How to turn cafeteria food into the perfect Dinner Hall Gourmet

It’s a college past-time to whine and bitch about dining hall food, but with a little imagination, dorm food doesn’t have to turn your stomach.
Campus CafeteriaSome people hate the idea of eating in a cafeteria. They envision women in hair nets doling out globs of institutional mystery meat, of entree options that involve limited innovation and few fresh ingredients, and of weekly cycles that bring the same tired dishes back to the steam table again and again.

I like to think of cafeterias as creative playgrounds, a well-stocked kitchen where I don’t have to rinse my own lettuce or scrub pots and pans.

It takes a little training and an open mind to escape the tyranny of the cafeteria menu, but it’s well worth it. You may have to eat off a tray, but there comes a point when every employee at the local Domino’s recognizes your voice, when your sodium level soars at the thought of any more Ramen noodles. So let your dining hall table be your kitchen counter and let your mind be your cookbook.

Most dining halls stock all the staples you need to create great meals: pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, bread, rice, cheese, cereal, dressings and sauces. Many dining halls also regularly offer chicken breast, canned tuna, hummus, pita, english muffins, tofu, yogurt and cold cuts. So even if the steam table has haddock du jour for the third day in a row, you’re not stuck.

If you study your school’s salad bar and ask in the kitchen for other basic foods, you’ll always be able to create something delicious. Some good and easy options include pita melts (toss together lettuce, sliced tomato, chopped onions, avocado, salsa and shredded cheddar and microwave it for one minute), chicken sandwiches (just ask for a breast off the grill, toss it in a bun from the bread pantry and add two drops of soy sauce or balsamic vinegar) and yogurt swirls (mix regular yogurt with honey, brown sugar and wheat germ, or with strawberry jam or applesauce and cinnamon).

Don’t wait for the dining hall to serve tuna sala more often — make your own. Grab a can of chunk light and a bowl, and mix in about one teaspoon of mayonnaise or yogurt for every ounce of tuna. (Use more mayonnaise for creamier salad, less for drier salad.) Grab a knife, head for the salad bar and chop up some celery to fold in if you like. Do the same with chopped chicken breast to make chicken salad. Chicken salad tastes especially good mixed with grapes, red onion and sunflower seeds.

Craving pasta? Check the steam table for plain noodles, then head to the salad bar for olive oil. Add parmesan cheese, broccoli, shredded carrots, salt and pepper and you’ve got pasta primavera. Drop onions, mushrooms, olives and artichoke hearts into marinara sauce to give it heft and flavor. Or mix pasta, cottage cheese, parmesan and spinach for low-fat, high-energy comfort food. Baked potatos are always a healthy option, topped with cheese, chili, sour cream or bacon bits.

Think of starchy mild foods like pasta and potatoes as blank canvases. Almost anything enhances them; just don’t go overboard. Try one new flavor at a time. (Soy sauce mixed with marinara, pesto and gravy will probably not taste good.)

One of the easiest additions to any basic food is cheese. Melted on an english muffin or over pasta or vegetables, cheese is the ultimate taste-maker. Cheese even tastes great melted over a slab of bland apple pie. (This is a New England thing, but worth trying.) No apple pie today? Make your own. Microwave a sliced apple with cinnamon and sugar. Top with granola and you may not have a pie, but a crisp is close enough. The microwave can be a great dessert tool. Melt marshmallows and butter in a bowl, and mix with Rice Krispies. Once the mixture cools, you’ll have your very own “treats.”

Drinks are easy too: Mix coffee and hot cocoa to make mocha that’s significantly cheaper than anything you’ll find at Starbucks. Mix chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer for a real New Yorker’s egg cream. Dump some vanilla ice cream in root beer and you’ve got a float. Mix any ice cream with milk and you’ve got a shake.

Since ice cream goes with almost anything, and is cheap and easy enough that most schools regularly serve it, keep your eyes peeled for possible toppings (or yogurt/soft serve mix-ins). Crumbled cookies, chopped fruit, and cereal all work well.

Sometimes making your own food is not just better, but also faster than standing in an endless entree line. Don’t feel you have to eat only what the kitchen staff has prepared — try to create the tastes you like!

The beauty of all-you-can-eat buffet-style dining is that if you make a mistake, you can always try again.

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