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Cooking essentials for your college dorm

For the days when the dining hall is not an option.

The usual time to transition from summer to fall semester is approaching, but everything is different this year. Will students be going back to campus on schedule? If they do, what of the dining hall? Cooking in a college dorm (whether in the interest of social distancing or not) is possible but has its challenges. It's a little bit like camping ... only indoors and for 15 weeks straight. Oh, and you have electricity. That's kind of a big deal. 

You're not going to be whipping up lasagna and three-layer cakes as you hole up in your 12-by-12-foot box until the holidays, but you'll be amazed at the culinary feats you can accomplish with just a few simple (and totally brilliant) tools. If you find yourself in limbo at your parental home base or elsewhere, looking at a longer period of distance learning, a lot of these gadgets still come in handy for feeding yourself, even if you're only at Level 101 cooking.

Walmart

If your dorm room doesn't already include a refrigerator-freezer, then you've got to get a mini version. It's a must. If your dorm room is currently your childhood bedroom or basement, it's still nice to have a dedicated place to put your snacks. This retro-styled 3.2-cubic-foot dry-erase refrigerator with neon markers is stylish and lets you write and erase lists and notes right on the fridge door -- whether it's a warning to stop stealing your oat milk or a note to self about next week's Zoom class schedule.

Amazon

To some of us, a microwave is also already an accepted essential. But many dorm vets wave the hot pot flag. Sunbeam makes a $20 hot pot that boils water in one to two minutes, and you can make pasta, rice, potatoes and vegetables in there, too, along with coffee or tea. But for others, it's a microwave all the way. Go with a small version, of course, and then make sure all your plates, bowls and mugs are microwave-safe. To fall under standard dorm safety regulations, you'll want a compact microwave with 700 watts of power or less, such as this stylish model with a retro oval window and chrome look.

Amazon

Want to avoid the "freshman 15" and maintain a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables? Smoothies, smoothies, smoothies. We like personal blenders better than traditional ones because they're more compact, the blending container doubles as a cup and they come with lids to make them to-go cups so you can sip on your way to class (or as you log in to your laptop at the kitchen island again). We've enjoyed the Nutri Ninja Pro, which has been discontinued, but this NutriBullet Magic Bullet is a No. 1 bestseller for good reason. It can crush through ice, seeds, skins and stems for a smooth, even consistency. Ice and frozen fruit is no match for this nifty little machine, so it's great for cold, healthy drinks and smoothies. And, ahem, margaritas…

Hamilton Beach

This should've been No. 1, really. You might try to schedule all your classes late in the day, but inevitably, there will be at least one 8 a.m. class (uggghhh) that you have to take. Now regular coffee makers have a 12-cup max capacity, which as ambitious as you are, might just be unnecessary. Plus it's large and takes up a lot of precious space. Enter this top-rated model, which is slim, shiny and uses a mesh scoop filter so you can choose your preferred coffee grounds. The maker brews an 8-ounce cup in 90 seconds, but you're gonna want a 14-ounce travel mug's worth, and that only takes about two-and-a-half minutes to fill up.

A big wooden spoon, a spatula, a serving spoon, a can opener, measuring spoons, measuring cups, a peeler and a sharp knife are all little things you could forget when you're selecting your silverware, plates, cups and bowls. While this set doesn't have all of those items, it does include a pretty impressive roster of basic tools. You can definitely find more colorful sets if style matters to you, but this basic collection is cheap and includes both a bottle opener and a pizza cutter, which you just might end up using more than the rest.

Amazon

One of the most frequent questions you'll ask yourself in college is, "Wait, do I even have time to eat?" It's sad, but it's the truth. You'll need appliances that will help you prepare food in no time so that you don't starve if you're running late to class or an internship or wherever you need to be. This quesadilla maker is cheap and perfect for a quick and easy lunch! And there's really no shame in being the person who runs around campus frantically shoving a quesadilla in your face. We've all been there.

A waffle maker is a worthy alternative (and is far more versatile than you think; by the same token, the quesadilla maker should be too).

Amazon

I don't know if everyone is still drinking fruit-infused water, but I am, so this is important. While not technically a cooking item, a reusable water bottle is a smart thing to have in your dorm. Why keep buying water bottles when you can run tap water through a filter for free? And with this sturdy and slick-looking HYDY water bottle (which comes in a ton of great colors), you can add tea, lemons, berries or whatever your heart desires to that all-important H2O.

Even more of an essential than coffee (gasp!), is clean, drinkable water. A filtered water pitcher is a great way to have the most necessary sustenance around all the time. Even if you can't fit it in your fridge, you want this. There are many kinds, but a slim design works best for your limited space. The Brita 5-Cup Space Saver BPA-free water pitcher fits this bill, with color options of white, turquoise and red.

If the dorm allows it, an Instant Pot is a no-brainer, and this compact mini version is a great fit for small spaces (and those who might not want to deal with five pounds of pulled pork at a time). This particular model doesn't do yogurt, but it does double as a rice cooker and steamer -- and of course it churns out quick dinners, breakfast and perfect boiled eggs every time.

Also: Microwave-safe food storage containers with lids, like Tupperware, as well as shatter-proof and microwave-safe dishes, are a great idea. A small cutting board wouldn't hurt either. Oh, and maybe a tea towel, pot holder and trivet, too (sigh). You gotta stop somewhere, though. Bon voyage!