A registered dietitian sheds light on the food habits of college students to help you stock a dorm room pantry.

By Kristina McGuirk
June 26, 2020
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Moving into a dorm is a fun and hectic time. There's so much to think about: Roommates, decorating, all the necessary bathroom supplies, how to organize, and so much more. Let us help with determining what foods to buy. There’s no single magic grocery list perfect for all college students. “A student’s budget, access to food, and dietary needs are unique,” says Kallen Anderson, a registered dietitian at Iowa State University. Anderson goes on: Students have different kinds of campus meal plans and different experiences that influence their relationships with food. Because of that, she doesn’t like to make specific recommendations, like what food should be found in a dorm room.

“I never say, ‘Eat this, not that’ because it varies person to person,” she says. “Instead, I go old school with it; break it down to food groups.” Anderson recommends three to five food groups for meals, and two food groups for snacks. “The most important thing is to have regular meals throughout the day.”

We talked with Anderson about what impacts student food choices and her general smart eating recommendations. From this conversation, we identified characteristics that will help stock a dorm room with foods that complement college life.

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6 Types of Food for Every Dorm Room

This list is not a hierarchy, and these characteristics are not mutually exclusive: Familiar foods may also be a great source for carbohydrates, and breakfast foods can be convenient. These ideas can be applied to each student to find personalized food staples.

Familiar Foods

According to Anderson, students connect with the comfort level of food first. “Food is so much more than fuel, it’s something you can always rely on,” she says. New college students gravitate to familiarity: craving comfort and stability, Anderson says they eat what they are used to. As time goes on, they’ll broaden that scope, but the preference for familiar comforting foods pops up again with stress (like exams or COVID-related uncertainties) all throughout college. Whether comfort food means mac and cheese, a bowl of cereal, or a chocolatey snack cake, it’s good to have some food faves in the dorm, especially at the start of the term.

Quick and Easy Convenience Foods

Students without access to campus dining halls or their own kitchen (mainly those living off campus), or those who have a busy schedule with little downtime (looking at you, third- and fourth-year students) often rely on convenience foods that require little effort. Convenience foods are also good to have on hand for illness or when you’re simply not feeling like yourself. A quick microwave meal isn’t the most nutritious, “But it will still give you energy and calories to get through the day,” Anderson says. Plus, with a little extra effort, some convenience foods are easy to dress up.“You can always throw something in ramen to make them more nutrient-dense,” she says. A lot of easy-to-store, shelf-stable foods fit into this category: like microwave rice, instant noodles, soup, popcorn, and canned fruits and vegetables.

Breakfast Foods

No, coffee is not sufficient breakfast. While caffeine stimulates nerves and organs, the effects of coffee, tea, or caffeinated beverages are typically short-lived. On the contrary, you can squeak by with the occasional Pop-Tart. “It’s not nutritious, but it’s better than nothing,” Anderson says. “Bodies need that jump start for brain energy.” This is why having some sort of breakfast food on hand is key, especially for students struggling with finding a routine, or those without meal plans guaranteeing their access to breakfast. Anderson recommends things like a bowl of cereal and an apple, yogurt and toast, or a breakfast burrito with multiple food groups wrapped inside. Craving a big plate of pancakes or french toast? Go for it! But grab a banana for later, to help prevent feeling hungry from the lack of diversity in the meal.

Packaged foods like granola bars and cereal accommodate many food allergies or special diets. Eggs are surprisingly easy to cook in a dorm room, including this popular mason jar omelet. Start the day with microwave oatmeal or prepare an on-the-go breakfast of overnight oats. To complement the long shelf-lives of oats and eggs, a couple of shelf-stable milks can be tucked away in storage until needed, saving space in a mini-fridge while preventing you from having to run to the store when a box is finished. Anderson reminds us that there are culturally different ideas of what constitutes breakfast foods, so what’s added to the dorm shopping list should reflect that.

High Fiber and High Protein Snacks

“Plan for one to three snacks a day, in addition to three meals,” Anderson says. Snacks keep the body going through things like afternoon lulls. “To get the most bang for your buck, eat something high in fiber and protein,” she says. Her examples include an apple and peanut butter, or nuts and string cheese.

Look to have things like protein bars, jerky, dried fruit, and nut butters on hand. Try dressing up high-fiber dried fruit with three-ingredient Dark Chocolate Spiced Apricots, tossing together a black bean and corn salad (substituting frozen corn for dorm-friendly canned corn), or mixing up a spicy trail mix.

Carbohydrates

When students find themselves staying up later than usual, carbohydrates are a smart snack choice. “To keep the brain firing, to keep powering through, the brain needs carbohydrates,” Anderson says. She suggests toast with peanut butter as an example. Potatoes are another dorm-friendly source of carbs that can easily be cooked in a microwave for a substantial surge of brain fuel. An individual chocolate mug cake will fix a sweet tooth with a quick boost from carbs and sugar.

Variety

We’re cheating a little here, as variety isn’t exactly a food, but it is one of the most important characteristics for stocking a dorm room. Variety means multiple food types within a meal (remember Anderson’s food-group guidance). But variety also means having a number of food options to satisfy different cravings. “Having a variety of foods helps you stay satiated longer and increases satisfaction,” Anderson says.

Common dorm-friendly foods lend themselves well to this idea are those that serve as a base for a variety of flavors and tastes (think bread, tortillas, and crackers) and those that mix many types of bases, like cheese, hummus, nut butters, and eggs. Check out these delicious toast toppings and cracker pairings for inspiration. Hit the variety jackpot with sweet and salty peanut clusters and homemade chocolate trail mix that are easy to make in the dorm (instead of a stovetop, melt chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl, at 30-second intervals, until melted).

The Bottom Line

“Just make sure you have some food,” Anderson says. She stresses that it’s important not to perceive any foods as forbidden. The secret to putting together the perfect dorm room food stash is really just to select items that will actually get eaten, whether the student is running between classes, up late working on a term paper, or just hanging out with friends.

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