Making bento lunches in a dorm room


[It’s back-to-school time! This article was originally posted in September 2008, and revised several times since. There are lots of great ideas in the comments, so be sure to check them out! ]

Here’s a great question from reader Jan:

I live in a college dorm, and I only have a microwave, water kettle and George Foreman-style grill (we aren’t allowed to have hotplates in here). Is it an option to grill tofu? And do you have any other suggestions for cooking with my limited resources?

Eating healthy in a dorm room can be a challenge indeed, especially without a fully equipped kitchen. I actually lived in a dorm-like setting (it was off-campus housing but set up like a dorm) for a few months during my early days in college. We had access to an ancient refrigerator, which was compartmentalized inside into lockable litle safe-like boxes with nameplates and keys (!). Each box was about the size of a hotel room safe, so there was barely enough space there for each person to store an apple and a can of soda. We could have a water heater in our rooms, but that was about it (though there were suspiciousl smells periodically wafting about the place from various rooms). I did move to a better place as soon as I could, but here’s what I remember doing from those days, plus some ideas about using those luxury items, a grill and a microwave!

  • Rely on pre-cut/pre-washed veggies. Access to a proper sink is probaby limited, and let’s face it, washing vegetables in a bathroom sink is sort of not nice. Pre-cut vegetables are more expensive, but very convenient and cheaper and healthier than eating out. I don’t know what I would have done during my time in that no-cooking place without pre-bagged salads!
  • Think about a microwave rice cooker, or a plug-in electric rice cooker. This is one situation where a microwave rice cooker would be very handy to have. Rice, even expensive Japanese rice, is only pennies per serving. You can get basic rice cookers for around US$10. You could even think about investing in a microwave cooking set. If your budget and space allow though, think about getting a plug-in electric rice cooker with a timer function (see the big rice cooker article) - if your dorm allows hot water heaters and grills, a rice cooker should be fine. You can even use it to cook things other than rice!
  • Cup-a-soup and other “just add hot water” foods are your friend. Do look at labels though since some are healthier than others. And, try not to rely too much on cup noodles (known in the UK as pot noodles) - I know they have become the preferred hot snack for gamers, coders and college kids, but nutritionally speaking they are about on the same level, or worse, as potato chips.
  • Look into packaged foods and things that don’t need refrigeration. Canned and jar-packed goods are obvious, but if you go to a Japanese grocery store you will find quite a lot of no-refrigeration-needed foods, like boil in the bag (or take out of the bag and microwave) curry, microwaveable rice and so on. (They can be a bit expensive though unless you live in an area with a large Asian/Japanese population. These things are dirt cheap and therefore popular with students in Japan.)
  • If you share a refrigerator with others, invest in a a couple of tightly closing plastic storage boxes to protect your food. You can control your own refrigerator habits, but you can’t be sure of others….
  • Using the grill, especially for vegetarians. (For non-Americans, a George Foreman Grill is a very handy electric tabletop grill that is shaped like a waffle maker or pressed sandwich maker. It quickly cooks steaks and stuff from both sides.) Grilling burgers, sausages and (if your budget allows for it) steaks and chops on this is quite an obvious thing to do. Veggies can grill things like veggie burgers and hot dogs. Thick fried tofu (atsuage) can be grilled ‘dry’, then eaten with a dash of soy sauce. (For bento, carry the grilled atsuage along with a small soy sauce bottle. You can use barbeque sauce or whatever sauce you prefer instead.) You can try grilling plain tofu too: use a firm or extra firm (or ‘pressed’) tofu, not silken tofu, oil it well on both sides and press away. Try grilling slices of eggplants, peppers, and so on, brushed with some oil. Steam-cooking veggies in the microwave before finishing them in the grill might work well.
  • If all else fails, at least try to eat a fresh fruit every day. And maybe think about a vitamin supplement?

Some bento/lunch ideas using the above ideas and more:

  • Microwave-cooked rice, microwave-steamed veggies, grilled sausages or hot dogs (veggie hot dogs even) or even Spam!
  • Just-add-water quickcook grains, instant curry, pre-cut salad
  • Storebought bread, storebought hummus, fruit, cucumber slices and cherry tomatoes, apple
  • Grilled vegetable slices on a George Forman Grill on a crusty roll with some cheese
  • Nothing wrong with a good old peanut butter and jam sandwich. Go for whole wheat bread instead of white bread for a bit more nutrition.

