Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson: Cooking on campus

Nov 24, 2010

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of interns on her blog each day. In her live chat, she answers your questions about life on campus -- and life off campus, too.

On Wednesday, Jenna will be joined by Joe Yonan, Washington Post Food Editor, to discuss cooking meals for one and how to make a fun and easy Thanksgiving dinner when you're away from home.

Happy Thanksgiving Eve! Our office is sparsely filled and a bit lonely today -- so I am glad you guys can keep me company online.

Today I have a very special guest: The Post's food editor, Joe Yonan, who writes a monthly column all about cooking for one. Right now he's wrapping up a cookbook called "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One," which will be published in spring 2011.

With Thanksgiving tomorrow, I am expecting lots of questions about holiday cooking. Joe can answer your classy questions (like what to take to a dinner hosted by your roommate's parents), while I can field your questions about zapping a turkey in a dorm microwave (you can read all about that experiment on my blog,

But don't limit yourself to just that -- you can ask us anything related to college life, dealing with your parents and siblings during the holidays, preparing for finals or polishing up your admissions essays over Thanksgiving break.

So, fire away! We are ready.

Can you also talk about how or where to buy food/ingredients that aren't expensive? The closest grocery store to me is Whole foods and i can barely afford it.

Well, you know the nickname, right? I'd say one of the most important things to do if you want to save money is to try and actually cook, rather than buying things that are prepackaged or even partially prepped. That's a bit harder to do in a dorm situation if you don't have much storage room, but it's worth thinking about. What's your cooking setup like? That might help me better tailor my answer.

As a college student, I was intrigued by the cooking in your microwave feature, but wow, was that a painful read -- it may have worked in the GW Hatchet, but both the writing style and the ideas were embarrassingly amateurish for the Post. Pouring water over boxed stuffing and "mashed potato" flakes isn't cooking in your microwave -- did the author just get lazy? It was interesting to learn that a turkey can be nuked, but if you wanted to do a cooking feature, why wasn't it written by someone who actually knows something about cooking? Actual mashed potatoes would be easy to do in the microwave, and a bit of creativity could have led to a compelling menu all around. Mr. Yonan, perhaps you could do a better rendition of this idea some time?

I did touch on some techniques/recipes you might find useful when I recently wrote about "cooking" in the office, where the setup is pretty similar to what you might have in a dorm. Check it out.

Should college students still have a curfew when they return home?

It depends on your family. Obviously, college students don't have to follow a curfew while at school -- and, obviously, parents don't want to stay up waiting and worrying.

I just wrote a story about parents and their kids trying to find a balance during the break (link, All of the deans and school officials I interviewed encouraged students and their parents to work together to pick a reasonable time. The key is talking about it -- and calling or texting if you will be late.

Major props for cooking a turkey in a microwave! But I wonder how sensitive are dorm room smoke/steam detectors in a small room when it comes to microwaving food?

Microwaving doesn't typically cause the kinds of cooking emissions that set off smoke detectors. The Fire Department would probably really not like it if I told you that I sometimes disable my smoke detector for short periods while I'm cooking something particularly smoke-producing, so I won't tell you that. No, I won't. ;-) The other thing to remember: A fan!

Just a comment about a college Thanksgiving away from home. I went to school far from where I grew up and could only afford to come home for Christmas. I spent my Thanksgivings on campus and though in some ways it felt a bit melancholy (all my friends were away), it was also really nice. Not often that you experience a quite campus, you get to bond with the other students who've stuck around (especially foreign students, who really are far from home), and it also helps you solidify and appreciate the magically brief experience that is college. That was a decade ago for me...perhaps I'm getting sentimental. :)

What fantastic memories! Thanks for sharing.

Thanksgiving is an especially interesting time for international students -- who often don't have enough time to travel all of the way home, plus they don't have any sentimental attachment to the American Thanksgiving.

Several international affairs offices in the area have organized Thanksgiving dinners for these students or invited students to their own homes. At Washington and Lee University, one of the sorority house moms hosts a massive dinner for all of the students stuck on campus -- it's a little more homey than the dorm cafeteria.


I am having Thanksgiving at my boyfriend's parents' house. They said I could bring a dessert. What's something easy that I could bake tonight that would totally impress them? I don't want to just take a pumpkin pie...

Oh, I SO love pies. 

And for Thanksgiving, this is, without a doubt, my favorite pecan pie ever. It has an unusually high nut-to-goo ratio, and since I'm anti-goo, it's perfect.

What else are you cooking, or thinking about cooking? I'm ready for more questions!

I spent Thanksgiving my senior year of college away from home, working as a news production assistant for a local TV station in my college town. As it turns out one of my roommates and another friend were also in town working. We made our own big meal (that's the year I discovered you need to take out the giblet bag before roasting your turkey), kept busy with work and had each other for company and commiseration. And of course as with many families at Thanksgiving or college students on any occassion, there was plenty of booze. So all in all it wasn't that bad.

