If you’re attending Illinois’ Wheaton College, then lucky you — you get to belly up for the country’s best campus food. Anyone else going off to college, however, might wind up spending most of the semester staring forlornly at cafeteria platters of meal plan collateral damage.
Sure, you’ll be rife with pizza, Chinese and other delivery menus. But you can’t live on that alone (not if you want to avoid the Freshman 15, that is). Even if you don’t care about looking good or feeling fab — you’re in school to study, after all — then consider this: What you shovel into your mouth can affect your ability to focus and concentrate, as well as the energy you need to haul butt over to Psych class at 8 am. And if they can explode your tastebuds right out of your head, even better.
These days, there are tons of palatable options, along with numerous ways to tap them. Everyone knows about review sites and apps like Yelp, Urbanspoon, and Zagat, among others, but there are plenty of other food tools available for the tech-savvy. Here are a few more worth considering:
Restaurant delivery sites: Rather than hitting up local restaurant delivery menus individually, Campusfood.com puts 2,500 of them in one place, geared around 300 different campus locations. You can comparison shop your food options, which is especially important if you want healthy meals, but even if you can’t do without the occasional wings and burgers, you can find plenty of those here too. There are also non-campus alternatives, including Allmenus.com, Menupages.com, Seamless.com, GrubHub.com, Foodler.com and many, many more. Don’t forget to check out location-specific delivery sites too. Some cities or regions have their own niche sites for vegetarians, organic followers, locavores, etc…
Food trucks/carts: I love, love, love the recent trend of gourmet food trucks and carts. They offer really tasty alternatives for people on the go, and some of them beat the pants off fast food joints or so-called established restaurants. Many modern mobile food vendors Tweet their locations daily, so if you find some that you just can’t live without, be sure to follow them to know their whereabouts. Otherwise, apps like Food Truck Follower (Android) and Eat St. (iOS) can put some fabulous finds in your hands. (And if you’re lucky enough to matriculate in New York City, well, food won’t really be a problem for you — not only will you be spoiled for choice, but hungry budget-conscious foodies can also rely on Zagat’s Food Truck beta website.)
Grocery shopping: There’s an endless supply of apps covering food and groceries, but there are a few that I find myself launching constantly. If you’re food-conscious and concerned about stuff like genetically modified products, then the Non GMO Guide (for iPhone and Android) is essential. There’s no real labeling standard for non GMO foods, but if it’s on this list, at least you know you’re not getting food that has been messed around with.
ScanLife (iOS, Android) and Grocery IQ (iOS, Android) are also fabulous. Grocery IQ not only lets you create a shopping list that you can use and reuse, but it auto-populates popular products and allows you to scan a barcode to add it to your list. And since products are increasing using barcodes and QR codes for coupons, giveaways and other promotions, ScanLife can handle access to that simply and easily. Of course, there are others, like Amazon (iOS, Android, web) — which is pretty handy if you’d prefer to have food stuffs delivered to your door, along with any gadgets, gear and books. Final tip: If you do physically head to the supermarket, hit it in the middle of the week — or whenever the new deliveries are about to arrive. It can usually yield some savings, particularly for produce.
Cooking: Got off-campus digs with a kitchen and a penchant for whipping up epic, gustatory concoctions? There is a ridiculous number of cooking-oriented websites out there — so many that I couldn’t even begin to sum them all up. What I will say is that, personally, I find AllRecipes.com, Epicurious.com and Yummly.com pretty indispensable, and all three have mobile apps with recipes, bookmarking and grocery list features. If you’re a serious food nerd, then you have to add Cook’s Illustrated to the repertoire. They don’t just publish a recipe — they try every permutation they can think of for one dish, and then publish the results, explaining why certain ingredients or approaches work better than the rest. This is definitely a geek’s nirvana (just get a load of founder Chris Kimball and his bow-tie). The $30 annual subscription might seem like a lot, but it is well worth the money, especially since they also include appliance/gadget and product taste tests. Best part? Subscribe and you can access the whole database from the website, as well as the iPhone app. I’m a huge fan of theirs, and have been for years.
Bonus recommendation: There was some interest when I mentioned Korean cooking in a previous post. For anyone who’s still interested in that, my secret weapon (other than my mom’s recipes) is an Asian bundle of joy named Maangchi. She is a kitchen goddess with a voluminous website full of how-to’s that demystify every step, a YouTube channel with countless video demos, and an upcoming cooking show. She’s also an adorable, hilarious spitfire of a host who makes the experience crazy fun.
Other Helpful Food Tips
I know this is TechnoBuffalo, not FoodBuffalo, but I can’t help but offer a few more tidbits that I wish I’d known back when I was in school. So if all you’re looking for are online or app resources, you can stop right here and scroll back up.
(…finger tap, tap, tap…)
Psst! Are they gone? Okay then, let’s dive in.
- Even if you’re in a dorm room, you’ll probably have at least a mini-fridge there. So make use of it by stocking some carrot or celery sticks, sliced bell peppers or other snackable veg, plus some low-cal dip, hummus or salad dressing. Do it even if you don’t like them that much. Believe me, when you get the munchies at 1 am, those sticks of glory may start to look pretty good — and guaranteed, they’ll keep you feeling better than the Chef Boyardee in the student center vending machine. (Truth is, you should wait until morning if you can… but who are we kidding? Late-night snacking is as much a part of the college experience as frat parties and cramming for exams, no?)
- Speaking of dorm life, do the rules allow hot plates? Find out for sure, because if you can do some basic cooking once in a while — an egg or two, or even just boiling water — that will do wonders for your waistline and wallet. No hot plate? Then make good use of your microwave. Just don’t nuke the life out your dish.
- My old college roommate had one of these immersion coil water heaters that was perfect for boiling a single cup of water. She made mugs of soup with this, coffee and tea, hot chocolate… anything that kept her from hitting the chain frappeccinos or the soda machine. Again, you’ll need to check the dorm rules, but if it’s not forbidden, it’s a handy tool to have.
- Don’t forget to put some greens in your diet. You’ll look good, feel better and can potentially spend less if you swap out that fried chicken combo, or hamburger and fries, for a salad once in a while.
- Pasta or any high-carb meal can keep you going when you’re running around, but they’re bad foods to scarf down late at night or if you’re seated for hours on end in intensive study mode. They may taste savory, but to your body, they’re just sugars, which means a crash is inevitable. (This goes double for energy drinks.) So unless you enjoy passing out with your face in a textbook or waking up with your keyboard indented on your face, don’t even go there during these times.
- If you’re making food, but it sort of lacks something, don’t toss the stuff. There are ingredients that can add a depth of savoriness (called umami) that can magically make a meal sing. Try a dash or two of parmesan cheese, soy sauce, ketchup, Worcester sauce, or wine — whichever’s appropriate for the dish.
- If you remember nothing else, remember these three things: Depending on the brand, frozen foods usually beat canned foods. Locally sourced establishments are better than chain restaurants. And cooking at home trumps eating out (assuming you can do it). The upshot of cooking is that it also prepares you for impressing the heck out of that hottie co-ed who finally agreed to go out with you.
Do you have any must-do food tips for college students? Drop them below in the comments!