Some ideas for foods to stock that don’t need refrigeration

From a regular (Western) grocery store:

  • Crackers and Swedish ‘crispbread’ (those little crispy rolls that you can get at Ikea), rye crackers
  • Canned soup, canned fish and meat, canned vegetables…explore the world of cans!
  • Packaged soup - watch for salt/fat content though
  • Pickles in a jar (may need refrigeration after opening)
  • Peanut butter and other nut butters
  • Condiments. A little bottle of good soy sauce, siracha sauce, etc. can do wonders
  • Instant noodles - in moderation though. See Instant ramen and cup noodles are bad for you (they really are!)

From a Japanese grocery store:

  • Instant curry and stew in a pouch (you boil the bag or empty it out and microwave it), for example this set
  • Ready to microwave rice (see above) - e.g. this 3-pack
  • Pouches of readymade sesame salt or gomashio and furikake (homemade furikake recipes for the more adventurous)
  • Pre-cut sheets of nori seaweed. Korean nori is flavored and roasted with some oil, and makes a very tasty snack.
  • Ready-to-eat canned foods. There’s too much of these things to list here but you can find things like clams, mackerel, eel, sardines and so on - all pre-flavored (somewhat strongly) and ready to open up and eat.
  • Just-add-water instant miso soup and other soups
  • Rice crackers and other snack foods

Do you have any suggestions for dorm dwellers? Are you one yourself - and if so, how do you cope? Is thinking about making bento lunches in a dorm too ambitious?

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When something is really

When something is really important for you, you can’t give pu. It is quite a challenge but it is worth it. I was thinking about miso soup that you can have several times a day (maki made an interessing article about it), dried fruits on top off rice is very good to. I also thing a rice cooker is worth it because you can also cook steamed vegetables in it.

Good as well for vacationers

HI Maki,

This post is wonderful for long stay vacationers like myself. I try to find a hotel that has some sort of mini kitchen, but then I am stuck with what shall I buy and so forth leading me to purchase not so healthy alternatives.

Your suggestions and ideas are always great.

Ciao, O


Re: Rely on pre-cut/pre-washed veggies.

A friend of mine who is a chef, and lives alone, taught me one of his tricks, that he uses both cooking at home and when he caters smaller dinner parties — instead of buying a whole cauliflower, or a whole bag of cut carrots, he goes to the grocery store salad bar and buys a couple cauliflower florets or a handful of carrots or whatever. More variety, pre-washed, and he can be sure to get only as much as he knows he can use. Cost-wise, it’s typically more expensive than buying the whole veggie (but no waste, so no wasted money), though often comparable or even cheaper than buying bagged pre-washed veggies (and again, no waste).

I think this would work well for dorm-dwellers trying to eat healthy or fill bentos!

Get a cookbook

Why not buy at cookbook specifically written for microwave cooking? I see Amazon have quite a few of them.

You may find some ideas on Instructables - I found this one for making popcorn in a cup (for just one portion):

Think outside the box...

I use my George Foreman grill for almost anything…if you preheat it you can cook pancakes and french toast. I’ve even cooked chocolate chip cookies on it. If you don’t mind a bit of a messy meal, you can take two mini pizzas, stack one on top of the other so the gooey parts are in the center and heat them. There’s lots of odd uses for your grill so keep an open mind and start experimenting…

I spend a lot of time in

I spend a lot of time in hotels with no or tiny kitchen. The first thing I always go and buy are spices. You can cook a lot of thing in a electric kettle. One of my music teacher would cook is wieners in it. I’ve try a few vegs, and it wasn’t too bad (add spices in the water and make it boil with the veg, let it rest reboil, until cooked). Well, the only thing is that you really need to clean the kettle afterwards so that you won’t have a gingery coffee…The rice cooker really seems to be a great option as for the grill! I do own one of this grill at home and enjoy making vegetarian sandwiches that I’d heat in the grill. You can be quite a lot of spreads out of canned lens, beans and chickpeas with a fork a plate and a bit of patience. Okay, it won’t be smooth but the taste will be there. If you own a rice cooked things should be easier, as you could have rice, steamed vegetables and you can even cook dried lens and beans. A lot of sauces to accompany rice or instant noodles can be made out of nothing. Chili sin carne for example : a tin of red beans, a tin of smashed tomato, a bit of spices and in the microwave. For the unconditional of porridge, there exists instant porridge, but it is doable in a kettle but truly messy. Lots of cereals don’t need a lot of cooking : boulghour, couscous, quinoa. Maybe you should try to find these, as the only need some hot water poured in it (except quinoa but if you do the same as for the vegs in the kettle it’s okay). Maki, I think I’ll offer myself these rice steamer, it’ll make life easier!

