When I first moved out from my mom’s house I was about 17 and getting ready to start college. It was my first time paying rent and I was hungry! Health or weight were not factors in my diet, just quantity and price (read: cheap). Ease of cooking and flavor were secondary factors. You had better believe carbs were a huge component of dishes, particularly Top Ramen, when those things were on sale for five or more for a dollar, my pantry was stocked up. So today, this is a round up of some of the easy and fast dishes from my college daze. The ratings are out of five points where 5 is the best.

Value: 5/5
Quantity: 4/5
Ease: 5/5
Time: 10 minutes

Dish #1 – Ramen Noodles with Elbows
Never a big fan of ramen soup, I usually made them as just dry noodles with the seasoning packet. But I found the best way to extend the meal was to add in boxed pasta, typically elbows. So the quick recipe: start boiling a bunch of elbows first, then add in the ramen (I always used “Oriental Flavor”), broken up. Make sure to follow the timing on the box, so if the elbows take 8 minutes and the ramen taken 5 minutes, give the elbows a three minute head start. Then quickly strain all the pasta and place into a bowl (leave the noodles nice and wet) and cover with the seasoning packet and toss. Eat as straight, salty noodles. Yum! Hint: I found the seasoning coated more uniformly by putting half of the seasoning in the bowl before adding the noodles.

Cost: 4/5
Quantity: 3/5
Ease: 3/5
Time: 5 minutes

Dish #2 – Tuna w/ Canned Something Else
Tuna was cheap, again when on sale for a few cans per dollar, my pantry was stocked up. Even today, I usually keep too much on hand (it’s a hold-over). I usually make tuna by using one can of white tuna and one can of “light” (a.k.a. the dark meat), straining the liquid out of the cans and dumping in a bowl. I add plenty of mayo and whatever spices I have handy (garlic, mustard powder, salt, pepper, onion powder, cayenne, etc.). That alone is fine on toast or a roll, and if you want to get fancy, add a leaf of lettuce. But when I wanted to mix things up, I grabbed another can of, oh, anything, and threw it in. You’d be surprised how well this can work out. Some of the items that I liked were: black olives, corn, jalapeños, beans, or artichokes.

Cost: 2/5
Quantity: 4/5
Ease: 1/5
Time: 30 minutes

Dish #3 – Grilled Chicken Breast on Rice
This was the most complex dish I made back then. It actually used a pot AND a pan! I would buy chicken breast or thighs and try to get them thin, either by hitting them with whatever I had handy or by trying to slice them thinner, which when I used my crappy $2 knife left me with chicken rags. Fortunately they still tasted good. I coated aggressively in kosher salt and black pepper, and garlic powder if I had it handy, then cooked in a grill pan (sprayed with PAM, if it was around). I just cooked it until it was crispy and brown. These days I’d consider that over-cooked, but it was just fine back then. Meanwhile, I would steam white rice in a pot. The technique I used was: a handful of dry rice, in a pot, covered with water until the water level was about half an inch over the rice. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer for 20 minutes. Turn off heat, toss once and let sit for 5 minutes. Sometimes I’d use some mayo on the chicken to add flavor.

Cost: 2/5
Quantity: 5/5
Ease: 4/5
Time: 60 minutes

Dish #4 – Baked Pasta
This one is fancy and stupidly simple. However, it cost more than most of the other dishes. Boil whatever pasta you have handy: penne or ziti are good for this. Strain and put into a throw-away aluminum foil baking dish. Pour enough of your favorite jarred tomato sauce to just coat all the pasta, but not so much that you’ve got soup. Then shred lots of mozzarella cheese into it, toss it, and then add some more cheese on top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 375 for 35 minutes (or however long your stomach will let you wait). If you want to get crazy, buy some Italian sausage, grill it in your grill pan and slice it into the mix. You’re a chef!

Cost: 4/5
Quantity: 4/5
Ease: 3/5
Time: 10 minutes

Dish #5 – Fancy Cous Cous
Everyone always thinks this is fancy, but it’s so easy and cheap. Buy any box of easy couscous (like Near East brand) and follow the box instructions to cook, this is usually five minutes of work. Meanwhile start dicing zucchini and carrots as small as you can get them. Ideally, you’re looking for a brunois. But since you’re in college, you shouldn’t care that much. Toss those into the hot couscous, along with some golden raisins and LOTS of black pepper. Let it stand, covered, for 5-10 minutes before eating. You will be amazed how good this tastes. If you want to make it fancy garnish with some ripped, flat leaf parsley.

Cost: 4/5
Quantity: 4/5
Ease: 4/5
Time: 15 minutes

Dish #6 – Super Mac & Cheese
Follow the instructions to make your favorite mac & cheese. I always liked the cheapest I could find. About 30 seconds before it’s done, per the box instructions (this should be after the cheese is melted and stirred), toss in a handful of frozen peas and a pile of diced ham steak. Add about another minute to the cooking time, to let the peas get hot. If you want to get fancy with this dish try broiling the ham steak, covered in Worcestershire sauce for about 5 minutes before dicing it. It adds so much flavor for so little work.

Cost: 2/5
Quantity: 2/5
Ease: 5/5
Time: 4 minutes

Dish #7 – The Best Dessert
In those days, I didn’t even know what the words “lactose intolerance” meant. I would buy whole milk, stir in Hershey’s chocolate syrup and some heavy cream to make a thick, rich homemade chocolate milk. You could just buy pre-made chocolate milk, but it won’t be as rich. Then I’d toss in a pile of vanilla ice cream.

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