Spicing up the common college pantry

College can be tough for many reasons: midterms, annoying roommates and, most importantly, the absence of Mom’s cooking.

But that doesn’t mean college students have to gain the Freshman 15 every semester by eating at Burger King nor spend their whole month’s allowance in just one week at Lemonade.

Packaged foods and meals have inevitably become a practical staple in any college student’s kitchen. Just take a peek into the average dorm pantry or refrigerator and you’ll likely find a private stash of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Top Ramen and Rice-A-Roni.

Although packaged and canned foods are not always the healthiest, many brands, such as Campbell’s Healthy Request Soups, are making an effort to create more natural and nutritious products with less sodium and more high quality ingredients.

The only problem with packaged and canned food is that they can get repetitive to the point of nausea. Having Top Ramen every night for dinner might save money, but in the end you might never want eat it again — let alone see it.

An easy solution to making the same old conventional packaged or canned foods into something unusually appetizing is to add a few simple ingredients.

For breakfast, instead of just plain instant oatmeal, add some brown sugar or cinnamon to sweeten it up. For a healthier version, throw in some fresh or frozen blueberries or raspberries.

If plain butter on toast isn’t enough, mix it up by adding a couple shakes of cinnamon and sugar on top. Chop up an aromatic leaf of fresh basil and tomato to liven up an ordinary bagel with cream cheese.

Pancakes mixes, such as Bisquick, are also great for quick but tasty breakfasts. For some extra flavor throw in a handful of chocolate chips.

“[Bisquick] literally lasted me a whole year,” said Rachel Porter, a junior studying piano performance. “It’s also really nice because on the back it includes all different sorts of recipes like pancakes and waffles.”

Of course, it can be difficult to make the trek to the grocery store for students without cars, but if they can hitch a ride, it’s well worth it.

“This semester it’s a little harder to go back [to my apartment] and make food since I live off campus,” Porter said as she grabbed four packages of Pasta Roni at Ralphs. “Sometimes [Pasta Roni] tells you to add chicken to it, which I do. One time my friend put clams in it. It was a full-on gourmet meal.”

Other favorite pasta foods, such as Kraft Macaroni & Cheese or Top Ramen, can be converted into flavorful meals as well. The bland macaroni and cheese can be transformed into exotic Mediterranean macaroni and cheese with the help of some feta cheese, tomato and basil. Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese is another healthier option, made with organic pasta shells and real aged cheese, all for a total of $2.06 at Ralphs.

For a spaghetti dinner with a special tang, toss in a handful of olives or marinated artichoke hearts to a pan of tomato sauce.

To turn Top Ramen into a top-notch entrée, try adding a raw egg. It makes the broth thicker as it cooks in the noodles. Canned tuna can be made into a scrumptious spread with a few shakes of dill or a tablespoon of a favorite salad dressing mixed with mayonnaise, salt and pepper.

On a cold or rainy night, canned soups can not only warm up the stomach but also give a tantalizing thrill to the taste buds with some extra seasoning. Campbell’s Tomato Soup is reborn anew with a few sprigs of basil and a handful of crunchy croutons. Chicken noodle soup turns into a Mexican tortilla soup with bits of shredded cilantro, crumbled tortilla chips and grated cheddar cheese.

Of course, not to leave out the more nutritious foods, a mixed salad greens package makes a restaurant-worthy salad with just a few extra ingredients like marinated artichokes, avocado, bacon bits or sunflower seeds.

Some delectable deserts include crumbled Oreos or chocolate chip cookies from Chips Ahoy over ice cream, hot chocolate with a couple pinches of cinnamon or a waffle ice cream sandwich with maple syrup poured on top.

Leftovers can also be combined or transformed into new meals. Simply put leftover Rice-A-Roni Spanish Rice on top of a pile of crispy tortilla chips with some beans and cheese and turn it into a knock-out nacho fest. Or take spoonfuls of tuna left over from a sandwich and add it to a salad mix with some diced veggies.

Just because college students have limited time or talent to make a homemade meal from scratch doesn’t mean that they should force-feed themselves generic pre-made packaged meals time after time again.

A quick and simple addition of a favorite herb, spice or vegetable can act as an inspiration to both the food and the cook.