The George Foreman will do

The George Foreman will do all sorts of veg; grilled cauliflower is delish - really brings out the nutty flavours. I pretty much lived on houmous and grilled veg sandwiches in college!

Rice Cooker

Maki, if you would please delete my previous post, as it did not come out right… thank you.

Just a little more than a year ago, I was still living in a dorm, so I fully understand the concerns of dorm cooking. It’s definately difficult to eat healthy foods when you’re so restricted with appliances. For us, our dorm wouldn’t allow ANY appliances other than a blow dryer, but we sure managed to sneak a kettle and a rice cooker in. Microwave though, was obviously not an option for us at all… but if you’re a little creative, a rice cooker is really all you need. (After 3 years of no kitchen, crappy dorm food and only a kettle and a rice cooker to work with, you’ll find that rice cookers not only does wonders, but is almost all you need in a kitchen)

When investing in a rice cooker though, by the simpliest ones that comes with a removable steamer on the top. Do NOT buy fancy rice cookers unless you don’t intend to use it for anything other than cooking rice and porridges. Something like this will do you wonders. You can probably find much cheaper ones out there, but make sure to get the ones with the removable steamer.

Here are some of the things my friends and I use the rice cooker for:

1) Cooking rice (duhhh…) and porridges

2) Boiling anything and EVERYTHING

  • you can boil your noodles, vegetable, meat and everything with it, just take the lid away after the water started to boil

  • we often make soba noodles this way :D

3) Steaming anything and EVERYTHING

  • with the removable steamer, all you have to do is put some water in the rice cooker, put the steamer on top, put the food in the steamer, put the lid on top, and after 10-20 mins, you will have steamed-anything-you-like

  • if you want to eat healthy, steamed vegetables are great (although with a microwave in most dorms in the US, you can also buy steamable ziplock bags)

4) Defrosting frozen food items

  • this does not really apply with the frozen boxed meals out there, but if you have access to frozen dim sum, frozen seafood and such, using the removable steamer, it’s definately easy to get them defrosted and ready to eat

5) Having a hot pot (or steam boat as some may call it) party

  • my friends and I would go to the supermarket to get garlic, leeks, onions, other veggies and meat; use a little bit of oil to brown the garlic leeks and onions before pouring boiling water into the rice cooker (from the kettle), put some Korean hot sauce in there once it boils again, and then throw in the meat and veggies, and then eat from the rice cooker

6) Toasting bread

  • this can be a little tricky but definately do-able: without putting water in the rice cooker, heat it up, and put the steamer on top, put the bread on the steamer and let it toast on both sides; it doesn’t come out as the best toast, but it’s not a bad option when you don’t have a toaster around and you’re dying for some toasted bread/bagel

7) Stir frying food - turn the cooker on, put some oil in, and start stir frying (make sure you open the window though, otherwise your smoke detector will go off)

8) Pan frying food - same thing as #7

There are so much more you can do with a rice cooker that are not listed here, but these are some ideas. One thing we haven’t ever tried was to deep fry food… I don’t think I would recommending trying though.

You can make wine!

I made wine in my dorm room.


bucket 2 liter bottles balloons hot pot


sugar raisins yeast

Boiling a gallon or two of water in a two cup hotpot is a real pain. Also, I really needed a siphon since my transfers between fermentation vessels and the final bottles was less than sediment free.

Re: You can make wine!

