Cooking can be the best lesson learned in college

No cream is used in this tomato soup. Instead, bread and olive oil emulsify in the blender with the other ingredients to create the rich texture.
No cream is used in this tomato soup. Instead, bread and olive oil emulsify in the blender with the other ingredients to create the rich texture. The Washington Post

The start of the school year brings a serious dilemma for today’s college students, far beyond which major or roommate to choose: whether to invest in the dining plan or pick up a spatula. With rising college costs dogging families, the decision can have a considerable financial impact. A meal plan can cost around $3,000 per year; with smart budgeting, cooking meals instead could cost half as much, or even less.

Even as college campuses are scrambling to offer increased options on dining hall menus, from vegan breakfast burritos to hand-rolled sushi, dormitories and on-campus apartments are being outfitted with full kitchens, making it easier for students to ditch the meal plan.

For my daughter, a theater arts major whose irregular rehearsal schedule does not always mesh with dining hall hours, moving from the dorm into a campus apartment with a kitchen after freshman year offered her a chance to eat on her own time – and required a crash course in basic cooking skills. A heads-up for other parents: Teach your kids how to cook real food – not just microwave meals – before it’s required for actual survival.

For gluten-free chef and blogger Phoebe Lapine, 30, the switch to home-cooked meals when she moved into an apartment for her junior year at Brown University was a welcome change and a valuable rite of passage.

“It’s an important part of your pre-real-world education,” Lapine says in an email. “The first year out of college is one of the hardest for a 20-something. Many are moving to new cities, working long hours at entry-level jobs and learning to take care of basic needs on limited salaries. Knowing how to cook is a huge leg up.”

Priya Krishna, 25, started thinking creatively about cooking during her freshman year at Dartmouth College. “The dining hall is like a restaurant that you’re forced to eat at every night,” she says. “They are enormous feeding centers, and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. That’s why students start getting resentful about their meal plan.” Her solution was to consider how to “cook” inside the dining hall itself, using the available ingredients in new ways. That resulted in her cookbook, “Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks” (Storey Publishing, $10.95, 128 pages).

“I did have a kitchen,” says Krishna, who lives in New York, “but I didn’t cook that often because I didn’t have time. I liked having the dining hall as a resource.”

Lapine, also a New York resident, agrees that time is the enemy for college students rushing between classes, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs while keeping up with schoolwork. “The grocery store was a 15-minute drive away,” she says. “Outside the college bubble, that seems close. But in campus life, that might as well have been a different city.” Because she went grocery shopping only every few weeks, shelf-stable and frozen food became Lapine’s go-to meal starters.

“Cooking with humble shelf-stable ingredients gave me a real appreciation for the simple act of throwing together a meal from cans, jars and freezer bags,” says Lapine. “It was very different from the meals I saw going down on Food Network, yet just as satisfying.”

Krishna’s approach, cooking within the dining hall itself, involved learning to mix and match items from different food stations, such as combining peanut butter, soy sauce, Sriracha and sugar to create a Thai-style peanut sauce for plain noodles. “Don’t be confined by the station,” she says.

Because outfitting and maintaining a kitchen can be an expensive endeavor, both Krishna and Lapine recommend investing in a few key pieces of equipment: a sharp knife, a skillet and a stockpot are a good start. And they advise building a pantry of canned tomatoes and beans, frozen peas and spinach, and dried pasta and rice, along with fresh items such as bread, eggs, onions, potatoes, carrots, lemon and garlic, whose shelf life can be extended with proper storage.

Sheet pan Moroccan spaghetti squash

Serves 2 to 4

While a spaghetti squash can look a little daunting because of its thick yellow skin, it is actually not that hard to cut through with a sharp knife. Just start at the stem and push the knife around lengthwise until you get back to the stem on the other side; the squash should then easily split into two.

Spaghetti squash has a pleasing texture that, yes, does mimic spaghetti, but with a buttery flavor. Roasting the chickpeas and the currants on the baking sheet with the squash gives them a toasty, caramelized flavor, while the spaghetti squash seeds add crunch.

Adapted from a recipe by Suzannah Schneider on

1 spaghetti squash (about 4 pounds), cut in half lengthwise, seeds reserved

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the seeds

15 ounces canned/cooked no-salt-added chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1/2 cup currants

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon seasoning blend, like Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute


Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place the squash, cut sides down, on a baking sheet.

Coat the squash seeds with a little oil, then spread them around the squash halves. Roast for 15 minutes, or until the inverted squash halves are almost tender.

Meanwhile, toss together the chickpeas, currants, garlic, seasoning blend and 2 tablespoons of oil in a mixing bowl until evenly coated.

After the squash and seeds have roasted for 15 minutes, spread the chickpea mixture around the squash on the baking sheet; return to the oven and roast for 15 minutes or until the squash is softened to the touch.

Transfer to the stove top (off the heat). Invert the squash halves. Use a fork to shred the squash flesh into noodle-like strands.

Top with the chickpea mixture and the roasted squash seeds. Season lightly with salt and pepper; serve right away.

Per serving (based on 4): 400 calories, 11 g protein, 68 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 350 mg sodium, 14 g dietary fiber, 29 g sugar

Fast blender tomato soup

Serves 4

This creamy soup has a secret: There’s no cream – or even butter – in it. Instead, bread and olive oil emulsify in the blender with the other ingredients to create a rich texture, making it easy to put together with a handful of pantry ingredients in just a few minutes.

The original recipe was made using a high-powered blender, such as a Vitamix, which has the capacity to both heat and blend the soup; it has been adapted here for a standard blender. You will just need to finish the soup on the stove after it’s blended to allow the flavors to meld.

Make ahead: The soup can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.

Adapted from a recipe by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, managing culinary director at

1/3 cup olive oil

1 clove garlic

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 slice white or whole-wheat bread (crusts removed), torn into 1-inch pieces

28 ounces canned, no-salt-added whole peeled tomatoes, plus their juices

1 cup no-salt-added vegetable broth

1 teaspoon seasoning blend, such as Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute


Freshly ground black pepper

Combine the oil, garlic, onion, bread pieces, the tomatoes and their juices, the broth and seasoning blend in a blender; begin to blend on low, then gradually increase to high until pureed and smooth.

Pour into a medium saucepan; cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes, stirring a few times. Taste, and season with salt and pepper, as needed.

Serve warm.

Per serving: 270 calories, 3 g protein, 22 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 560 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar

Sheet pan chicken fajitas

Serves 4 to 6

Five minutes of prep yields a flavorful dinner with little cleanup, thanks to a sheet pan and a handful of ingredients. Tossing the chicken and vegetables with the vinaigrette allows for some extra layers of flavor, although vegetable oil will work fine. Flank steak, pork tenderloin or portobello mushrooms can be substituted for the chicken with no change to the cooking method.

Adapted from a recipe on the Whole Foods Market website.

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (no tenderloins), cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

2 green bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced

1 medium red onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons basic red wine vinaigrette or vegetable oil

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 teaspoon salt

6 flour tortillas, warmed, for serving

Sour cream, for serving

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Toss together the chicken, peppers, onion, garlic, vinaigrette or oil, chili powder and salt in a large mixing bowl until evenly coated. Spread on a large, rimmed baking sheet and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until vegetables are tender and chicken is cooked through, stirring halfway through cooking.

During the last 5 minutes of baking, wrap tortillas in aluminum foil and place in the oven until warmed through, or wrap the stack of tortillas in clean, damp paper towels and microwave on HIGH for 1 minute.

Divide the fajita mixture among warm tortillas; serve warm with sour cream.

Per serving (based on 6, using vinaigrette): 140 calories, 18 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar