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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Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

Boy, is this bringing back memories! I went to college in the dark ages before microwaves and Foreman grilles - dorm room refrigerators were a distant rumor -- and the one cooking appliance everyone had was a popcorn popper. I haven't seen one like those in years: basically a tall aluminum pot with a heating element in the base and a glass lid. To make popcorn you put oil in the bottom, tossed in the popcorn, and clapped the lid on before it sprayed all over the room. Frying in that thing was an experience, as it was at least 10" deep, but it was great for making soup or cooking pasta or rice. Oh, word of warning: Pillsbury refrigerator rolls do not make good dumplings!

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

As a college student off of the godsforsaken meal plan I have found two appliances to be the singularly most useful things ever: a crock pot and a rice cooker.

A Crock pot is great because you can do everything in your room. Roughly peel and chop potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions then put them in the pot with some water. Add cubed and trimmed chuck with some McCormic hearty beef stew slow cooker seasoning packet and you are all set. By following the instructions on the back you have ~15USD meal that will last for a week of you use rice too and you can leave it in the crock pot on warm and just add water to keep it from drying out.

Rice cooker is obvious and over explained above.

Good luck, if you are in something bigger than a small village you will be fine.

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

Hard boiled eggs
Veggies are a must
Use the grill to make toasted pannini sandwhiches

Heck, I've even see a recipe on NaNoWriMo for how to make chocolate cake in a coffee cup using a microwave....

You don't need an electric rice cooker. A cheap $10 plastic one from Target works just as well and you can use it to steam veggies heat soup or as a bowl when you don't have any clean bowls on hand. I bought one for my BF when he was living in an apartment while away on an internship. He loved it because it was easy to use and easy to clean. He just popped it in the dishwasher--perfectly bachelor pad kitchen friendly. I think he also used his a few times to whip up cheesy grits.

Does your dorm have a kitchen anywhere? My dorms always had an oven and stovetop on the 1st floor or in the basement, but just a sink, microwave, and fridge on all the other floors. It was funny, any time I made pancakes or cookies I made a lot of new friends on the elevator back to my floor.

Oh, and make nice with the local shops. We always got great day old bread for sandwhiches from the local sub shop and deli down the block. And the school had it's own farmer's market over to the student union on the right day of the week. It was an engineering/agricultural college, so a lot of the produce was actually from the university land and green houses. We had great fresh green beans in the fridge for snacking most days of the week.

Other things for a dorm kitchen:
a set of plastic cups, plates, bowls (at least bowls... we used bowls a lot, paper towels can pass for plates in a pinch)
a set of metal knives, forks, spoons
hand towels/tea towels
a plastic dishpan (good for hauling your dirty gear to the shared kitchen sink down the hall or, if your room has it's own small sink, to wash dishes in your room)
a can opener--this is a MUST
a flat spatula
assorted spices or spice mixes (like taco seasoning) and broth/flavoring cubes
for spices, hit up the ethnic aisles of the grocery store first. They often have the same spices for 1/2 the price, just in cheaper packaging.
plastic storage for tea/coffee/oatmeal and other pantry good. I had mine stored in 1 of 2 ways at any given time: under the bed, or on the back of my closet door in one of the those over the door shelving things... you could use a clean/new shoe caddy for this purpose if needed.

Shop with friends, then split the supplies of veggies, etc with the others so that no one gets more than they can eat in a week. This saves money, prevents spoilage, and helps you make cooking friends.

If you have a full kitchen in the building:
a cheap cookie sheet/pizza pan
cheap skillet
cheap pot for the stove or a wok

Making your own veggies in you dorm room

Oh i just remembered. If you got a window in your room you can plant tomatoes (tomatoes needs a lot of sunlight so only if the window is on the sunny side of the house) bellpeppers and herbs (basil etc) are very easy to grow! My bf and i do that and it turns out great, much cheaper than bought, loads of fun and tastier. We're also making our own "alfaalfa veggies". Sorry for my bad english, hope you can understand anyway. :P

Planting herbs/bellpeppers etc.
1. Buy a few bellpeppers/chili/tomatoes/herb-seeds from the gardenstore.
If you got pure veggies, eat them up and save the seeds. Put them in a glass of water placed in the window and wash them a few times a day. after a week or so when the seeds got small green sprouts they're ready to be planted. If you got bought seeds move on to planting them.

