Partying until all hours of the night, cramming for tests, and awkward welcome week ice breakers are all part of the college freshman year experience. What doesn’t have to be part of that experience is settling for boring, bland, or just plain sub-par dining experiences.
Enter Priya Krishna, who has unlocked the secrets to gaming the college meal plan system in her book Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks, which details 75 easy recipes for spicing up the meals and ingredients that you’ll find in most any college dining hall, from four-ingredient eggs carbonara in the morning and spinach artichoke grilled cheese for lunch (put that panini press to good use!), to cheesy “polenta” for dinner (here, polenta means oatmeal with mushrooms and melted cheese on top) and an easy chocolate bread pudding for dessert (pour chocolate milk on top of bread and microwave it. Really!)
We talked to Krishna, food writer and recent graduate of Dartmouth College, about some of her favorite tips and recipes.
What is your general advice to a college student who walks into his or her school cafeteria and feels underwhelmed by the choices, or overwhelmed by so much pizza and fries?
Always start by walking around the dining hall and surveying the choices. Take it all in, the good and the bad. If you are overwhelmed, try zeroing in on a single meal profile (like stir fry, or tacos), or if you find yourself in an all-you-can-eat situation, take a little bit of everything. You can always go back and take more of what you like. If you are underwhelmed, try taking something basic (like pasta, or a simple sandwich) and jazzing it up with condiments, like olive oil, chili sauce, or pesto.
What’s the easiest way to eat healthy in a school cafeteria?
Go tray-less! This prevents you from loading up excess food on your tray that you probably won’t eat. That way, you can focus on making sure your plate at hand is well distributed among the different food groups. Also, balance out unhealthy dessert items with things like fruit and yogurt. Some examples: take a small brownie and load lots of strawberries on top, or take half a piece of pie and put a lot of vanilla yogurt on the side. You’ll satisfy your sweet tooth and not feel cheated.
What should college students keep in their dorm room for food emergencies besides ramen and Easy Mac?
Nuts, apples (they keep longer than other fruits), peanut butter (the kind with no added sugar, to prevent you from straight spooning out of the jar), and plain yogurt. I also like keeping a bar of dark chocolate, you know, for emergencies. And maybe some string cheese.
Which is your favorite recipe in the book?
I am really partial to the dessert recipes because I think that in a dining hall, dessert allows you to be particularly creative. You can combine most sweet things with other sweet things and the result will almost always be pretty tasty. One of my favorites is the bread pudding recipe. There are two iterations, chocolate and apple cinnamon, and with a dollop of ice cream on top, this dish always has that freshly baked taste even though it is made in a microwave.
Are there any quick fixes to making food in college cafeterias taste better?
The foolproof way to make a savory dish taste better: melt cheese on it. Crusty, melted cheese is one of life’s greatest treasures.
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Joanna Fantozzi is an Associate Editor with The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter@JoannaFantozzi