by Marty Demarest
So, your wardrobe's selected -- whether it's thrift- shop chic or downtown casual -- and you have a pretty good idea about what classes you're going to take and which activities you'll try to fit into your schedule. You probably even have the really important things like your CD collection whittled down to dorm-room proportions, and major decisions like "Do I dump my summertime boyfriend/girlfriend?" settled. But stop for a moment before you plunge head-first into campus life, and answer the question "How am I going to eat?"
In theory, your chosen institute of higher learning will have offered you a meal plan. Those two words -- "meal" and "plan" -- strung together with such seemingly insouciant charm, are actually a good representation of what you can expect. Meals are not going to necessarily qualify as food, much less the type of food you may want to eat. And a plan might not exactly fit the lifestyle you'll find yourself leading once you arrive on campus.
Cooking for yourself on campus isn't as daunting as it sounds, and the rewards may just end up keeping you a little healthier and stress-free during your academic years. The only question that you need to answer is: "How much cooking do I want to do for myself?"
Even students enrolled in a school's meal plan will find it convenient to rent a small refrigerator (most colleges have connections with a company that does this) and invest in some resealable plastic containers. A few of these, smuggled into the dining hall, can be filled with food for later consumption when you know you're going to have to miss a meal or two. They can also be used to store any leftovers from cooking sessions that you try on your own. And if you get really lucky and a roommate's parents take you out to eat, they make taking leftovers from the restaurant a realistic option.
For the more ambitious campus cooks, or those who have dietary concerns that they feel will not be met by the meal plan, it's essential to find out exactly what type of cooking facility will be available. Even a small kitchen, equipped with a few burners and a sink, can work if you know how to use it right.
The first and most crucial step is to find out who else plans to use the kitchen, and what standards everyone is comfortable with keeping. Some dorms have no problem with dishes in the sink, while others would prefer that cleanup takes place quickly. Set your rules early, and do your best to follow them. And in the process of talking kitchen, you may find that your fellow residents are willing to share cooking and shopping duties, making the experience more of a communal effort than a solitary one.
It's because of these potential last-minute changes that stocking the college kitchen should be a late activity. By convincing your parents, or simply saving the money yourself, to go on a cheap kitchen-ware shopping trip after you've settled in, you'll be able to get only what you need. If a housemate has a set of pots and pans, and they're willing to share, don't bother purchasing your own. The same with a good chopping knife, some bowls and a few dishes. Avoid the appliance section; juicers, waffle irons and bread machines can be great additions, but more often than not they'll just get in the way.
Finally, it's time to worry about food. One of the first things you should do while you're familiarizing yourself with your new surroundings is take a walk to the nearest grocery store. When you're making purchases, avoid the tantalizing fresh produce unless you know what you're doing; heads of lettuce, bunches of broccoli and packs of spinach tend to spoil if they're not cooked or prepared promptly. The same holds true for bread. These are the healthy foods, it's true, but you're just throwing money away unless you're going to eat them soon. Instead, try to keep a few cans of tomatoes and pre-made soups, a few pounds of dried pasta, some rice, some salt, olive oil and cereal around. Buy the smallest cartons of milk that you can find. Don't go overboard at first -- it's better to learn what you'll realistically eat than spend money on food that's going to go unused.
If you're really serious about preparing your own meals, but you don't have a strong background in cooking, the slim and witty The (Reluctant, Nervous, Lazy, Broke, Busy, Confused) College Student's Cookbook is a great way to start. A more sophisticated approach can be found in The Healthy College Cookbook. Both titles assume that you know almost nothing about cooking, but experienced cooks will find the advice on shopping and storing food and ingredients useful as well. In Spokane, the Cook's Dream has offered a "Crash Course in Cooking" in the past.
Even if you're a serious cook already and have no qualms about tackling dorm dining, be realistic with yourself. If most of your classes are early morning, or you're in a sport like crew that requires you to be active before most of your friends are conscious, you may want to join the college meal plan for only breakfast. If you live off campus and have classes all day long, consider joining the lunch plan. Skipping meals isn't healthy, and fast food restaurants and delis will probably cost you more over time than a relatively small payment to the school.
To whatever extent you take campus cooking, however, try to keep a few things handy: the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies (along with a bowl, a spoon and a cookie sheet) and the phone number for a decent pizza place that delivers. Sometimes, they're the only things that will work in a pinch.