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Articles / Applying to College / The College Dining Experience

May 29, 2018

The College Dining Experience

The College Dining Experience

Yesterday was Memorial Day, a day known for several things:

1. Most importantly, it's a day America pays tribute to and remembers those who served and gave their lives that we may remain free to enjoy holidays

2. It marks the traditional beginning of summer

3. It's for food -- hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, barbeque and a host of other delicacies.

Let's focus on number three from a collegiate point of view. College food. Most of you who will be heading off to college this fall for the first time will be leaving the nest, as the cliche goes, departing from the comfort and convenience of at least semi-regular home-cooked meals. Food can be quite comforting, but separating yourself from a familiar source of supply can be unsettling.

I know that it was for me. I spent my formative years as part of one of those Leave It to Beaver-era families from the 1950s. My mother always had dinner ready at the stroke of 5 p.m. and we three (I was an only child, which probably explains a lot to my readers) -- my Mom, Dad and I -- would sit at the dinner table eating, discussing our respective days and commenting on my mother's cooking, which was always first-class.

Then, when I went off to college -- a very small liberal arts college about a hundred miles from home -- I learned to deal with mealtimes that were nothing like home, naturally. The first adjustment I had to make was trying to justify the name of the man who was head of food service with the actual food itself. His name was Mr. Bloodgood. He was nice enough and not shy about mixing with us students, but when I saw the name “Bloodgood" on the little plastic name badge he wore, my imagination played tricks on me.

The menu at my college was a half-notch above soup kitchen institutional. In fact, my roommate and I invented the acronym “SKI" for it: Soup Kitchen Institutional. We would be hanging out in our dorm's pathetic “lounge," watching The Edge of Night with our other soap opera-obsessed pals, and Greg would look over at me and say, “Let's SKI!" So we would head for the dining hall. Sometimes, on our way across the quad, we would mime cross-country skiers. That was always good for weird looks and laughs from other students. When arriving at the stairs leading down to the basement-level cafeteria, we would “slalom" down the steps toward the lengthening line of hungry undergrads. Had we spent as much time studying as we did creating mindless physical comedy (if you could call it that), we may have been Rhodes Scholars.

The foodSKI (we used our best Russian accents when we called it that) menu there was pretty bad. I recall that Thursday lunch was hot dogs. Fridays had some variant of fish with an option of soup and salad. My memory is conjuring some kind of “mystery meat" for dinner as an earlier weekday entree. (Forgive me if I can't recall the schedule for the entire week from 53 years ago.) Breakfast was instant oatmeal or maybe a couple of those miniature cereal boxes of Frosted Flakes or Wheaties, complemented by some cold toast and watery orange juice. And so it was, day in and day out. No wonder we spent most of our precious free cash on Hilltop Sub Shop's legendary, mayonnaise-packed steak sandwiches at night. The college dining hall slammed shut once dinner ended, leaving us with just our private dorm room stash of backup snacks or local takeout.

Flash Forward to Current Day

What's going on today, compared to the gulag-like dining experience of my college days (maybe more appropriately referred to as “daze")?

The contrast couldn't be greater. I did some extensive research about modern food service at America's colleges and was amazed at what I found. Although I'm always complaining here about the sky-high cost of higher education, my college food findings gave me a moment's pause (a short moment) to consider how expensive current college food service options are and how that plays into overall student budgets.

One of the best summaries of the many “best college food" articles on the web that I found is from Bon Appetit: Bon Appetit Feeds 13 of 75 Best Colleges for Food in America. Here's some context on that from the article's introduction:

It's long past time to give up on the old cliché of campus food being the worst part of the college experience — it only shows the age of those writing it, not the reality. These days, university dining is one of the many core offerings that institutions use to attract students, and food service providers compete to stand out. Which is why even here at Bon Appétit Management Company, which started the restaurant-quality revolution in on-campus dining, we're thrilled when our campuses are recognized for their high standards and innovative programs. ...

I had to laugh at ... it only shows the age of those writing it, not the reality … Guess they knew with whom they were dealing in yours truly! More context:

Congratulations to the 13 Bon Appétit teams who made The Daily Meal's recent list of the 75 Best Colleges for Food in America for 2015. The publication evaluated more than 600 colleges on five criteria:

- Nutrition and Sustainability

- Accessibility and Service

- Education and Events

- Surrounding Area (off-campus dining options)

- The “X" Factor (creative extras)

“Even though the actual quality of the food was extremely important in our ranking, the overall dining experience, including the surrounding area, is what really determined which colleges made the cut and which didn't," wrote Daily Meal Editor Dan Myers.

