[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?