Dorm room dining

College is hard enough — what with roommates, exams, papers, and those pesky early morning classes. What to eat and how to avoid gaining weight — the dreaded Freshman 15 — shouldn't be part of the challenge.

Even with the best intentions, dining hall food can get boring and serving hours often don't match up with actual student hours. But students needn't be limited to cafeteria food, takeout, or good old ramen noodles day after day. With a few basic appliances — permitted in most dorm rooms — students can not only pursue higher learning, but also take a crash course in campus cooking.

Bean Quesadillas
Bean Quesadillas | Photo by Rae

Dorm Room Kitchen Essentials


House rules and regulations vary, so it's important to check with your school before purchasing or using any appliance not supplied in the dorm room. The following items are allowed in most residence halls:

  • Refrigerators (3.7-to 4-cubic feet or smaller)
  • Coffee pots (2 carafes are useful, one for coffee and one for heating canned soup, beans or ravioli, and even hot dogs, if microwaves are not permitted)
  • Microwaves using 1000 watts or less
  • Blender
  • Some residence halls allow indoor, George Foreman-style grills (with closed heating elements), slow cookers, rice cookers, or a multi-functional cooker such as an Instant Pot.
  • Knives, especially those longer than 4-inches, are not allowed in many residence halls. Consider purchasing a second pair of scissors (for cutting quesadillas, fresh herbs, cutting canned tomatoes in the can, cutting cooked bacon) and a food chopper. But for many things, like slicing fresh fruit (not peeling) or cutting soft to medium soft cheese, a plastic knife will do just fine.


Storage options are usually limited, so go for things that are compact and stackable.

  • Tuna and chicken in pouches (no need for a can opener, and pouches take up less space), packaged cooked bacon (no need to refrigerate before opening, can be eaten as packaged or heated in microwave)
  • Quick cooking oats
  • Microwave pouches of rice
  • Dry cereal
  • Peanut butter
  • Olive or other vegetable oil
  • Canned beans and vegetables
  • Dried fruits
  • Salt, pepper, and a few spices you'll actually use
  • Bread: sliced, flat, pita
  • Tortillas, bagels, English muffins
  • Crackers and rice cakes
  • Ramen noodles


  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter
  • Deli meats, packaged cooked chicken or beef
  • Eggs

Other Useful Stuff

  • Aluminum foil
  • Parchment paper and wax paper
  • Sealable plastic bags
  • Microwave-safe cooking and storage containers with lids
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Plates, bowls, glasses, mugs, and flatware. (Wide mugs can double as bowls.)
  • A baking dish or two
  • Large bowl
  • Medium colander
  • Cutting board
  • Spatula and cooking spoons
  • Can and bottle openers

Penny Pinching

Grocery shopping can be daunting, especially when trying to shop on a tight budget. The following tips may help starving students save a few extra dollars.

  • If at all possible, don't go to the grocery store hungry. At least try to have a light snack before shopping, even if it's just a couple of crackers and peanut butter.
  • Save the little packets of condiments from the dining hall or fast food restaurants for sandwiches or for recipes that call for just a tablespoon.
  • Avoid brand names, chances are you won't taste the difference, and store brands are often considerably cheaper.
  • Take a calculator with you and add up the cost of items as you place them in your basket. This will help reduce the risk of overspending, or worse, realizing you don't have enough money to pay when you check out.
  • At the store, read the ads for items that are on sale that week.
  • Stick to the perimeter. Produce, meat, bread, and dairy are usually on the outside aisles. By avoiding the inner aisles — you know, the ones where the cookies and frozen pizzas are — you'll be less likely to make expensive impulse buys like ice cream or soda.
  • If there is a farmers' market near your school, consider visiting it late in the day near closing time. The selection won't be as good, but vendors will often throw in extra produce or give you a cheaper price on items that won't be fresh enough to sell the next day.
  • Shop with other students who are interested in cooking. By buying in larger quantities, you'll save money twice: larger sizes usually cost less per unit than small ones and you'll get to split the bill on those items with your shopping buddy.

Next Course

Now that you've completed Campus Cooking 101, get more advice and recipes from our advanced course in campus cooking!

Explore our collection of Campus Cooking Recipes.