A “Taste” of College Before You Go

Do you think about food much? It’s hard not to think about food while watching TV, especially around dinnertime.

Did you ever notice how those pizza commercials and juicy hamburger ads seem to conveniently appear right around the evening news and, most temptingly, later in the evening? The Madison Avenue ad wo/men (or “Mad Men,” as that great TV series called them) know what’s going on inside our heads … and stomachs.

Another question for high school seniors: Do you think about what your food will be like when you go to college? If not, you should.

If you’re at all like I was when I was pondering college, you may be used to great home cooking. Maybe your Mom or Dad is a virtuoso in the kitchen. Or, maybe you’re lucky enough to have a resident cook in your house, other than your parents.

On the other hand, maybe you don’t have a positive experience going on at your place of residence and you’re thinking about better days ahead on campus, when you can count on good tasting food that appears at regular times. I hope that your situation isn’t one where a college dining hall seems more inviting than your own home’s dinner table.

Whatever the situation, I thought it timely to consider the aspect of college food. Regular Decision results are on the near horizon and they will lead to enrollment choices. Those enrollment choices will lead to (at least) four years (at nine months per year) of your undergraduate life in residence at the college of your choice, assuming that you don’t transfer or drop out.

So, as always, I did some research to find out what the current critical thinking (a.k.a. subjective judgment) is about the quality of food on campus. In other words, where can you find the best college food these days?

My research project finally discovered what I think may be one of the better comprehensive surveys of food quality at colleges: 50 Best College with The Best Food 2017-2018. The reason I like it is because it’s a compendium (there’s an SAT word for you!) of food surveys. Here’s the intro to the compendium:

… Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, taste is in the mouth of the diner. In other words, determining an objective measure of the “best” food for college students would be nearly impossible. Some think taste and variety are the most important factors, while others place a premium on nutrition content or sustainability. Still others emphasize participation in food-related events or wellness programs.

In the end, we decided that all of these factors are important – and more! Therefore, we built one comprehensive ranking by combining the results of five other studies on college dining halls all across the country:

  • Niche: focused primarily on student surveys of campus dining. Average meal plan cost also played a minor role.
  • The Princeton Review: based entirely on student responses to the survey question “How do you rate the food on campus?”
  • College Rank: looked at factors such as versatility, nutrition and wellness, sustainability,
    and accessibility (accommodations for special diets).
  • The Daily Meal: focused on accessibility and quality of service, educational efforts, and food-centered events. It also took into account the quality of off-campus dining and “x-factor” characteristics.
  • The Best Colleges: determined quality based on sustainability efforts (innovative sourcing, waste reduction, etc.) and awards earned.

Taken together, the scores that each college received from the websites above accounted for 84% of our total ranking. We allocated the remaining 16% to measure affordability, which we calculated by looking at each college’s net price. We obtained net price figures, which combine tuition rates and fees/other expenses (e.g. cost of living) with average financial aid, from the National Center for Education Statistics. …

The long article continues with a brief statement about the ranked schools along with a representative picture from the campus. The point, though, is a numeric score. For example:

University of Pennsylvania


Much like its neighbor on this college dining halls ranking, the University of Pennsylvania splits its dining services between traditional/residential and retail food options. Two of the most popular retail establishments are The ARCH Café, which specializes in “hand-crafted Mexican delicacies” using seasonal (and locally-produced) ingredients, and Houston Market, where students can grab internationally-inspired entrées, hand-rolled sushi, gluten-free snacks, and more. And anything that’s not available at the 10+ on-campus stores is probably on the menu in one of Penn’s four all-you-care-to-eat dining facilities. One of these, known as Falk Dining Café, prepares all dishes Glatt Kosher and is open to both students and members of the surrounding community.
Net Price: $23,924/yr
Score: 64.9 …

You can see that halfway down (or up) the 50-college list, Penn scores a 64.9 out of a possible 100 points (claimed by #1 Bowdoin College). The University of Chicago anchored the beginning of the list with a 40.1. The remaining 48 schools are spread across the 40.1 – 100.0 score spectrum. You can search for your candidate schools, or (for you juniors) new prospects, in this interesting article.

However, let’s return to those five other studies mentioned above and see what their opinions say about #1. “Subjectivity” in rankings, as we all should know from general college rankings, can vary wildly. So, let’s take a look at the first-place listings for Best Food of these five sources. You can read the remaining finishers for yourself.