Hm. that wine-thingy was cool.
Did it contain any alcohol? How long to let it sit before drinking? :D

dorm eating

I disagree about buying the simplest rice cooker. Spend some more money and get a pressurized one, or you’re just wasting time and money. First, it cooks rice better and MUCH faster & keeps it warm and moist for days (just mix cooked rice with sweetened condensed milk and you have a delicious dessert or breakfast; mix with furikake for a simple meal; make a rice ball with a pickle center for your bento). Second, you can cook NO END OF STUFF in it— and keep it hot and ready-to-eat for days. I make porridge, stews, chili, beans, fondue and bake potatoes and sweet potatoes in it all the time. You can even make casseroles, cakes and puddings in it; I’ve done it all. Just Google “rice cooker recipes” to find out how. I have read that microwaving destroys the majority of vitamins in veg. Steaming them on top of your rice in the cooker retains the nutrition, and saves you washing a dish. Seems like if you have a pressurized rice cooker and a Foreman grill, you need nothing else— except a cutting board (with a groove around the edge to catch the juices), a good little chopping knife, a small set of tongs, and maybe a wire or plastic mesh basket that you can drain produce, tofu and dishes in. Also: Indian boil-in-bag dinners, like the Tasty Bite brand, are yummy, all-natural and nutritious. And Chinese groceries sell frozen stuffed buns and dumplings that are designed to be steamed in a rice cooker. You need never eat in the refectory (rat factory)! Thanks, everyone for the George Foreman tip— I think I will get one.

Rice Cooker

While I do see the benefits of pressurized rice cookers, I am not quite sure if it does cook rice faster. I live alone and have both a pressurized rice cooker and a simple one, and my simple rice cooker certainly cooks much faster than the pressurized one. However, the problem may be that they are both small. They are both for 1-3 people type small rice cookers, so that maybe the reason.

I like the fact that you can set timers and stuff with the pressurzed rice cookers, but I don’t think you can cook anything with the lid open with it. Hence, no stir frying, pan frying, toasting and “proper” hot pot meals.

But that’s just my experience with living with only a kettle and a simple rice cooker for 3 years. :)

I just moved in and I can

I just moved in and I can make bento easily in the dorm/co-op I am in. it’s a 6 bedroom apartment with a shared kitchen and living area. the kitchen has a communal fridge and freezer, sink and stove, with a fair amount of counter space. It’s alot easier to work on bentos in this kind of setting, I have a rice cooker in my room as well as a kettle. And small fridge so that room mates won’t eat my food >.< although I think none of them will eat the assortment of tofu and seaweed products that I eat and cook with.

Microwave Pasta

I used to be in a similar position in university days with just a microwave and kettle. I love pasta, so I would microwave pasta (yes, even spaghetti!). It turns out surprisingly well (put boiling water into a large microwaveable container, add pasta and a little salt, stir, cover, and microwave until cooked. You may need to stop cooking midway to stir the pasta, and you’ll have to figure out the cooking time according to what pasta you use and the wattage of your microwave).

You can buy a bottle of ready made pasta sauce and a can of tuna, and mix that into the cooked pasta. I used to add flavoured canned tuna (like John West sundried tomato tuna). For vegetables, you could use the microwave to steam carrots and broccoli, or buy a pack of ready washed spinach leaves and stir it into the pasta.

I now have a George Foreman grill and it is amazing. I use it to prepare lots of bento friendly/dinner dishes - like teriyaki chicken, grilled salmon, mackerel, mini burgers, etc.

Re: Microwave Pasta

I have to agree with the Tuna pasta, I spent most of my time at Uni making tuna pasta and nothing else. Even today I still like to make the same at work!

Microwave rice

Hey, as far as getting a microwave rice cooker I just cook my rice in the microwave. It works for all white rices, but it takes way longer for brown. But why invest when you already have something as good right? My Mom taught me 5 minutes on HIGH and 14 minutes on Medium (power 6). It even works when you double the recipe (1 part rice to 1.5 parts water)

Good luck everyone with coping in a dorm~

Thank you!

Thanks so much Mrs Maki! this was very informative! I made my first bento tonight and I did fine with my tools. once again, thank you so much! —Jen

I recently bought a rice

I recently bought a rice cooker for my dorm room to cook rice for dinners and bentos, but I find that when I cook and pack rice in my bento box to have for lunch of a morning, it’s never as soft and fluffy as it is when it is first cooked. Am I doing something wrong, or is rice only good when you first cook it?

One thing that can help

One thing that can help cooked rice stay ‘fresher’ in the cooker, is to fluff it up and away from the sides with the paddle, instead of leaving it in there in a lump. That helps excess moisture to evaporate somewhat instead of just sinking back into the rice.

fresher rice

you may also try washing the rice before you cook it - to remove excess starch. just wash it a few times, rub it with your fingers until the water runs clear. it will bubble over less while cooking and wont become ‘slimy’ later.

