When I was back home this past weekend, the college town where my parents live was filled with returning and brand-new college students. It was strange, and made me feel significantly older, to walk through the neighborhood I used to roam so confidently when I was a college student, and to have to weave my way past the throngs of eager college freshmen with their iPods and hip clothes and too tight T-shirts.
The school where I teach is filled with new students, too. For the first time in years, I am teaching freshmen again--and loving it. I’m reminded, too, of just how daunting and frightening college can be to young men and women who are away from home for the first time in their young lives. This was brought home to me after introductions on the first day of classes, when a young woman admitted to the whole class that she’s homesick. She’s also a vegetarian, and has been for two years now. She’s health-conscious and has worked hard to learn about nutrition and diet, and doesn’t want it all to go out the window now that she’s in college. When she discovered I was a vegetarian, too, her eyes lit up. After class she told me that she’s having a hard time finding things to eat on campus, and with access to only a microwave in her dorm, she’s stumped about how to cook healthy vegetarian food for breakfast, snacks, and easy dinners. She’s never lived away from home before, and without a food co-op nearby, or a vegetarian-friendly grocery store within walking distance, she feels lost and frustrated.
The mother in me melted at her distress. I promptly offered to take her to Whole Foods after class. And to research college-friendly vegetarian recipes and healthy microwave cooking options. And to help her with tips and tricks for surviving the first semester of the nutritionally-bankrupt college diet of Ramen noodles, Cheez Whiz, and pints of Ben & Jerry’s. And to solicit advice from my readers. When I did some initial searching, I did find some sites like this one geared towards inexpensive and simple "one-pot" cooking, but nothing that would help a college student in a dorm, with rules against crock pots and hot plates, and no access to a stove. And while I did find this cookbook, on vegetarian microwave cooking, and this site on spending a day with tofu (have you done this yet? Everyone should spend a day with tofu) there wasn't much else out there. I don’t know how many of my readers are dealing with college life either personally or secondhand, but these tips might help anyone struggling to find inexpensive and healthy meal options on a limited budget and with limited time.
My student has a mini fridge, fortunately, and here's what we stocked it with:
Hummus for protein (hummus is a great filler to take the edge off hunger for a light lunch or mid-meal snacking—kids love it, too, and you can do crazy things with it, like stick halved black olives in it for eyes, and carrot matchstick noses and parsley mouths).
Yogurts are must-haves, especially for college students or busy teenagers. My student bought a couple of tubs of vanilla yogurt, and I suggested sprinkling granola over a bowl of yogurt for a quick and healthy breakfast or, my favorite: dump the yogurt in a bowl and drizzle honey over the top. For a protein/energy kick, add a handful of chopped walnuts or almonds.
Tofu-2-Go. This is the best invention ever. Trader Joe’s sells another equally yummy kind of precooked tofu, but you get more tofu for your money with the brand my student found at Whole Foods. You can eat it cold, tossed over spinach leaves, or microwave it for about sixty seconds and eat it over rice (more on rice below). You can also slice it lengthwise and stuff a wrap with it for a healthy lunch. They sell it in the refrigerated section of Whole Foods, along with the soy "lunch meat" and regular brick tofu.
Microwave rice pouches. These are also the best invention ever. We eat a lot of rice at our house, but if you don’t have a stove or a pan, or if your older kids need a quick dinner or a more filling after-school snack, the rice pouches are perfect. You can buy frozen brown rice pouches at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and other health-food stores. My student bought several vegetarian-friendly rice pouches, and she's planning to top the rice with tofu or a handful of sugar-snap peas, for a light meal.
Lavash bread, or tortillas. We love Lavash bread--it looks like this:
You can make the best healthy and filling wraps with a single "sheet" of Lavash Bread. If you're having trouble finding Lavash bread, tortillas work great as well. You just have to microwave them for about 20 seconds to warm and soften them. I gave my student this recipe suggestion for making a wrap:
Spread hummus and/or guacamole liberally over one half of the Lavash bread/tortilla. Add a piece of sliced cheese, or a handful of shredded cheese. Add any additional chopped veggies--spinach, cucumbers, peppers, sprouts--if it looks good, throw it in there. I like to chop up olives, and Scott likes a sprinkle of jalapeno or hot peppers in his wraps. For more protein, you can go crazy with the chick peas, or sliced marinated or seasoned tofu, or just stick with the hummus. Top with oil and vinegar or, better yet, tamari dressing. Note: tamari is NOT soy sauce, so don't confuse the two. Unlike soy sauce, the soy beans used for tamari are not fermented with wheat, making tamari dressing a good alternative for those with wheat allergies. I also think tamari dressing tastes better than plain soy sauce. Next, fold the sides in, egg-roll style, before you start rolling--this will keep everything in your wrap in place. Roll it up, cut in the middle, and enjoy!
My student also came away from our shopping experience with several bags of rice cakes, a jar of sunflower butter (amazingly delicious, addictive, wonderful stuff--and now my student is hooked), a jar of peanut butter, a box of rice crackers, several bags of assorted dried fruits and nuts (perfect for tossing onto cereal or yogurt), a loaf of bread, and...a bus schedule. I wish I could take her shopping every week, but, of course, college is all about independence and resourcefulness, isn't it?