Niche: #1. University of California – Los AngelesUniversity of California – Los Angeles

Freshman: I love my school so much! There are so many clubs and organizations on campus that everyone can find something they like. Dancing clubs and culture clubs are pretty popular. Greek life is relatively a big scene, but it’s completely OK if you’re not into parties. Everyone’s pretty chill. Parties are usually on Thursdays. Academics here is amazing! Most of my professors are funny, caring and involved in teaching. All my professors are super helpful and have extended office hours the week before midterms and finals. There are many research opportunities and internships open every quarter.  Our basketball team is awesome and students get free stuff and sometimes a free chick-fill-A sandwich after the game. Football games are also pretty fun to watch, especially the USC game(The rivalry is real, tho we’re way better at everything but football). Totally worth the money and time. Overall, my life at UCLA is 10/10. Bruins work hard, party hard. I can’t even imagine myself at somewhere else! Read 4,528 Reviews. Overall Niche Grade: A+

Princeton Review: #1. University of Massachusetts-Amherst

At this “lively and fun” campus, “there is an abundance of students wherever you go because there is always something going on.” A popular hobby are the intramural sports leagues, and “students organize teams for dodgeball, basketball, and flag football to compete in student-facilitated tournaments.” Swimming at the local Puffers Pond is popular during September when it is still quite warm, and “most people are very satisfied once they find their place at UMass, whether that is within their major, the performing arts, sports, or other campus activities.”

Even though Amherst is a college town, “the campus runs like an isolated community (although students have a very heavy presence in the surrounding towns such as Northampton and Hadley).” UMass is committed to sustainability, and makes efforts that “span from energy efficient fuel sources to locally grown food to the beautiful and well-taken care of campus.” As a rarely seen benefit, students have no complaints about the food: “It seems like food is highly underestimated when it comes to colleges and UMass Dining, by far, is the greatest dining program in the country,” says one.

College Rank: #1. Kent State University

For those on a vegetarian or vegan diet, or for those simply looking to eat less meat, Kent State University has you covered! The University offers a call-ahead vegan and vegetarian meal program, called Veggie-A-Go-Go, which makes it convenient to eat meat-free. The Prentice Café offers a similar program for those on a gluten-free diet and the Eastway Market & Deli also offers gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan to-go meals. Kent State takes goody boxes to a new level, with packages for every occasion. 

Parents and friends can send baskets containing soups, teas, and tissues to students who have fallen ill. Other options, like the fruit basket and the healthy snack basket, are packed with nutritious treats for health-conscious students. Kent State’s carry-out containers are 100% biodegradable, and much of its produce is purchased locally. You can learn more about Kent State dining here.

The Daily Meal: #1. Duke University

Duke has locations on campus serving fare that sounds more suited to a fine-dining restaurant than a college dining hall, such as pan-seared diver scallops with a basil pistou, carved-to-order porchetta with salsa verde, and gnocchi and sage au gratin. Don’t feel like leaving your bed all day? Don’t you worry, because there are eateries on Duke’s campus that will deliver meals right to your dorm. At Duke, there are a total of 59 dining options for students on the meal plan, including 35 on-campus locations ranging from coffee shops to outposts of local favorites, 17 local restaurants that deliver to anywhere on campus, and seven food trucks. Whatever you want, wherever you want it, you can get it at Duke. But even with all these delicious options available, you’re still going to be eating healthily.

Duke Dining partnered with the on-campus nutritionist to create the Balance Your Plate program, which is designed to help students build a healthy and delicious plate of food. The Chef’s Chatter series focuses on one healthy food item a month and how to cook, eat, and enjoy that food in many different ways. Oh yeah, and Duke Dining holds more than 60 events every year, with each month featuring a large-scale event like the ever-popular Cruise-Themed Dinner. Do you see anything wrong with this dining program? Because we don’t. We didn’t in 2015 either, yet the school continued building. Now, with the West Union renovation (called “the most cutting-edge service that has ever been attempted in a university dining environment” by the school) having been completed just in time for the 2016–2017 school year, there are 13 additional spots for Duke students to choose from.

Best Colleges: #1. Liberty University

[Note: Technically, these ranking are for “Best [College] Dining Halls,” but close enough.)

Concentrating on fresh ingredients and diverse culinary options, Liberty features a variety of dining choices. The Reber-Thomas Dining Hall offers an innovative approach to dining with 18 unique areas, and the school’s food-service program focuses on serving students, faculty, and staff healthy food choices. Liberty has developed one of the nation’s best gluten-free dining experiences, and in the simple servings station, they offer food free from seven of the eight most prominent food allergens. Additionally, Liberty’s dining hall is one of the only facilities in the nation to include both a BBQ slow-cooker and a Mongolian grill. Offering international menus and unlimited pizza, coffee, smoothies, and an enormous salad bar, Liberty can serve up to 6,000 students in a single meal.


See what I mean by “subjective”? These five #1s couldn’t be more dissimilar across any number of criteria. However, to coin a phrase, taste lies on the tongue of the diner.

If you want to further confuse yourself, just do a Web search for best college food and be prepared to be snowed under with disparate rankings. However, allow me to offer you some advice as you search for appetizing academics, so to speak: Don’t make food quality your #1 selection criterion for choosing a college. In fact, don’t include it as part of your top three, or maybe even five.

There are many other great reasons to select a school other than food. The traditional Freshman 10 (or maybe 15!) weight gain can attack even if campus food isn’t all that tasty.

So, use your head, not your stomach to find the best matches for your higher educational needs. You’ll be quite glad that you did.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.