The first thing I do when I get to San Angelo, Texas, for the holidays (Christmas, not Thanksgiving) at Mom's is stop off at the liquor store. ;-)

in the midst of all this collegiate cooking, how 'bout a nice call to the rents? I miss you, and feel bereft without you at your place at the table. would mean a lot to hear more than a rushed hi & goodbye.

Mom, is that you?!?

A lot of college students (and twenty somethings like me) don't get to venture home for the short Thanksgiving break -- and yes, yes, yes they should call home (no text messaging) for a long chat. Sometimes something as simple as saying, "I am so thankful to have you in my life," can make that spot at the table feel less empty.

It doesnt matter if you are a college freshman or 40-years-old. If you are staying in someone's home, you follow their rules. Why are colleges encouraging parents to let their kids set the rules?

I don't think colleges are exactly saying: "Let your kids walk all over you." I think they are suggesting that parents be flexible -- and realize their kids now live on a totally different schedule than they did in high school.

Do I go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas or just one? Plane flights are expensive, you know.

Flights are very expensive, especially during the holidays, and travel can be stressful and time-consuming. It depends on your budget -- if you can afford both holidays, go for it. But it's also totally okay to hang around on campus during Thanksgiving so you can catch up on school work.

Not sure how far you have to travel, but you might also want to look into taking the train, a bus or carpooling with classmates headed in the same direction.

Are cookies an exclusively Christmas thing or are there acceptable Thanksgiving cookies too?

Oh, I think cookies are an all-year thing, aren't they? I love em. We do devote an entire Food section every  December to cookies -- with 25 recipes! -- and this year it's coming Dec. 8. Too late for T-day, but you can search our Recipe Finder for previous years' batches. Here's a link to a bunch of them for your scrolling, choosing and baking pleasure. Check out the Applesauce Butterscotch Cookies. Nice, eh?

My roommates and are hostin about 15 people for a Friendsgiving. Any suggestions on good ways to incorporate all the diverse family traditions so people feel at home? Or maybe you have good ideas for activities, like those games you begrudgingly joined your family in (i.e. charades, scrabble)...

I think the best thing you can do is ask your guests -- start an e-mail chain where they can share their own traditions or open a shared Google Doc so everyone can compile a list.

Otherwise, set out a pile of boardgames and have a couple of holiday movies on hand (my family always watches "The Miracle on 34th Street").

And you don't have to stay inside -- start up a game of touch football in the backyard or go for a walk around the neighborhood.

Would love to hear other ideas!

Any tips for a gal living on her own after college and hosting her first meal (for 6)? Somebody's bringing a salad, but I'm on my own for everything else.

Oh, boy -- Congrats on taking the leap! Have you done anything yet? Are you roasting a turkey? I suggest that you try this butterflied one: By splitting/flattening it (a really easy thing to do), you make it cook much more evenly. Then I'd think about some good but relatively easy side dishes, like Perfect Mashed Potatoes and Braised Brussels Sprouts, and then a dessert -- either the aforementioned Mama's Pecan Pie, or maybe a basically good pumpkin, like this Apple Butter Pumpkin pie. How's that look?

For those of us not into Four Loko, can you recommend some good drinks that would be kind of cozy? Like a spiked cider?

You're of legal drinking age, right? RIGHT?

OK, how bout this Apple Brandy Old-Fashioned? That's what I'm making for guests tomorrow.

Do you have suggestions on things to do if you're family is too far away for a Thanksgiving visit, and it's your first semester? I don't know that many people well enough to invite myself over, and I can't host people in my dorm room. But I don't want to be lonely on this holiday!

Check out your university's Web site to see what sort of things are scheduled -- a lot of schools host Thanksgiving dinners, concerts and other events.

Use your Facebook status to let people know you are around this week and are looking for things to do. Chances are others are in the same boat.

And remember: Thanksgiving doesn't have to mean turkey and stuffing. Check out a new restaurant. Go see a movie. Explore a new part of town.

If they're like 90% of people their age, make the pumpkin pie. Just the fact that a young person decided to make a nice normal pumpkin pie instead of something unusual is very impressive to that age group. Weird but true.

Well, sure, but pecan is no slouch! And not unusual in the slightest.

Do many colleges offer meal plans that don't end up making students Fatty McFatfats?

Usually it's not just the meal plan's fault! Even schools that offer tubs of greasy food also have salad bars. And some schools have gone above and beyond to offer students healthy choices (I had lunch with a group of Georgetown freshmen in the dorms this summer and felt like I was at a spa).

The bigger culprits: Late-night pizza and Thursday night beers.

The key to avoiding that Freshman 15 is moderation, making mostly healthy food choices and hitting up the gym.

What are the best sides to make if you live with only a microwave and an (illegal) hot plate? like, stuff that requires very little dicing or chopping?