Use your kettle to hardboil eggs

I got this from Alton Brown - put your eggs in your kettle, cover with water, let the water come to a boil. Turn off the kettle, if it doesn’t automatically. Let sit for 10 minutes, then move to ice water to stop the cooking.

from alton brown - you can

from alton brown - you can make your own oatmeal in a coffee maker - use instant oatmeal in the pot, pour in the water. he also used individual packets of jam, honey, butter, etc to stir in. great for hotels. i would also say - get a rice cooker! even though everyone else has said it already. you can cook anything in it, pretty much. you can even make bread in a rice cooker, using a small round rack to elevate it (think - steam cooking). best of luck ;)

Ah, the memories...

My sophomore year roommate and I once cooked and served dinner for ten in our dorm room using one hotpot. We sauteed mushrooms* for starters in the hotpot, then boiled water for spaghetti. After the spaghetti was cooked (in several batches - it was a small hotpot), we heated the sauce in the hotpot, then mixed it with the spaghetti in a bowl, and served it to our friends along with a few loaves of bread we’d picked up in the store.

I think we got someone else to bring dessert, and it was probably a couple of bags of cookies.

  • Get some button mushrooms, wash them and pop off the stem so you’re left with the caps. Sautee the caps upside down in a bit of butter and lemon juice, so the juice collects in the bowl. Carefully lift out of hotpot so as not to spill the juice, eat while hot. Yum! Not exactly recommended use for a hotpot, though. :)

i cooked often in my dorm,

i cooked often in my dorm, mostly using my elec. kettle and rice cooker. i found that cooking pasta in the kettle itself made the kettle smell starchy, so i just boiled water in the kettle and poured it in the rice cooker, turned it on, and continued cooking the pasta in there. that way it didn’t take forever for the water to boil in the rice cooker.

we always had to wash stuff in our bathroom sink, but i was lucky enough to live in a suite of several rooms and had to share the bathroom with only 10 girls, so it stayed very clean. i also kept my dishwashing stuff in my bathroom cubby and would wash the sink out for good measure if i thought i should.

another thing i did was make fruit compote - cut up apples, pears, whatever and mix them with butter, brown sugar, some water, and maybe some cinnamon and stew it all in the rice cooker. this went really well over oatmeal, etc. and feels kind of special after all that dorm food.

last thing: NEVER try to “toast” bread in a microwave on a paper plate ;) a girl in my dorm got the whole building evacuated that way because the plate caught fire.

What to not put in the microwave

Hay doesn’t do well either in the microwave. (short story, long reasoning behind the attempt)

We cooked a lot of things in hot pots while in college, I still have mine. Coffee pots are good too, since they can work as sort of a hot plate to keep whatever is in the pot warm. (the thermal kind won’t work for that)

I liked the fact that I never had to share a bathroom with more than 3 other people.

Re: i cooked often in my dorm,

Quick note about bread in the microwave:

If you put a slice of stale bread in a wet paper towel and heat it for 15 seconds (NO longer), it becomes a bit softer and fluffier. So you don't have to throw away bread if it starts getting stale. (Mold is another story.)

Like you said though, it's a BAD idea to try to cook bread in a microwave for a long period of time--it heats up very quickly.

3 things you need

If I only had a kettle, I’d live off cous-cous and raw carrots. I suppose I could do more with a microwave, but I’d probably still end up lacking some vital nutrients.

I will be going to university next year and I allready have most of the few items of cooking equipment I will be taking, my family have put quite a bit of thought into it so it might help

1)A wok: Which, if your halls of residence provides access to a gass ring, will do everything that a frying pan and a saucepan would. Flat bottomed are best for Uni as I hear they don’t generaly have a special ring for round bottomed ones. 2)A bamboo steamer: Goes on top of the wok and allows you to steam things. Alot of recipies for steamed versions of baked items are out their as well as what you’d expect. 3)A plug in slow cooker: If you grew up with an aga, you’ll definitley need a slow cooker, it’s the next best thing too a bottom oven. So you can do rice and fruitcakes as well as casseroles in it.

I don’t know about other countries (or the universities I’ve not looked round) but in most of the halls I’ve seen in england the rooms have a kettle and their is access to a set of gass rings, a fridge and I’m told someone always brings a toaster. How many pepole share the kitchen (with the set of gass rings etc) varies from place to place. I can imagine that, especialy in places that are catered, some places might not provide acess to a gass ring, in which case it would be a good Idea to get a plug in steamer. That could provide a fairly ballanced diet.

