Defeating the Dining Hall

Think outside the norm.
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

The university food situation is a love-or-hate relationship between student and dining hall. While many college applicants decide upon their school based on academics or housing, others choose based solely on the dining hall. It entices them with an almost unlimited amount of food, and they don’t even have to pay the check.

Pizza day is every day.

Some new arrivals spend every moment of their free time soaking in the experience of so much food and so little plate space.

But — two weeks later — the magic is gone.

The pizza looks as though it were made of plastic, the hamburgers drip with grease, everything on the salad bar starts to taste like chemicals. And oh, look, they’re serving that weird lo mein dish again.

Students resort to spending all their M&G on a carton of waffle fries at Chick-fil-A or a meatball marinara foot-long at Subway, just to taste something moderately different.

And then there are those who love to cook but are inhibited by dirty communal kitchens and the few microwaveable meals in their budget: Top Ramen, Kraft Easy Mac and Hot Pockets.

Escape from the dining hall drudgery can seem impossible. The hungry forager is buried in fleeting suggestions about microwaveable options on Facebook and Twitter.

But here are some suggestions to cultivate your own college cuisine.

Think outside the microwave

Sure, you can buy the freezer-burnt Lean Cuisine lasagnas and the Betty Crocker Warm Delights brownies, but where is the fun in that? Wouldn’t you rather taste lasagna made with wonton-wrapper noodles, or homemade brownies made in a coffee mug?

Experimentation with strange ingredients is just part of the fun of unconventional cooking. Substitute ingredients can inspire a new staple in your college diet. For example, instead of making homemade meringue from egg whites, use a meringue cookies on lemon pudding in tartlet shells for a makeshift lemon meringue pie. A new, weird idea could either gratify or aggravate your taste buds. Either way, you'll have something to look back and laugh about.

The Greek salad converts to ramen in this refreshing Mediterranean dish.
Photo illustration by Taylor Lineberger

This Midwestern dish will warm the soul after a long day in the classroom.
Photo illustration by Taylor Lineberger


Spice and dice

Load your favorite spices, sauces and seasonings into your favorite packaged microwaveable foods for a new and different flavor. After all, a small bottle of basil costs around $1.75 and you only use about one tablespoon at a time. Try adding some oregano to your Easy Mac or some Sriracha to your ramen. Load up on veggies from your dining hall’s salad bar and add them to your favorite microwaveable pasta dishes. Spices and sauces don’t cost much and last for a long time, so you can continue to experiment.

When your budget won’t allow for an order of Buffalo wings, this dish will help curb the craving during Sunday football.
Photo illustration by Taylor Lineberger

Reject the heavy, sluggish dining hall cuisine for this lighter alternative.
Photo illustration by Taylor Lineberger


Practical portions

The hardest part about deciding to pursue an out-of-the-box meal in your dorm room is the prospect of spending your meager funds on rotten vegetables and weird sauces.

You can overcome this feeling by discovering different ways to use the same ingredients. There are at least 100 ways to incorporate spaghetti sauce into dorm room meals and at least ten processed meals that would taste ten times better with fresh vegetables. The presence of ingredients in your refrigerator will motivate you to explore your personal menu. Who knows, maybe you’ll end up drudging over to the dining hall less than you expected. Which is good, because you probably need a break from it right about now.

Give your ramen a marinara makeover.
Photo illustration by Taylor Lineberger


Break the carbohydrate coma by adding the vegetables we sometimes miss when rushing to classes.
Photo illustration by Taylor Lineberger

Fridge/freezer magic

Another excuse to revert to the depths of the dining hall may lie in the time it takes to prepare these meals. But your proactivity will pay off in the long run. Take some time to chop vegetables and store them in plastic bags, or prepare ramen and save it for later in the refrigerator. There they will stay for you to add to your dishes or warm up as you please, in a matter of minutes.

You can also get creative with your freezer. Purchase swizzle stick ice cube trays at the beginning of the year and freeze your favorite yogurt or juice for homemade popsicles. You can also freeze any ingredients you don’t think you will use immediately in plastic bags and thaw them out when you’re craving them. Dorm room food must be quick, tasty and flexible with limited supplies. Preparing ahead of time will ensure that you are ready for all of these guidelines during the 3 a.m. hunger attack.

Escape to Italy with this tangy combination of tomatoes, basil and mozzarella.
Photo illustration by Taylor Lineberger

Pasta salads of summers past inspired this zesty assemblage.
Photo illustration by Taylor Lineberger


Bring the right equipment

Sure, everyone will flaunt that designer Target plate and the portable coffee mug. But in order to expand your meal possibilities, you’ll need to bring equipment with multiple uses. While the designer plates and portable mugs are pretty snazzy, make sure you bring a microwaveable plate for your pizzas and a regular mug for your brownies. Tupperware containers and plastic bags will prove to be more helpful than just keeping your staples and paper clips in one place. And don’t underestimate the quirky utensils like soup bowls that come fully equipped with soupspoons and chopsticks. These accessories will benefit your new-fangled fast food a bigger and your college experience.

While it may seem like too much effort to cook from a dorm room, the time you take to be creative outside of the dining hall is priceless. The food will taste a thousand times better than something you glopped onto your plate in the dining hall, and a million times better than something you tore out of a cardboard box. So, if you are still gung-ho about the dining hall then by all means stretch those pre-paid meal plans. But when you get tired of the dining hall cookery, as you inevitably will, try some of these and rejoice at your newfound culinary skills.

Top Ramen directions specify the need of a pot and a stove. Use these revised directions when a microwave is your only appliance.
Photo illustration by Taylor Lineberger

This take on Asian noodles will give you the spicy kick you’ll need when writing that midterm essay.
Photo illustration by Taylor Lineberger


Reach the writer at or via Twitter @mackenziemicro


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