Cooking @ College with Chef Jill Houk

Broccoli flowers.

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Chef Jill Houk
Co-Founder of Centered Chef Food Studios
Chicago, IL

Students are just settling into the fall semester (or gearing up to go), which usually ushers in late nights, stressful situations, and some very poor food and drink choices. Despite eating cafeteria food or food cooked in a dorm room, students can still feed themselves healthfully and easily. Follow these tips and recipes to maximize energy, retain a good level of focus and avoid “the freshman 15.”

  • Stay hydrated to maintain ideal weight AND energy levels. To do so, drink plenty of water. Most people know thirst can disguise itself as hunger, which can cause you to overeat or make you make poor food choices. What’s interesting is that thirst can also disguise itself as fatigue. Even slight dehydration can leave you feeling tired and lethargic. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. If you feel fatigued after a good night’s sleep, try cutting down on alcohol during the evening.
  • Avoid or minimize consumption of alcohol. Alcohol contains empty calories, is dehydrating, and leads to poor food choices when consumed in excess.
  • Reduce reliance on caffeine. Although you may be tempted for the short-term boost a soda or coffee provides, the best way to ensure you can face all the challenges at school is to get adequate rest. Caffeine often interrupts sleep, is dehydrating and provides an artificial sense of alertness that does not equate to the rest your body needs to study.
  • Always eat breakfast! Studies have shown that people that eat breakfast are in a better mood and have more energy throughout the day. Optimal breakfasts are full of fiber and protein, which provide sustained energy. Excellent choices are scrambled eggs with veggies, plain eggs with a fruit salad, oatmeal, or whole-grain toast with cheese or peanut butter. Even a slice of cold pizza with lean meat and veggies is an ideal day starter!
  • Keep your blood sugar levels balanced by eliminating sugary foods. This way, the flow of energy to your body is constant. If you eat foods that are high in sugar, the blood sugar level will spike, giving you a short term energy boost but leave you feeling fatigued later. Instead of sugar, opt for produce, proteins and whole grains. These foods provide a slow, steady release of fuel, normalizing blood sugar levels and keeping your energy level consistent.
  • Always choose whole grains when they are offered. This includes whole wheat bread, brown rice, barley and whole grain cereals like oatmeal. Grains are excellent sources of B vitamins, which help to counteract the chemicals and pollutants that pollute the body.
  • Studying and late nights drain energy from your system. To add it back, ensure you’re getting enough anti-oxidants. Eat 6-10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. It’s easy to get this amount. A banana is two servings, a handful of raisins in another serving, a small salad is two servings and half a cup of cooked broccoli is another serving. You’re already at six if you eat all this!!!
  • When choosing produce, lean towards darker fruits and veggies, such as spinach, dark leafy greens, vibrant berries and sweet potatoes. These contain the most nutrients per calorie, and will lead to increased energy.
  • Stock your dorm room with healthy, low-fat, high-nutrient snacks like microwave popcorn, whole grain pretzels, dried fruit, canned and frozen vegetables and fresh hardy fruit like citrus, apples and pears.
  • Ask your loved ones to send you a pre-paid grocery card instead of a care package. It’s easier for them to mail, and makes it convenient for you to buy healthy foods, instead of loading up on homemade cookies and cakes. If you need a cookie and cake fix, befriend a dorm-mate whose loved ones keep sending fattening foods. Eat a reasonable portion and feel satisfied without blowing your diet!
  • If your friends and family insist on sending you unhealthy foods, set it in a common area to share. You’ll gain instant popularity while maintaining your health.
  • For those days when you have had too much alcohol the night before, treat your body to foods that replenish nutrients you’ve lost during drinking. Foods high in potassium help, and include orange juice, potatoes, bananas, avocados, tomatoes, broccoli, soybeans, brown rice, garlic and apricots. You will also want to include foods high in cysteine, the substance that breaks down hangover-causing toxins. Foods high in cysteine include eggs, pork, chicken, turkey, duck, luncheon meat, milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, red peppers, garlic, onions, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, oats, granola, and wheat germ.
  • College is a stressful time, so choose foods that fight anxiety, such as berries, guacamole, mixed nuts, oranges, asparagus, chai tea, and dark chocolate.
    If you are eating at a cafeteria or in a fraternity/sorority dining room, communicate with the foodservice director that you would like healthy foods available. Often, directors assume that college students want only burgers, pizzas and fries, and that’s what they provide in abundance. While students do crave these foods, others enjoy salads, fish, vegetarian entrees or ethnic dishes. By voicing your dietary needs, you will have a better chance of getting healthy food.


Beef & Broccoli

Makes 2 servings


1 cup chopped broccoli
Pan spray
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 cups water
1 package ramen noodles
½ pound deli beef or deli chicken, sliced thickly (as the deli counter to do this), and cut into 1-inch squares
2-3 packets soy sauce


Place broccoli in a microwave-safe bowl and cover with a paper towel. Microwave broccoli on high for 2 minutes until cooked through.
Heat your hot pot on high. Spray bottom with pan spray, and add onion and cooked broccoli. Cook, stirring, until onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add water and bring to a boil.
Add noodles to hot pot and cook according to package directions. Drain, leaving a little bit of water and add seasoning packet.
Keep your hot pot hot. Spray bottom with pan spray and cook meat until heated through.
Place cook meat over noodles and stir, adding soy sauce if desired.

Quick Pita Pizzas

Makes 2 servings


1 each 100% whole wheat pita
olive oil pan spray
1/2 cup marinara sauce
1 cup baby spinach, divided
1 ounce fresh mozzarella, sliced 1/2″ thick
2 ounces cooked chicken breasts without skin or deli chicken meat


Preheat toaster oven to 400º F.
Lightly spray one side of pita bread with pan spray. Place oiled side down onto the tray that comes with your toaster oven.
Spread marinara sauce over pita and sprinkle with half of spinach. Cover with cheese and chicken strips.
Bake until pita is crisp and cheese is melted, about 4-5 minutes. Top with remaining spinach and serve.

Microwave Chicken and Rice

Makes one serving.


1 small boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup bell pepper, chopped
1 package heat and eat brown rice (sold on the shelves near pasta and rice)
1/4 cup water


Place all ingredients into a microwave-safe bowl and cover with a paper towel
Microwave on medium for 15 minutes, stirring mixture and rotating the bowl every 5 minutes.
Let sit for an additional 5 minutes or until all the water is absorbed.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

Easy Lowfat Nachos

Makes 4 servings.


4 ounces baked tortilla chips
1/2 cup canned black beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup fat-free salsa
2 ounces lowfat cheddar cheese, shredded
2 tablespoons plain, lowfat yogurt
1 each raw carrot, shredded
2 each scallion, chopped fine


Place baked corn chips on a large plate. Top with black beans, salsa, and cheese. Microwave on MEDIUM 45 seconds, until cheese melts.
Remove from microwave oven, top with yogurt and chopped veggies.

Popcorn “Granola”

Makes 4 servings.


4 cups popped 94% fat-free butter flavor microwave popcorn
1/4 cup almonds, dry-roasted
1/2 cup raisin
1/4 cup peanut
1 cup apricots, dried


Prepare popcorn according to package directions.
Carefully open popcorn package and empty into a large bowl.
Add all other ingredients and mix.


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