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College cooking beyond ramen

To save money and time, many college students cook creatively in their dorms.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 2008

Friends at Loyola University in New Orleans make wontons and spring rolls in a dorm.

Ann Hermes/The Christian science Monitor/file

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When it's dinnertime at George Washington University, most students head to the dining hall. Not Rebecca Slotkin. She and her roommate are more likely to be in their room, cooking everything from veggie burgers and pasta to fresh vegetables.

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"College food is usually described as ramen noodles and Easy Mac," says Ms. Slotkin, a sophomore. "We've just taken it to a whole new level."

Call it dining à la dorm, an increasingly popular activity on campuses. Armed with simple ingredients, small appliances, and a measure of culinary creativity, some students, like Slotkin, cook because they want nutritious food and a change from institutional fare. Others use microwaves and minifridges as a convenient way to eat in a hurry or satisfy a hankering for snacks during late-night study sessions.

Whatever the motivation, their interest is spawning classes in dorm-room cooking and books such as "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the College Diet Cookbook."

"Students are pressured for time," says Michelle Stern, owner of What's Cooking, a cooking school in the San Francisco area. "They'll often choose foods that are more convenient than healthy. That, combined with the fact that they're studying hard and are sedentary, can contribute to the 'freshman 15,' " the legendary first-year weight gain.

To prevent that, Ms. Stern encourages students to consider their food choices. "If they cook and prepare some of their own foods, they're the ones in control of ingredients," she says. "When they're starving and the dining room is closed, instead of ramen noodles or middle-of-the-night pizza delivery, they can take matters into their own hands. Even though they can make things that are fast and simple, they don't have to sacrifice nutrition."

Many colleges allow microwaves and minifridges in rooms. Some prohibit toaster ovens, crockpots, and coffee makers with hot plates, citing safety concerns. That doesn't stop students from keeping contraband appliances in closets and under beds. Noting the popularity of George Foreman grills in dormitories at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., Paul Kingsbury, director of residence life, says, "We don't permit them in the residence halls for safety reasons. It's probably the most common appliance violation."

Andrew Magrini, a junior at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., calls his microwave "my best friend" when he can't make it to the dining hall for a meal. "I stock up on Hot Pockets and minipizzas and simply throw them into the microwave for a few minutes before running out the door with the food searing hot in my hands," he says.

That fondness for speedy fare is widespread. "Most students still trend toward making junk food in the microwave instead of anything healthy," says Shawn Farner, a senior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He pleads guilty himself, noting that his refrigerator's tiny freezer compartment is full of Bagel Bites.

Still, dormitory cooking has come a long way since the 1980s, when Karen Samuels attended the University of Virginia and students were not allowed to have cooking devices in their rooms. She devised a way to make grilled cheese sandwiches with her iron, calling it "a sort of early panini."

Her recipe: Butter the outside of each bread slice, slap cheese in the middle, and wrap tightly in foil. Haul out the iron and ironing board, or cover the desk with a towel. Place a pillowcase or other thin material over the foil wrapping, press the heated iron onto the sandwich, flip it over, and repeat until desired crunchiness and melt are achieved. "Those were among the best grilled cheese sandwiches I have ever had," says Ms. Samuels, of Los Angeles.