Microwave Rice?

First I’d like to thank you for this really helpful article. I have only a mini fridge, kettle, and microwave. No George foremans allowed here, and I don’t have a rice cooker (nor the space for one).

Anyway, my question is, what brand of rice should I buy. I realized that I’ve never actually bought rice before, what kind is the best to cook in the microwave? Thanks

You can cook any kind of

You can cook any kind of rice in the microwave, thought parboiled rice may take longer. Brown rice will too, though you can get around that problem by soaking it for some time beforehan. For bentos you may want to go with medium grain rice, especially if you make onigiri and things. You might find the Looking at rice article useful too!

Hi! I’d just like to add -

Hi! I’d just like to add - I previously was in a dorm room, with only a microwave and a microwave rice cooker. I found that the standard japanese short grain rice they sell in asian supermarkets works pretty well with microwave cookers. Just remember to keep to the water - rice ratio stated on the packaging. I believe for most it’s 1.5 cups water to 1 cup rice. Zapping for 12-15 minutes usually does the trick for 1.5 cups of rice.

I usually made a quick batch and then froze the remainder for the morning =)

Extra fun in with a rice cooker.

Living in a dorm with 3 other food maniacs led to some fun adventures, but the most interesting was “baking” in the rice cooker. We made some wonderful lasagnas and enchiladas back then. It’s especially useful to cook the meats in the rice cooker first and then add boiled noodles/tortillas & sauce & just turn it on & let it go for a couple of times. We found simple recipes online and just adapted them to fit our tastes. We even had a parent stop by & confess that the lasagna was way better than oven cooked - maybe because it was impossible to burn. You can also find some simple recipes for making steamed buns from scratch & then just steaming those in the rice cooker. We found it was way cheap & with a little parchment paper - perfect. I would recommend that if your going to be cooking with friends, convince them to also get rice cookers. We had 2-3 at a time, just for the sake of convenience (2 were the really small size), and it let us cook faster and with more variety. But most of all have fun! Oh yeah, if you heat water in it, you can place a can (or smaller rice cooker pot) in the water and have a double boiler for chocolate fondue. That was a serious hit. stale cookies, odd brownies and fruit from the cafeteria became wonderful desserts.

Wow you really had some fun

Wow you really had some fun with your rice cooker! Chocolate fondue - omg! I’ll have to try that :)

Dorm room food

The microwave is your friend! Get a book of microwave cooking from your local library and learn a few dependable skills from it, and experiment. The world is your lobster!

cooking in the room

I am a college student myself, and I did face troubles like you mention above, though I don' have that microwave. Instead, I bought my self an induction cooker (I used to have a gas stove like the one they like to bring to camping trip, but it explode... seriously, don't buy that). I have no access to the kitchen since it was transform into another room, and we have to share 1 600litre capacities fridge with 6 person. So cooking can be a very big challenge. The cut up vegetables are very limited, and not available in the convenience store outside our complex. All vege I bought was, like maki said, wash in the bathroom(which was share between 3 people)... Not very nice, but there's no other way.

I tried to cook everything in large quantity, so I can keep them in pack size. It was a hassle to keep chopping, cook, then wash everything in that tiny little hand washing basin, not to mention hours since there are no real kitchen (I cook in my room, beside the bed -_-'')

The water kettle is really useful :) I tried to cook udon there, once, and though it was not as nice as what the udon should taste, it was edible. XD Other than that, of course, to make those hot drink you need while doing those evil assignments. :)

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

I had the very same problem in college. I agree whole-heartedly with the advice to get a rice cooker. I had limited funds, so I got one from Target for $15 AND I STILL USE IT. It's not always perfect (in fact, sticky rice turns into glue) but it makes perfect jasmine rice and it came with a steamer basket that works wonderfully. Unfortunately I don't think they carry this model anymore, but it's pretty generic, so I'm sure you'll find one if you look.

They required us to have a meal plan in college, which I didn't use even half of, so I would fill in the hard-to-cook parts of my bento from the cafeteria. (We weren't allowed to have grills). I also got cut fruit there because it was easier to use points than to go to the store and buy the individual fruits. And I wish I would've known that you can make a hard-boiled egg in a water boiler. I always got mine from the salad bar.

