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.
"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.
For Slotkin, cooking nutritious meals is possible because her dorm features a kitchenette in each room. She and her roommate shop for groceries every week.
Other schools offer shared kitchens. Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, Conn., has added new suite-style residence halls that provide eight to 10 students with their own kitchens. And at Sarah Lawrence College, all students have access to cooking facilities in common areas of residence halls. "In the interests of sustainability, we discourage small individual refrigerators as they are huge energy users," says Micheal Rengers, vice president of operations.
A few colleges even give cooking classes. A popular program sponsored by residence assistants at Delaware Valley College teaches students how to cook creatively and nutritiously with microwaves. Each room is equipped with a micro-fridge – a small fridge-freezer-microwave combination.
When schools allow appliances, Stern recommends those that turn themselves off. "Most rice cookers have a mechanism inside that detects when food is cooked enough," she says. "Then it switches to warming mode."
In the cooking classes she conducts for college-bound high school seniors, Stern points out the versatility of appliances. "We made an amazing Greek lemon soup called avgolemono in a rice cooker," she says. "You can even cook pasta in it." She likes blenders for making hummus, which she calls a high-protein, low-fat snack.
Even as students savor the pleasure of dorm cooking, some schools are revamping dining halls and menus to give them fresh appeal and greater sophistication. "The level of culinary literacy has definitely been elevated in the last 10 years as students have lived or traveled in other parts of the world," says Monica Zimmer of Sodexo, which handles food service for 600 campuses.
Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., renovated the dining hall this past summer to make it more convenient. Instead of traditional cafeteria lines and precooked foods, the dining room offers cooked-to-order items at food stations – a trend in the industry. It serves continuously from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. – no separate breakfast, lunch, and dinner hours – to accommodate both early risers and athletes eating dinner late in the evening after practice.
Yet dormitory dining retains an irresistible appeal for students such as Kristopher Zelesky, a sophomore at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. "For my family and me, dinner has always been intimate, social, and nourishing," he says. "Many of my friends come from similar families. We re-create the institution in our dorm room, cooking each other meals and sharing some of our favorite recipes on the weekends."
Although Slotkin sometimes eats in the dining hall, she prefers to prepare her own meals. "The dorm kitchens are only beneficial if you use them," she says. "Otherwise they're a waste of space."
The Greek name of this soup is avgolemono.
8 cups chicken broth
1/3 cup Italian pastina (tiny pasta)
2 large eggs
Juice of 1 to 2 lemons
Salt and white pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or chives for garnish (optional)
Bring chicken broth to a boil in a rice cooker. Add the pastina and simmer until tender.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs until frothy and thoroughly mix in the lemon juice. Slowly add a ladleful of the soup to the egg mixture and mix thoroughly.
Pour this back into the rice cooker slowly, still stirring constantly. Taste and add salt and white pepper to taste.
Switch the rice cooker to "warm" and cook soup gently, stirring all the time, until it thickens. 8 servings.
– Recipe courtesy of Michelle Stern.