I'd make mashed potatoes, or mashed sweet potatoes, because you can nuke them, squish them out into a pot, and then add cream, Parmesan, herbs, salt/pepper, heating and adjusting until you like what you taste...

Or you could adapt these Eastern Shore Bourbon Mashers to your equipment: Fry up the bacon in a skillet on that illegal hot pot, nuke the sweet potatoes, add all those other great ingredients. You are old enough to drink bourbon, right? RIGHT?

I'd get murdered for admitting this too loudly, but I get kind of tired of the same old sides with my turkey on Thanksgiving. Are there any slightly less-traditional but not totally weird new sides I could add to a simple Thanksgiving this year?

You might try this take on brussels sprouts: They're shredded, and cooked just until crisp-tender, then paired with bacon and carrots. They taste really fresh, more like a warm slaw. I think that qualifies as slightly less-traditional but not totally weird!

Mmmm apple butter! Btw, digging the photos being in the chat.


Jenna - loved the thanksgiving in the microwave story. I think the person complaining that you are not like an expert chef was sort of missing the point. Most college students are not expert chefs. Have you thought about writing more about college debt burdens? I just was reading this piece on Gawker and I know a LOT of people in similar situations. It seems like colleges pay lip-service to the debt burden of students but aren't really doing anything about it. Am I wrong in feeling that way?

Haha -- thank you! Yes, as I was reading that question, I thought in my head: "I COOKED A TURKEY IN A MICROWAVE! What more do you want?" :)

It's true that students are graduating with more and more debt (the amount student loan debt in this country just passed the amount of credit card debt). Many colleges are responding by offering more and more financial aid and scholarships -- but it's still not enough.

It starts with the admissions process: Parents and students need to make sure they understand exactly how much a college will cost before signing up for four years. It's also helpful for students to understand how much their monthly student loan payments will be -- and if that's something they can afford, given their current choice of major.

The good news is, I think there's a growing sense of awareness about student loan debt. Thanks for the question.

With the holidays coming up, I would really like to take a stab at hosting dinner for my good friends (mid-twentysomethings and love food and wine!). Problem is, I have a horrendous fear of being a hostess. What can I do to get over my fear? Help!

Ask for help! Rather than trying to do everything yourself, assign each guest something to bring. You can handle the main dish -- maybe a turkey, maybe a more simple poultry dish, maybe something from the grocery store deli. The important thing is to pick something you feel comfortable cooking.

Make sure to have a couple of appetizers sitting out when your guests arrive (it can be as simple as carrots and hummus) so that you don't feel any pressure to rush everything else. Ask one of your best friends to come early and help out. Put on your favorite music. And have fun -- the best dinner parties aren't always the fanciest ones.

What sort of brown liquor should I drink tomorrow, and at what stage of the evening? I'm thinking about a Makers Manhattan before dinner, followed by single-malt scotch neat (or with a couple cubes of ice) after dinner. Then Jameson shots at the bar with my friends after after dinner. Got a better idea?

I think your plan sounds pretty darn good. Where is my invitation? 

BTW, you're old enough to drink, right? RIGHT?

I'll add a few thoughts, from our fab Spirits columnist, Jason Wilson: Here's his take on a Manhattan. Here are some of his thoughts on Scotch. And here's what he said about what to drink on Thanksgiving. Preview: He suggests starting early...

Jenna and Joe -- where are you spending Thanksgiving? Surely, you're not at the office tomorrow... right? What do your Thanksgivings look like and how is that different from when you were in college?

I'm at my sister's in southern Maine, where the main thing that's different from when I was in college is this: We're pretty much eating things she and my bro-in-law raised or grew themselves. Amazing, really. Thanks to greenhouses; row covers; lots of jars of put-up tomatoes, pickles, chutneys, salsas, jams, etc.; two freezers full of meat (including last year's slaughtered turkeys); and more, it's the pantry of my dreams, really. While I'm typing away at the chat, she's putting together a pie crust for her amazing apple pie. Then I'll make a cranberry-apricot one and the aforementioned pecan pie. We've already got the turkey in the fridge being dry-brined, I made a carrot-ginger soup off the cuff, and she's going to put together some stuffing. Then we'll make mole to go with the turkey. And lots more.

Well, I will be spending the holiday in the office working -- but I am hoping to sneak out early and head to a relative's house for a late dinner. Meanwhile, my family in Omaha will be having turkey, sweet potatoes in hollowed out orange halves and green bean casserole.

But I am already counting down the days until I fly home for Christmas and help my mom bake dozens of cookies.

I think we are going to end a few minutes early so that Joe can get back to cooking with his family. Thank you to everyone who sent in questions. Happy Thanksgiving!

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is the editor of the Food section, where he also writes occasional feature stories and the monthly Cooking for One column. He is the author of "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One," which will be published in spring 2011.
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