Here are our 13 ranked schools, and what the Daily Meal had to say about them:

I won't cite all 13, just five. I want to give those of you soon-to-be college first-years some idea of what the dining experience is like at (some) colleges today. Maybe you'll be attending one of the 13 praise-worthy schools mentioned in the Bon Appetit article. If so, congratulations!

But a word of warning: Beware the so-called Freshman 15. At one of these 13 schools (and no doubt others not mentioned), you could encounter the Freshman 20! Yikes.

In any (weighty) event, here is information about five outstanding collegiate dining experiences:

#3 Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.

Johns Hopkins' dining services boast a hotel-quality brunch, food and wine pairings for seniors of legal drinking age, themed monotony breakers each month, and cooking classes in on-campus residences that focus on healthy eating. There are also monthly faculty and staff dinners with students to promote community-building as well as weekly chef demonstrations, tastings, and samplings in retail locations. Options served at the dining hall include manicotti puttanesca, house-smoked beef brisket sandwiches, rotisserie entrées and sides, and carved-to-order roasted meat sandwiches, so you will always be eating well at Johns Hopkins.

#10 Emory University, Atlanta, Ga.

The extensive list of events held at Emory, including Melon Mania, the Heirloom Tomato Festival, and a Mardi Gras celebration, had us at hello, but there's so much more going on. The kitchen serves truly impressive dishes, like a grilled vegetable and balsamic panini, but it seems that the well-stocked salad bar is the healthy student favorite, which cannot be said for most colleges. And although Emory is dedicated to promoting health with their Healthy Eating Partners Program, they also realize that every once in a while, simple comfort food is all that diners need. That's why students have access to national chains like Chick-fil-A and Starbucks right on campus. The student-run advisory committee runs the show at the dining halls, going through complaints and making sure that everything is suited to the students' needs.

#31 Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

Orange pork stir-fry, a fresh fruit bar, and juicy barbecue are among the delicious options you can find at the dining halls at Washington University. The dining services host more than five events a week, like a chef competition, Dr. Seuss Night, and Low-Carbon Diet Day, so eating is as fun as it is delicious on this college campus. It's clear that they're dedicated to giving their students the absolute best when it comes to food service, but they also take sustainability seriously, which is why they turn used cooking oil into biofuel, compost waste, and source ingredients exclusively from local vendors. Washington University is known for school spirit, and it's not hard to see why with dining credentials like these.

#62 Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill.

With menu options like balsamic roasted pork loin, vegetable and mushroom pot pie, and insanely creative pizzas, who wouldn't want to eat at Wheaton College? And the menu isn't the only thing setting this college apart from the rest. Wheaton's dining services are dedicated to offering their students the freshest, most sustainable options as often as possible. More than 20 percent of the ingredients used in the dining halls are purchased from local vendors. Transparency is also very important to Wheaton, which is why they use visible grills and woks so students know exactly how their food is being prepared.

#70 Carleton College, Northfield, Minn.

Just because Carleton College is small doesn't mean you should underestimate its dining program. Boneless pork chops with roasted red potatoes, steamed cauliflower, caramelized red onions, and warm cinnamon apple sauce; eggplant Parmesan with roasted red pepper polenta fries; and roasted butternut squash soup with wilted kale are just a few of the drool-worthy options on the menu at Carleton's dining hall. And if you ever have any questions about food and health, you can dine with the dietician. Other awesome things going on at this liberal arts school include a Star Wars-themed “May the 4th Be with You" dinner, a Mardi Gras celebration, and a farm bike tour.

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm darn hungry. Wow. And that was just five of the 13! There are eight (“ate" Ha!) more to sample in the article. Maybe your school will be on the list. I hope so.

It's too bad that there was no Daily Meal judging of the 75 Best Colleges for Food in America back in 1965. My college might have notched a win (another big “Ha!"). Speaking of Mr. Bloodgood's prized dining experience, I just remembered the name of the gentleman who was in charge of the food service program at my son's college, which shall remain unnamed: Mr. Orifice. I kid you not.

Maybe those two food service directors got together and formed their own company. I'm trying to imagine what that company might have been called. Maybe I'll create a contest here so that my readers can suggest names for that speculative organization. Then again, maybe I won't.

Anyway, bon collegiate appetit!


Admit This

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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