Food for Thought About the College Dining Hall
You might remember meals at your college dining hall fondly–or not so fondly. Back in “my day” at Rutgers I was greeted at the entrance to the dining hall with a sign that said: ‘Come Early, Avoid the Lines.’
I never thought that I would spend several of my post college years eating in college dining halls. But I’ve also found several pleasant surprises, as has Hanna Stotland, one of my colleagues in college admissions advising, who has visited more colleges than I have over a longer period of time. And, unlike me, she knows how to cook well. I asked Hanna if she could lend some culinary perspectives to college dining halls in this special YouTube, my last for the year.
Today’s dining halls are more like food courts at the shopping malls.
It’s rare to find a dining hall that is not organized in stations as you will see on a Pinterest page that I made. It’s also rare that students will face long lines that eat into their valuable time. It is also common to find breakfast food available at lunchtime, even dinner. Dining hall managers works to accommodate student schedules, not the other way around.
The “poster” dining hall is at Christchurch College, Oxford University, model for Hogwarts’ dining hall in the Harry Potter movies. But in addition to new designs, more and more dining halls feature locally sourced organic foods. The phrase “farm-to-table” is used as much among dining hall managers as it is around owners of upscale restaurants. Dining halls are also far more accommodating to dietary requirements and special needs such as allergy-free, kosher and vegan dishes. True, this adds more costs to preparing food. But today’s college-going population are pickier eaters than their parents probably were in “the day.”
Today, many schools sell meals over a semester or “swipes.” Students are empowered to eat on their schedule.
When I was in college you bought a meal plan based on the numbers of meals per week. Once you walked into the dining hall for that meal you could not come back later for the same meal. The dining hall was not the place where you might have grabbed a cup of coffee before first period, then grabbed a real breakfast afterwards.
But today’s students worry less about paying for meals that they are not likely to eat. Sometimes, the meals unused during the fall semester can be applied to the spring. People might complain about the rising costs of the meal plan. But they cannot deny that the pricing strategy is fairer. Meal plans may come with “dining dollars” of assorted names. These are pre-paid dollars that may be spent at cafes’ or “grab and go” stores. Sometimes they can be used at food courts–they have the fast food favorites–even off campus eateries. But the nice thing about dining dollars is that they make it less necessary for a student to carry money.
In considering any college, visit the dining hall and ask about the meal plans.
The college will often require that first-year students purchase the most expensive plan available for those who live in residence halls. I have always been told that this is in the interests of the students, to help ensure that they are getting proper nutrition. Personally, I believe that the college dining hall managers are smarter than that. They have calculated how many meal plans must be sold in order for the dining operation to meet, and possibly come out ahead of expenses. There are more tastes and preferences to accommodate, meaning more food items to buy and probably throw away.
The college dining hall was one of the first operations that many colleges outsourced. Firms like Aramark, Bon Apetit and Sodexo control most of the market. The vendor works with the college on the design of the dining hall as well as the meal options.
For the most part these have worked out. But here are suggestions for those who hope to take campus visits, or for questions to ask when that is not possible .
Are there cafe’s as well as “grab and go” locations?
College-bound students appreciate a choice of places to eat, as opposed to having only one main dining hall and a food court or convenience store in the student center. Many college libraries, for example, will have their own cafes’ as well as many of the more trafficked classroom buildings.
How many food stations and options are available?
I get concerned when some are nearly empty while others have lines. That’s a message about the quality of some of the foods as well as what the students like. It is also a message about the preferences of the students.
Is there a suggestion board?
I’ve seen many dining halls that accept and post responses to suggestions from students. Chances are, the more meal choices offered to students, the more suggestions management is likely to see.
How are special needs handled?
Some schools will arrange for students with unique needs to have meals made special and picked up special, too. If your family keeps kosher, for example, those meals will likely be delivered special. I have been to two schools, Franklin and Marshall and Trinity College (CT), that had Kosher kitchens. When I went to Rutgers years ago, those who kept Kosher went to Hillel for those meals. For some the trip was quite a schlep on the campus bus.
The meal plan is the third most expensive cost for a first-year college student after tuition and fees and the living space. However, you can find the meal plan that works to best advantage based on price and quantity. And this time the fussiest eaters are more likely to find something that they like on the menus.
Hanna Stotland’s specialty is educational crisis management, and she presents on many topics. Check out her page!
Need help on the journey to college? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 609-406-0062.
Want to know more about me? Check out these podcasts!
Listen to my talk, College Is A Learning AND Living Community, hosted by Dr. Cynthia Colon from Destination YOUniversity on Voice of America Radio!
Listen to my talk, What Exactly Is a Good College? hosted by test-prep experts Amy Seeley and Mike Bergin on Tests And The Rest!