I found that my cheap-o rice cooker made some pretty bang-up pasta, too. Just bring the water to a boil in the cooker, and then add the pasta and boil as directed. It's also a really good time to steam some veggies. :)

Microwave "stir-fry" -- Get a can of veggies (I would always get water chestnuts and baby corn) and microwave them (in a microwave-safe bowl of course!) and then add bottled stir fry sauce. Put it on top of rice and you have the easiest ever from-a-can microwave stir fry. And it actually tastes good.

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

I used a rice cooker for noodles and boiled eggs (just put 1-4 eggs in when cooking 1 cup of rice and they'll turn out perfectly). I also used a toaster oven and I had a plug-in takoyaki/okonomiyaki/yakisoba machine that I could use to make all of those things, but it also could work as an electrical skillet, in which case, you're not limited in what you can make!

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

1. UHT milk is very handy to have on hand. I don't use much milk, so even though I have a big fridge and a real kitchen, I get the little 8-oz lunchbox size UHT milk boxes. That way, they stay good for a long time on the shelf, and I usually have no problem using a whole one. It's great for cocoa in the microwave, or for cooking your oatmeal (if you like it with milk instead of water) in the microwave.

2. Dried fruit! It's a good quick-energy snack, and throwing some into a salad, rice, or shelf-stable boil-in-bag curry will really add a kick. Try cooking baby carrots in the microwave with a handful of dried cranberries. Yum!

3. Nuts are a great way to get protein, and they last for a very long time at room temperature. Throw 'em into oatmeal or grain or pasta dishes.

4. Moroccan-style couscous (the very small-grain kind, not the large pearl-like Israeli kind) cooks in about 5 minutes if you pour boiling water onto it and cover it. Throw in a little chicken bouillon or other seasoning of your choice.

5. If you eat meat, buying pre-marinated meats at the grocery store would help you to get flavorful stuff without having to keep a lot of ingredients on hand. Cook 'em on the Foreman.

6. Keeping a few spices and other seasonings on hand to doctor up pre-packaged foods would be a good idea. Soy sauce, hot sauce, curry powder, garlic powder, Italian mixed herbs, and cinnamon (in addition to salt and pepper) might be a good selection.

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

These suggestions are mostly too expensive for college students. And lunchbox-size milk boxes creates so much garbage---think of the environment!

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

I'm now a senior in college, finally situated in a living space that has a stove, but since studies take precedence, I don't expect to cook anything complex or cook that often, so this would still come in handy!

I only wish I had known about this earlier...

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

Well, I never had the opportunity to live in a dorm room. But, I do know a couple of things about making food with few resources. Also, note that all of my advice is from a vegetarian perspective, but you can easily make it omnivorous by adding your protein of choice.

As far as cooking in your room goes, see what options you have to take away food from your dining hall. I work at a university and our dining hall allows students to take food to go, if needed. If that's the case and you have to have a meal plan anyway, why not stock up on veggies from the salad bar when you have extra points/dollars on your card? Our dining hall also has tofu in the salad bar, so I imagine you could take those cubes, marinate them in some soy sauce, sesame seed oil and ginger and/or garlic, then grill them on the Foreman Grill. It would probably be tasty with some rice and micro-steamed veggies from the salad bar.

Of course, condiments and seasonings are your best friends. I always have these on hand (and many of them don't need refrigeration): mayonnaise, margarine, olive oil, teriyaki glaze (either bottled, or make your own), sesame seeds, powdered ginger, Sriracha and other hot sauces (we keep several, including Tapatio and Tabasco), various mustards, miso paste, soy sauce, sweet and sour sauce, crushed red pepper, wasabi powder, cumin powder, salsa, curry powder, garlic and onion powders, cinnamon, basil, oregano, thyme, parsley, canned chipotles in adobo sauce (Tabasco's chipotle sauce is a decent substitute, too), Parmesan cheese and bottled lemon and lime juices. You can make a variety of "flavor profiles" with these ingredients and transform the nuked starch (baked potatoes, rice and pasta can all be made in the microwave easily) with vegetable and protein into a different-tasting meal each time.

And shelf-stable proteins are your friends -- there's beans, seafood (tuna is just the beginning!) and aseptic silken or canned tofu (for inari). And since you have a Foreman Grill you can make a wider variety of food -- think toasted banh mi or panini sandwiches, pasta with Italian-marinated veggies and Parmesan (my hubby likes to add a grilled sausage to his), rice with curried veggies and chickpeas, or a baked potato topped with black beans, cheese and salsa.

