going on a vegetarian diet," he says. "You're going to ruin any piece of meat." But steamed vegetables, baked potatoes, and scrambled eggs ("if you're careful") work well in a microwave too.
Using a ratio of two cups couscous to two-and-a-half cups water, Landry recommends boiling the water in the microwave then pouring it over the grains; throw in anything you have on hand to add flavor — spinach, garlic, fresh herbs, butter — and let it sit with a cover over it until cooked through.
Stocking your pantry with canned beans, corn chips, nuts, peanut butter, and flavorful additions like roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, sauces, and spices will increase your options for a quick, easy meal. "Black beans from Goya with cheese and corn chips is a solid meal," says Landry, a Texas native who also favors homemade nachos. "You can buy so many things in cans now that are quality," he adds.
Cheese is also a must. "What I do with mac n' cheese to make it a little better, even with Kraft mac n' cheese, is put a little bit of bleu cheese into it. That makes a huge difference. Or ham — anything smoky with cheese is good," he says.