How to Upgrade Your College Meals for the Real World

After a few years away at college, we’ve all grown to love (or loathe) certain student meals. These are the dishes that you’ve made so many times by the time graduation comes around, you could probably whip them up in your sleep—and no doubt you did at some point!

Jumping into a busy work life so soon after graduation can make it difficult to break the dietary habits that we acquire as students. If a bowl of mac and cheese is satisfactory after a day full of lectures, it’s good enough after a full day at the office, right? But the step from student life to real life can also require a similar shift in your diet. A working lifestyle can mean greater stress on your body, which also increases the need for healthier and more filling meals. At the same time, learning to make these healthy and filling meals from scratch can be very time-consuming. So why not just enhance what you already know?

If you’re not ready to move on from dorm-room cuisine just yet, here’s how to spice up some of your favorite student meals to match your life in the real world!

1. Grilled cheese sandwich


Ah, the humble grilled cheese sandwich. Nothing can really beat the ease and simplicity of melted cheese in bread after a long day slaving away at that essay. Surprisingly, it’s also pretty easy to upgrade your sandwich to post-college standards. Plus, grilled cheese version 2.0 also includes protein, veggies and healthy fats, which help to balance out the carbs and provide a nutritious spin on the college staple.

Grown-up Grilled Cheese 

Ingredients

  • 2 slices of multigrain, seeded bread
  • ½ cup cooked chicken, sliced or cut up into small chunks
  • 3-4 slices fresh avocado
  • 3-4 slices beefsteak tomato
  • 2-3 slices of any hard cheese (such as Parmesan) – this can also be grated over the top
  • Margarine

Directions

  1. Spread some margarine on the inside and outside of both slices of bread.
  2. Layer all the ingredients in any way you want, leaving the cheese until last.
  3. Top it with some ground black pepper or red pepper flakes for added flavor, if desired.
  4. Pop your creation into a panini press for 3 to 4 minutes on either side, or until the bread is crispy and golden brown.
  5. Serve with a side salad.

Other great combos include turkey, cranberry and Brie, or feel free to switch up your cheese, the bread or the veggies – grilled eggplant and zucchini with mozzarella is a winner! Grilled cheese sandwiches are the most versatile student staple—you can basically add whatever you want, so get creative!

2. Cereal

Who can forget the days where you’d come home from a study session in the library only to end up eating Cheerios for dinner? While that may have been the height of simplicity and sustenance as a student, as an adult it’s time to get a little upgrade. Making soup is just one of many adventurous ways to use up that bran cereal that you’re still buying out of habit!

Tomato, Lentil & Bran Cereal Soup

Ingredients

  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 cup lentils
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 8-10 medium-sized tomatoes, skinned and chopped
  • ¼ teaspoon dried mint leaves
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ½ cup all-bran cereal or regular bran flakes

Directions

  1. Put the vegetable stock in a pan and bring to a boil.
  2. Fry the onion in a little oil until soft.
  3. Add onions to the stock, and gradually stir in all the other ingredients. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Simmer for 20 minutes, or until lentils are soft.
  5. Top with cilantro leaves and serve with bread.

As you can see, the versatility of cereal knows no bounds. Try sprinkling honey-flavored cereal on a salad for some extra crunch or using cornflakes to bread chicken. The list is basically endless—cereal can be best friends with a lot more than just milk!

3. Omelettes


Omelets are great because they feel like serious cooking—you have to actually turn the stove on!—yet you can still make them even when your brain is frazzled after an intense day. Transforming the humble omelet into a dish more appropriate for your sophisticated post-college lifestyle isn’t that tricky, either. This dish with a Mexican twist creates a tasty, filling evening meal and is perfect if you’re looking to maintain a healthy diet since it’s crammed with protein!

Omelette-wrapped Fajitas

Ingredients

  • 2 medium eggs
  • 1 tablespoon of milk
  • ¼ cup chicken pieces
  • 3-4 iceberg lettuce leaves
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced
  • ½ medium onion, sliced
  • ½ avocado
  • 1 small tomato, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • ½ teaspoon chipotle powder
  • ½ teaspoon dried garlic powder
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Brown the chicken with a little oil in a frying pan on high heat.
  2. Once browned, lower the heat and add the bell pepper and onion. Cook until soft and chicken is cooked before adding the chipotle and garlic powders and seasoning. Take off the heat and set aside.
  3. Make fresh guacamole by mashing up the avocado and mixing with the chopped tomato and lime juice.
  4. Whisk the eggs with the milk in a small bowl. Pour into a large hot frying pan, ensuring the mix spreads out thinly.
  5. Cook as you would a normal omelette, making sure it does not break or collapse.
  6. Once cooked, empty onto a plate. Fill with the cooked chicken mixture, the guacamole and the lettuce leaves. Roll up and serve as a normal fajita with sour cream and salsa.

Not into spicy food? Don't worry! Just make your favorite omelette and wrap it up in a tortilla. It makes it feel a lot more adult to be eating one of your college favorites for dinner that way!

4. Ramen noodles


This list would not be complete without mentioning ramen. The instant packs are so cheap and student-friendly; they are a MUST for college. Understandably, it can be difficult to let go of such a staple! But it turns out you can make ramen more suitable for your real life.

Upgraded Ramen Noodle Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon sunflower oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2-3 carrots, chopped
  • 2 cups lamb mince (or another ground meat of your choice)
  • ½ mixed herbs (optional)
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes
  • 1 cup water
  • 1-2 packets of Ramen (the meat flavors would work best, but feel free to experiment!)
  • Grated Parmesan (for topping)

Directions

  1. Cook the onions and carrots in a large pan with a tablespoon of sunflower oil until soft.
  2. Turn up the heat and then add the mince, stirring until browned. Add the herbs if desired, and season to taste.
  3. Pour over the tomatoes and water, then bring mixture to a simmer. Cover pan and leave for around 35-40 minutes, or until meat is cooked through.
  4. Cook the ramen according to packet instructions.
  5. Top cooked ramen with meat and veggies.

Not only does this Ramen upgrade offer you all of the necessary vitamins from the meat and vegetables, but it will also fill you with nostalgia for those 2 a.m. Ramen-cooking stints you had a few times a week when you were still an undergrad! 

5. Mac and cheese


Last but certainly not least comes a campus favorite: macaroni and cheese. Chances are that microwavable mac and cheese got you through more than one night in college, and maybe you haven't found a suitable substitute for that creamy, cheesy, noodly taste you're craving. However, as a new member of the real world, it's also important to get proteins and other vitamins from your diet—so we thought, why not just toss them into your mac and cheese? 

Real World Mac and Cheese 

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces of pasta shells 
  • 3 cups of broccoli florets 
  • 3/4 cup of milk
  • 1/4 cup of grape tomatoes (chopped) 
  • 6 ounces of your favorite cheese (we suggest cheddar) 
  • 2 cups of cooked chicken breast slices 
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

  1. Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package. 
  2. Add the broccoli florets about three minutes before the pasta is finished cooking.
  3. Drain water from the pot using a colander.
  4. Heat a large pan over medium heat and add milk, tomatoes and cheese. Whisk until smooth (about a minute and a half).
  5. Add pasta, broccoli and chicken. 
  6. Toss to combine, and you're ready to eat!

You don’t need to abandon these meals once you graduate! Similarly, all of these student staples—and many others besides—can be jazzed up with just a bit of creativity and only a slight stretch of your budget. In doing so, you’ll make the transition from collegiette to graduette in no time. Happy munching!