Beyond Ramen: Delicious College Cooking

by Megan La Plante

When the sounds of a dinnertime meal include crinkling paper wrappers accompanied by muffled numbers screeched through a microphone, the food on the plastic tray just loses a significant amount of its quality and appeal. As I watched my good friend Jess ball up a fourth burrito wrapper and add it to a growing pile of crushed paper under a weird hue of too-bright fluorescent lights, my appetite decided it had better places to be.

She asked me if I was sure I didn’t want one of her 99¢ bean burritos. Another number boomed out of the microphone followed by a couple of feedback screeches. I checked one more time but, nope, my appetite hadn’t decided to come back yet.

In a shiny plastic booth in one of the area’s highest-grossing Taco Bells, I sat with my friend for a typical college evening meal. A hard day of class and a tray full of $5 worth of the Bell’s finest: nothing unusual in the day of a Cal Poly student in beautiful San Luis Obispo. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve had my fair share of fast food fixes, but I don’t commonly think of fast food when deciding what to have for dinner every evening.

As a senior at Cal Poly, I’ve been able to watch the food habits of my friends for the past few years and, while San Luis Obispo offers a variety of fresh, tasty, and affordable food options, somehow the quick and unhealthy foods snag the attention of hungry students. And now I am on a mission to find out why.

Cooking Skills: All in the Family

salad ingredients for a quick, healthy meal

I’ve been fortunate to grow up in a kitchen full of talented and passionate cooks, otherwise known as my family. My grandmothers both enrich their foods with innovative flavor and healthy, fresh goodness. And their grandmotherly love, of course! They passed this talent on to my mom and dad who, in the kindness of their hearts, shared cooking skills with my brother and me. At young ages, we were helping stir, chop, season, dollop, and simply enjoy good food. Not only did the kitchen environment help to maintain a strong family bond, but it also prepared me to continue nourishing my body once I made my own home in San Luis Obispo after high school.

ready to eat, in natural packaging

The dreaded and notorious “freshman fifteen” fiend was something I was definitely interested in avoiding during my first year of college, but my eating habits went beyond just dodging some unwanted extra pounds. I enjoy cooking and eating well because I simply enjoy keeping my body healthy. Healthy foods inspire bodies to be more energetic and functional and, when it comes to earning a degree, it never hurts to have more focus and vigor when knocking out hours of studying.

So back to the lovely plastic booth at Taco Bell. I decided to sit with my good friend to discuss her food habits. When I asked if she often cooked, she shook her head and crumpled up her last wrapper. When I asked why, her answers were ones I’ve commonly heard from most of my other friends:

“I don’t have time.”

“I’m too tired after class.”

“It’s too hard.”

“It’s too expensive.”

“I don’t know how.”

As a college student who has admittedly had my fair share of cereal for dinner, I can understand where my friends are coming from for most of these answers. But the last one just seems plain silly. We can learn the ins and outs of organic chemistry, but cooking seems too challenging? I have more faith in us college students!

Time for Cooking, but How To?

strawberries from Santa Maria Valley: eat ASAP

At first I thought wild food habits like toast topped with M&Ms and ramen with Ketchup and a six pack of donuts for dinner (yes, I’ve actually seen these lovely creations) were just ways to celebrate newfound freedom from our parents’ regime. But I have honestly never heard any of my friends use such an excuse for their imaginative culinary creations. Instead, it’s the issue of time and money and lack of cooking skills. And I am here to say, as a self-fed college student, it is wonderfully easy and affordable to feed our bodies with fresh, simple, tasty food, especially somewhere as incredible as San Luis Obispo County. San Luis Obispo offers an array of gorgeous fresh produce every week at the famous Thursday farmers market downtown as well as westside SLO on Saturdays and southside SLO on Sundays.

In terms of time, my friends often complain that they don’t have enough to spare when it comes to cooking. As a result, they hop in the car, drive to their favorite spot, stand in line, wait for their order, eat it, and drive home. No matter how fast the food appears from the swift hands of quick meal-makers, at least ten minutes are spent, but usually much more in the process of getting dinner. Yet at the top of recipes, a line will read something like “total cook time, “prep time,” etc. and more often than not, countless recipes can be found in which the total time spent on the entire process of creating the meal is none other than, yes…ten minutes. After hours spent in class, the time spent cooking allows not only a nice noggin break but can actually relieve stress: so wonderful! And, in a world with so much technology everywhere, the Internet can function as a source of endless recipes.

beets are cheap and versatile; also, cook and spice the greens and use like spinach

It’s time for college students to embrace healthy diets and ditch the stereotypical macaroni and cheese and ramen routine. With the $20 easy that’s spent in a day or two on meals, enough food can be easily bought for a week at our local stores so we can avoid foods that are delivered “ready made” and wrapped up in that notorious paper wrapper.

Science tells us that healthy meals improve the overall quality of the body’s performance. But a good diet can also be so much more. For young adult college students immersed in a world of social interaction and studying, what better way to enjoy good friends and houses full of roommates than with gathering in the kitchen to make a great meal?

So, the new homework assignment is this: throw out the wrappers & excuses and get cooking!

Here’s a link to one of my favorite quick and tasty meals, particularly great for the Taco Bell lovers!

More by Megan:

College-friendly Pasta That’s Not Mac n’Cheese

Megan LaPlante graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in English. She grew up in the small town of Littlerock, California amongst Joshua Trees and stretching desert, so moving to San Luis Obispo was quite a change of scenery. She hopes to pursue a career in food writing or publishing. Along with cooking, she thoroughly enjoy reading and spending time in the sunshine. You can reach Megan at 

photos: Megan La Plante

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