One of my favorite lazy meals is a take on "dynamite"-- top warm rice with nuked stir-fry veggies, smear a mix of mayo and Sriracha on top, warm through in microwave, then drizzle some teriyaki glaze over it and sprinkle with sesame seeds. While I'm a vegetarian, you could easily add some canned fish or another protein to the dish.

Anyway, good luck with your collegiate culinary adventure!

small appliances are useful.

Having a microwave is great. While it's nice to have a rice cooker or a crock pot, both of those can be replaced with the one microwave. Even the hot water kettle can be replaced with the microwave. Having a Foreman grill allows for much for variety. Rather than invest in more small appliances, I'd look into a small refrigerator. You can get one about the size of a microwave oven. That allows for small amounts of things that need refrigeration and also storage for any leftovers. Using the Foreman grill indoors should be done with windows open for ventilation. That last thing you want is greasy smoke coating the walls of your bedroom.

If I had to choose appliances for a dorm room at #1 would be the small refrigerator. #2 would be the microwave. The grill would be #3. After that, everything else is just further convenience. Perhaps....a blender.

Re: small appliances are useful.

Oh, blenders are definitely a life-saver, as I've learned living alone in an apartment--great way to use up extra veggies and fruits before they go bad!

It's easier to go with a single-serving blender, though. I use the Magic Bullet brand and it works pretty well. I think the Ninja blender brand is also single-serving size. Just drop in some fruits, add water, milk, or juice, and you've got a smoothie or shake that's way healthier than the ones from fast-food places. No weird artificial taste, either!

In case you get a rice cooker in your room:

There are some recipe books of dishes to make completely in a rice cooker; some of the other commenters mentioned they'd made whole meals in theirs, and apparently these cookbook authors had the same idea!

Rice Cooker Meals: Fast Home Cooking For Busy People


New Recipes For Your Rice Cooker


The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook


Rice Cooker Creations

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

I totally agree with getting a rice cooker for the dorm room, I had one in mine only a few years ago :) I kept pickled veggies in the the mini refrigerator and furikake, shoyu sauce, green tea, and nori on hand to add to my rice. I would actually make omusubi in my dorm room and got my roommate hooked on them.

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

A word of caution here about electrical requirements. Older dorms are often overloaded electrically and it is easy to trip the circuits. Some of these small appliances use a lot of current and a tripped breaker can be particularly troublesome in a dorm setting.... "where is the breaker box? tripped the circuit caused someone else a problem! had to call the maintenance person to reset the circuit. found myself sitting hungry and in the dark. unable to recharge my iPod...."

Toaster ovens for example are big current users, some are over 1500 watts and this much load added to a couple of other loads can be sufficient to cause a problem.

Two things to do: 1 - Be mindful of the nameplate ratings of the appliances when you shop for them and set yourself a "budget" of 2000 watts total for appliances that will be operated at the same time. 2 - Use a power strip with a 15 amp breaker built in so that in the event of an overload you can handle the problem right there - unplug something and reset the breaker on the power strip; instead of tripping the building's breaker box.

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

If your hot water pot has a large mouth, you can use it as a small sauce pan for simple stuff. I used to boiled eggs, make noodles, and heat various canned stuff in mine (I didn't have access to a microwave).

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

Last year I stayed in a dorm and all I had to "cook" with was an electric hot water kettle. I got so sick of the cafeteria food! We aren't allowed hot plates, or the George Foreman Grill thing, or toasters/toaster ovens, or microwaves. Nothing was said about rice cookers though, so I'm definitely going to have to get one for this year! I'm so glad that I read this, now I just need to get a rice cooker!


Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

Ah. Reminds me of my 5 months nightmare from Feb-July. I had an immersion trip to a college in China, although it's a nice place but my dorm had only a very old microwave, shared by the whole building of students. I don't even have a fridge. Everyday was take-out. (T_T)

Try Rice Noodles!

Believe it or not, rice noodles will cook using only the water from a water boil-pot (kum-kum). Just boil the water, leave the water in them for a few minutes and that's it! They're super cheap and widely available=)

I like my rice noodles with sweet-sour sauce from a bottle, soy with pickled ginger or teryiaki.

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

Any type of grill/toaster/microwave oven is normally prohibited in a dorm room. I'm stuck to the water heater thing and a microwave.

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