INSTANT RAMEN MEANS many things to my three kids, including a clockwork parental reminder that doctored-up noodles are a classic college dinner. “Add lots of vegetables! Add tofu for protein; it’s still cheap!”

They manage not to grumble, “I know, Mom!” when reminded that Madhur Jaffrey’s Instant Pot red lentil soup, a regular on our home menu, could take them through a week of college lunches for pennies per serving. Or that bulk bins are the budget place for thick-cut oats that take just a few minutes longer to simmer than packets of instant oatmeal, but keep them feeling full until lunch.

Perhaps their tolerance came because they knew something we didn’t: A lot of college dorms (unlike my long-ago housing) don’t include kitchens. A lot of colleges also require underclassmen to purchase expensive and all-encompassing meal plans.

So it was: Instead of sending our big kid off with the stack of cookbooks I’d imagined like a wedding dowry, we wound up shipping him an electric hot-water kettle to make tea in his tiny shared room (permitted only due to the automatic shut-off feature). Toaster? Impossible. Instant Pot? Unthinkable.

He survived just fine on the cafeteria lines, of course, supplemented by the occasional Costco fig bars that we’d tuck in his care packages. We figured he was getting a good education, which was the goal — just not one in meal prep or food budgets.


I thought I’d easily transitioned into that first grown-and-flown experience, but when he came home for his first break, I fully realized how strange our meals had felt without him. His feet pattering down the stairs in the morning and the whir of the coffee grinder felt like a big exhale into normalcy — even though he drank coffee only the final few years of the 19 he spent here. What a weird relief that a single four-pack of baked goods or four-top cafe table was once again too small for the whole family.

Somewhere in that week, cooking our family standards and stocking the fridge with his favorites, it hit me that this glorious “normal” will never be truly normal again. For the foreseeable future, five places at the dinner table just means a welcome calendar interval or vacation.

I know from friends with older kids — and from my own memory — that we won’t even be the destination for all future breaks, that work schedules and travel plans and romantic partners will get some precedence. For now, I’m grateful that he was glad to be with us, or, at least, with his single bedroom; a decent hot-water heater; and full access to pots, pans, burners and oven.

When he volunteered to make holiday pies, I pointed him to store-bought crusts in the freezer. Instead, he went for flour and butter and shortening and voted to bake his own. I guess he would: “Pie Camp” author Kate McDermott taught him to make crust when he was 8, in one of her first children’s classes. He could have opened a packet of ramen, but he had learned to make it from scratch with the “Let’s Make Ramen!” graphic novel that came out when he was in high school. And when I came down for breakfast over break, rather than the plain oatmeal I usually cook on the stovetop, I found a pan of oven-baked oatmeal, sweet and warm and crisp-topped with toasted nuts.  

We enjoyed it all together. I guess there are some things he didn’t need college to learn.

Baked Oatmeal
Makes 6 servings

(Note: This recipe has proven quite flexible; it’s hard to go wrong with whatever fruits or nuts or sweeteners you favor.)

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 cups milk or nondairy milk (Note: We use whole milk.)
1 cup fresh or frozen berries, or ½ cup chopped dried fruit
½ cup pumpkin or sunflower seeds, walnuts or almonds, toasted (optional)
1/3 cup honey, maple syrup or packed brown sugar
4 tablespoons (½ stick) melted butter or coconut oil
1 large egg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
½ teaspoon salt

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and butter an 8-by-8-inch baking dish.
2. Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl, then pour into the baking dish.
3. Bake until the top is golden and the oats are set, about 30 minutes.
— From “The Joy of Cooking”