Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

Rubbery eggs. Stale, limp lettuce. Questionably cooked meat.

College dining halls are a step-up from high school cafeterias, but only by so much. Most are still pretty disgusting; sometimes, it’s less that the food is spoiled or undercooked, and more that it’s just plain bland. College is full of exciting, new experiences—-shouldn’t this apply to the food?

But, you ask, what other options are there? Most college students can’t afford to eat out for every meal, or even most meals. If you live in hall-style dorms, you probably don’t have ready access to a kitchen either, and microwave easy-mac gets old fast.

It takes a little work, but if your palette is screaming for bold, fresh variety, you can find good food on any budget.

Economize when and where you go out

Eating at a restaurant or ordering food to-go are probably the most expensive dining options around campus. You may treat eating-out as a luxury, reserved for nice, $10+ a meal restaurants and special occasions.

But don’t forget about the cheaper options around campus that can add a little variety to your dining hall routine. I’m not encouraging you to eat Chik-fil-A’s fried chicken and milkshakes every day. Find cheap, local spots or chains that offer healthy options along with the occasional indulgence.

It’s easy to forget to balance meals in college, between scant options and the impulse to stress eat fatty or starchy foods. Incorporating vegetables, fruits, proteins, complex carbs and fats into your meals every day will help your body stay healthy and agreeable.

Mexican restaurants usually do a good job of incorporating vegetables and protein into their dishes. Most chains offer salads as either main dishes or side options for their heftier items, like burgers and pasta. Some offer desserts, smoothies, or yoghurt incorporating fruit if they don’t offer fresh fruit by itself.

Improper diet can make you feel bloated and sluggish and can contribute to a slew of health problems down the road. You’ll be happier the happier your body is with the fuel you put in it.

Many restaurants will have weekly deals, days where certain menu items are cheaper or you get discounts for buying multiple dishes. Do your research and coordinate with friends to make eating out an affordable and social way to get decent food for once.

Make the most of your dorm appliances

If you don’t have access to a fully equipped kitchen, you are most likely allowed to have a mini-fridge and microwave in your room. While it’s easy to think these items are only good for cooling drinks and cooking cups of ramen, they can be used for much, much more.

A quick google search or perusal of Pinterest will give you a lot of options for ways to cook flavorful and diverse meals in the microwave, beyond frozen dinners.
You can make pasta in a mug or microwavable bowl by cooking it in water until it boils off, then adding your own cheese or tomato sauce. You can steam vegetables in cracked tupperware to incorporate into pasta or to eat separately. You can make quesadillas, scrambled eggs, oatmeal, soup, even baked potatoes.

Desserts are also an option. Mug-cakes are a recent craze and can be made in all kinds of flavors, from lava to s’mores to peanut butter. You can keep yoghurt or ice cream in a mini-fridge, both of which taste great mixed with fresh fruit.

Fresh fruit you can trust is often lacking in dining halls but is something easy and convenient to keep in your dorm room, if you know where to shop. Most college towns have more than one grocery or convenience store, and finding the right balance between cost and freshness is key. Buying in bulk can usually help with cost, but keep in mind expiration dates and how much room you have in your mini-fridge.

Get creative with dining hall options

The cheapest but probably least appealing option is to simply make do with your dining hall options, but with a twist.

Instead of sticking with the bland chicken, green beans and biscuit dished out at a single meal station, mix and match between stations for more favorable and flavorful combinations. You can get really creative with standard offerings, like bread, bagels, spreads, and toppings with specialties.

Try making bagel sandwiches with cheese, eggs, bacon, and sausage. Or salads with pasta and fruit. Add seasonings and hot sauce for added flavor and kick. You can make special desserts by warming up baked goods and adding ice cream, or adding ice cream to soda for floats.

Dining halls may take away your appetite at times, but it’s important for your physical and mental health to eat full, balanced meals every day. You can make options more appealing and find affordable alternatives with a little creativity and effort.

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the author

Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Kate is currently adjusting to cooler climes as a first year at the University of Virginia. A prospective pre-med student, she enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics and contributes to her school newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, as a Health & Science writer. She mentors youth as a tennis coach and spends her free time on the piano, playing anything from Rachmaninov to the theme from The Chronicles of Narnia. An aspiring hiker, she hopes to one day complete a trek on every continent.

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