2. Get a few big teacups or anything made of porcelan. Then go out to the yard/garden/park if there is any and take some soil in a bag with you home (or buy some soil).

3. Plant, Water and let your greens grow! Harvest when ready and never stand there without spices/veggies :D

Your own beansprouts/Alfaalfa/Green lenses etc! (all you need is 5 mins./day during about a week)
1. Buy the alfaalfa-seeds/lenses/mungbeans in a grocery store, in swede they're usally placed nearby the baking-items or cereals. Healthstores that sells natrual "medecine" and food also have these.

2. Get a glass bowl with wide opening (the seeds need lots of air and light to get sprouts) and a piece of a sheet or fabric with similar texture.

3. Wash and let the seeds/beans/lenses soak in some water for an hour or two.

4. Fill the bottom of the bowl with a thin layer of what you want to grow, fill up with water and put the fabric on with rubberbands. Pour the water out immedeatly and rinse until the water becomes clear.

5. Let the seeds rest without water, make sure there is no water left. Then rinse and repeat step 4 and 5 between 2-3 times a day. After about a week or less you got your own homemade veggies! They can be kept in the fridge for about a week until you got new ones! :D

My cookingplate just quit working, so now im considering getting a ricecooker instead. The posibilities of ricecookers seems neverending! Oh and can anyone please tell me what a "hotpot" is?

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

The references to PB&J and instant ramen reminded me of my childhood. Weekday lunches were PB&J and a piece of fruit (sometimes a cookie or a bit of chocolate). Saturday lunch was instant ramen (even as a kid, I hated the little soup packets--more than half of one made it too salty for my tastes). Once a week, we'd go out for fast food or something--the other nights we had Crock-Pot pot roasts with vegetables, pasta, and other generally healthy stuff that didn't take long in the kitchen (mom doesn't like to cook).

Anyway, my dorm room tips, since some dorms have stoves, some don't, and ALL of them seem to have microwaves nowadays:

You can steam vegetables in the microwave if you don't have a stove. Just as healthy as stovetop steaming/boiling, but much faster!

Lazy teriyaki chicken/steak in the microwave:

Buy those frozen, pre-cooked chicken breast or steak strips. Get some straight out of the freezer, put 'em on a small plate, pour on a bit of soy or teriyaki sauce, and microwave for 30-45 seconds. Combined with the steamed veggies, and you have a quick, balanced meal.

If your dorm has a stove, and you own or can borrow a 2-gallon saucepan, here's a good pasta sauce recipe:

- 1 can tomato sauce
- 1/2 can water (no measuring cup required!)
- 1 can mushrooms (leave out if you don't like mushrooms)
- Parsley, basil, oregano, and a wee bit of seasoning salt (roughly 1/4 tsp. of each--you can safely overdo everything but the seasoning salt without ruining the sauce)
- Just enough garlic to cover about half the top of the sauce (I think about 1/2 tsp? Minced is better than garlic powder, but both taste pretty good)
- A wee bit of olive or canola oil, if you like an oily sauce (I don't, so I usually leave this out)

Combine all ingredients; boil for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. Serves 6-8; requires roughly 1.5 lb of spaghetti to go through it all. Total cost, including pasta, is around $10. Meatballs, cut Italian sausage, chickpeas, and parmesan are great ways to add protein (there isn't really any in this by itself).

It's as cheap as cup noodles, but WAY more nutritious. Just make sure to add some kind of protein source, or you'll be starving in an hour.

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

We had some big restrictions in some of the dorms for cooking, but on the other side we had multiple options for on-campus dining. I quickly figured out which dining halls had the tastiest and healthiest foods (one had the better salad bar, another the better breakfast, etc) and which served what dinners and when. Though institutional food definitely has its downsides, what I saw in my mid-90s college was far superior to what my older relatives had described. There had been great strides in making dorm food healthier and tastier, and from what I understand this has improved from what I had. Although my cooking was superior, what the campus offered certainly wasn't bad.

So do some investigations and if possible make on-campus dining part of your routine. If you know that you can zip into this building for a healthy and tasty meal, you'll be less likely to grab junk elsewhere. There will be times when, regardless of your intentions, you won't even have time to go back to the dorm to cook.

In one dorm, we were allowed only a hot plate or coffee maker. This same year, I decided to stay over between semesters when the on-campus dining was shut down. I made a lot of different things in that coffee maker! Your microwave or electric kettle would be even better. Pastas, rice, soups, curries, oatmeal/grits, etc. Anything that involves boiling water can be made in a coffee maker. Anything that involves heating liquids over time can be made in a coffee maker. I bet you could even saute after a fashion with a hot plate. Get creative and don't be afraid to fail! The worst thing that happens is that your resulting dish is disappointing - it's unlikely to be completely inedible.

A large microwave-safe bowl that can also be put on a hot plate would be a great addition to your cooking utensils.

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

It's also worth noting that some universities require full-time students (sometimes not even just the dorm students!) to sign up for a meal plan. If you're on a meal plan and you don't take the time to check out the on-campus options, you're throwing money down the drain. Plus, a lot of campus meal plans don't roll over to the next term either. So use that money up--you've already spent it, after all.

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

I have found a great product by Tefal,
It is a rice cooker but has 8 functions so it can cook white rice, brown rice, casseroles, works as a steamer, can be used as a slow cooker as well as being able to bake cakes!

It may be slightly expensive but it would be worth it.
All those functions taking up on little space would be great!

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

I thought I'd share my experiences as well, as I was living in the dorms for 2 years in Taiwan.
There was no kitchen, so we haven't got anything like a microwave oven or stove. It is a cultural thing in Taiwan, cause they usually eat out everyday, there are lots of families who don't have kitchen at home as well.
Luckily there is one thing everywhere: a water cleaner and fertiliser machine, cause tap water is not drinkable for some reasons, so the hot water part was solved easily.
So this is what I did: the only cooking aid I had in my room (although it was prohibited) was a cheap 3 cup rice cooker and a small grill toaster.
(It all started with my Korean room mates I had for the first few month. They had their rice cooker (similar to the one I bought later) and I often saw them baking chocolate cakes and sweet potatoes in it, not only cooking rice. So I figured I might as well buy a rice cooker. Later I bought the toaster also.)
With these two appliances I could actually cook everything I wanted, and I mean normal meals not instant stuff. (Just like a stove and an oven!) You can cook a huge variety of dishes in any (!) rice cooker including soups, stew, stir-fry, boiling an egg, steaming dumplings or vegetables baking simple cakes or an omelette. Just think of it as an electric stove! And it has a huge benefit also, it won't burn your food!
On the other hand I could bake gratins, grill meat and fish in the toaster, I even managed to bake pastries, muffins and bread in it.
So the only thing I wanted to say is, as long as you've got a fridge and a rice cooker, you can do the same home meal as in a decent kitchen, and you can save huge amounts of money. You just need to be a bit adventurous figuring out your own way to use a rice cooker!
Btw Maki I love your blog keep on writing on it! ^^

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

I don't live in a dorm anymore but sometimes I just don't feel like cooking so I do an antipasto plate. I get a couple different kinds of deli meat, some sliced cheeses, olives, Italian bread or a French bagette and I have a meal. Not the healthiest in the world, but it's great for a snack while studying or a quick bite between classes. Also, if you have a fridge in your room, many grocery stores have pre-packaged potato and pasta salads or salad bars where you can box up your own.

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

Making lunches is a great deal of effort but in hostels where there is no proper place to cook the bento devices serves a lot for the students and students are also satisfied by making lunches in bento devices because this gives reliability and saves time.

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Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

A good alternative to a hotplate is a clothes iron and tin foil. I fried many eggs (and grilled cheese sandwiches) in my day with one.

Re: Making bento lunches in a dorm room

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