When most of us remember our college days, it's with not-so-fond memories of college student food: Ramen noodles. Soup cooked in a popcorn popper. Ramen noodles. Government cheese. Ramen noodles. Frozen pizza. Oh, and let's not forget ramen noodles.
And not much has changed over the years. Alex Sandroff, a 21-year-old culinary arts management major at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, lives in an off-campus apartment but remembers his days in the dorm, when he'd come home from work late at night and be reduced to ramen noodles or microwave popcorn.
"It was pretty awful," Sandroff said.
We shouldn't be surprised, then, by the freshman 15. Or 20 or 25. They're already into the second semester and it's probably too late to stave off that traditional first-year weight gain, but we can provide tips toward a more nutritious diet.
Students who live in UNLV campus housing are required to have a university dining plan. Cooking in the dorms is prohibited, but some students ignore that.
"I do think a lot of people sneak in hot plates," said Ryan Wieczorek, a 25-year-old beverage management and hospitality major who lives in an off-campus condo. "I know a lot of people have refrigerators. There's undercover cooking. Be friends with your RA (resident assistant) and you can keep your little microwave or your little blender."
Some use those sneaked-in microwaves, Wieczorek said, to cook eggs or vegetables. Protein shakes and salsas can be made in an illicit blender, as can soups or sauces.
"It all depends on how experienced the person is," Wieczorek said. "A lot of culinary arts majors have hot plates or induction burners. They're probably the ones who do it all the time."
For anyone else who lives in the dorms, Sandroff has a suggestion.
"My best advice is to find someone who has a kitchen they can use," he said. "Make things you can reuse a lot of different ways, like fajita mix that you can microwave -- put eggs in and microwave and you have a small omelet."
Diana Mullin brings her food with her, although from her own home kitchen.
"On days I'm going to school, I pack a lunch or a snack before I leave my house, so that way I'm not spending money on the pizza or whatever it is they have at the school," said Mullin, a 27-year-old culinary management student who lives in a single-family house.
She follows the "eat the rainbow" philosophy of consuming different-colored fruits and vegetables to ensure a balanced nutrient intake, and cuts apples, oranges, other fruits or vegetables into snack-sized pieces and transports them in zip-top bags, or makes peanut butter and jelly or tuna sandwiches.
"If you have a bottle of water you've kept in the refrigerator -- or even in the freezer during the summer months -- it keeps (the food) perfectly chilled," she said.
Wieczorek said he cooks about a third of his meals, but when he does eat out he's careful, because "I'm a health nut." His top choices are Taco Bell and Sweet Tomatoes -- Taco Bell for the low-fat Fresco menu and Sweet Tomatoes for the salads.
When he's cooking at home, "I go to Whole Foods a lot, so I try to find unusual fish that I've never worked with before or fish I've never seen," he said. "I cook a lot of Asian fusion-type meals. I cut out fat wherever I can. There's no butter in my fridge."
His advice to other aspiring cooks: "Watch the Food Network. You learn a lot of stuff."
"I think the biggest thing is stick with seasonal ingredients," Sandroff said. "Try to make a variety of things -- whatever looks good, looks fresh in the market."
Mullin recommended planning ahead. "I don't think that you should rely on the school cafeteria."
But for those who do, there are a variety of healthful choices. The Dining Commons' sandwich board is a good option, noted Christine Bergman, associate dean of the hotel college at UNLV and a food scientist and food and beverage professor.
"Students can make their own sandwiches, so there's choices there," Bergman said. "Choose a whole-grain bread and load up with veggies with maybe a little meat and a piece of cheese."
Bergman said food outlets in the Student Union -- for which dorm residents receive credits -- offer a mixed bag as far as healthful options go, but that the sandwich shop there has fresh salads that can be topped with a chicken breast for protein. She said she encourages students to stay away from cream-based soups, choosing broth-based instead.
"We do try to offer a variety of foods," said Susan Fukushima, resident district manager for Sodexo, which operates all UNLV food service facilities except those at Thomas & Mack, the Cox Pavilion and Sam Boyd Stadium. "There's always the salad bar that has a wide variety of items. If they wanted to choose something from the salad bar and have us cook it for them -- certain vegetables, for example -- that can be done upon request at the grill."
The Dining Commons also offers vegetarian and vegan foods at every meal -- it serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and a late-night menu -- and nutritional information is available for the major dishes on the line, Fukushima said.
Additionally, Sodexo has a registered dietitian on staff, so "if students have any dietary concerns, the dietitian is available to work with them to see what types of foods are available," she added. That includes special dietary needs. "If somebody requires something special, (the dietitian) sources the food for us and we have it available for those students," Fukushima said.
With all that's available to them, though, individual dietary decisions are made by the students. While athletes tend to be fairly conscientious, Bergman said, not all students are.
"I think almost all of them are interested in having a conversation about nutrition and understanding it," she said. "When it comes to actually putting things into practice, they're just like the average American. We like to learn and gain knowledge, but turning that into actual behavioral choices, they don't correlate."
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@review journal.com or 702-383-0474.