Campus cuisine is changing

Universities see a rise in dorm cooking, more dining hall options

Once upon a time, eating in a college dorm meant soup in a hotpot or getting pizza delivered. The most interesting thing about the campus dining hall was often the salad bar.

No more. These days, college students have gourmet palates and a growing interest in preparing their own food. Mini-refrigerators and microwaves in dorm rooms are as essential as laptops. Chefs drop by dorm kitchens to give lessons, and dining halls provide takeout containers and ingredients for kids who want to cook their own meals.

“‘Are we allowed to have mini-fridges and microwaves in our residence hall room?’ That may be the No. 1 question our residential staff encounter from new students entering Western Illinois University,” according to John Biernbaum, who oversees the school’s housing and dining services in Macomb, Ill.

“The culinary literacy of college students is increasing,” said Tom Post, president of campus dining for Sodexo, a food service and facilities management company that works with 600 campuses in North America. “Students today grew up watching celebrity chefs on TV, eating organic food, enjoying authentic world cuisine and valuing good nutrition.”

In response, cafeteria menus have changed, with Sodexo’s top campus foods for 2009 including Vietnamese pho (noodle soup), mini-samosas, goat cheese salad and chicken mole. But colleges are also catering to student demands for more flexible and individualized dining options.

Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., offers recyclable takeout containers called “GustieWare” in the dining halls. This fall, Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., will offer students on its meal plan a chance to pick up groceries in the cafeteria as an alternative to a cooked meal.

At Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., food waste from the dining hall is used as compost for an organic garden where students grow lettuce, peppers, corn, kale, squash, carrots and other vegetables.

“The students also throw a garden party every week – usually Friday afternoon – where they get together to harvest the vegetables, then dine on the food with some live music,” said Jim Marchant, Pitzer dean of students. The garden is used “to teach principles of sustainable agriculture and encourage college community members to become more connected with the source of their food.”

Chartwells, the company that prepares food for dining halls at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, offers microwaveable meals that students can take away, as well as a program called “My Pantry,” where students can have food individually prepared, or even do their own cooking.

“Clearly there has been a great rejection of the (traditional) campus meal plan, both because of the inflexibility of it and because you have so many different kinds of tastes now,” said Nach Waxman, owner of the Kitchen Arts & Letters cookbook store in Manhattan. “And the dorms have changed: They have kitchens and food prep rooms. When I was in college, there was no such thing.”

Waxman says mothers often pop into his store to buy cookbooks for their kids in college. One book he recommends is “The Healthy College Cookbook,” first published 10 years ago using recipes from a trio of Williams College students. A new edition this year includes everything from vegan recipes like ginger-soy tofu to dishes that can be made on a George Foreman Grill.

“Students want things that are easy to make, things that don’t take long and will still taste good,” said Rachel Holcomb, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst student who updated recipes for the new edition, by Storey Publishing.

Louis Cholden-Brown, a sophomore in a joint degree program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, eats some meals in campus cafeterias but makes most of his dinners in his dorm kitchen.

Friday nights, students often get together for a Sabbath eve dinner, but other nights he cooks vegetarian food for himself. “I ate a lot of rice and tofu,” he said. “I had some simple marinades that I did, some more complicated than others, with soy sauce and rice vinegar. If I was in a really good mood, there would be fresh vegetables in it, fresh ginger and scallions and onions.”

Angelo Berti, a sous chef at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., teaches cooking in dorm kitchens. Meals have included pizza with whole-wheat flour and fresh vegetables “as alternatives to greasy items like pepperoni or sausage,” he said, and Mexican lasagna, which includes sour cream, cheddar cheese, grilled chicken, peppers, onion and salsa, layered with tortillas.

But Berti says he’s not just teaching recipes. He’s encouraging students to use dining together as a way to socialize, and as a means of self-expression. “The meal is your canvas,” he said. “You paint what you want.”

At the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., students produce a cooking show, filmed in a dorm, called “Everyday Gourmet.” One episode was “Date Night Cooking: A 3-Course meal for under $20,” featuring grilled chicken stuffed with goat cheese and basil. The shows are archived at

Emmeline Brown, a student at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., writes recipes for the school newspaper, The Scarlet. “Nothing against the dining hall, I just found myself making less healthy choices there and just got sick of the salad bar fast. My favourite dorm dish would have to be my Mexican steak salad. Easy, cheap, and so good!”

Of course not all students are so ambitious. Meagan Shankey, who worked as a residence co-ordinator at the State University of New York at Purchase, said most students who cook in dorms are making “easy preparation items. These include Easy Mac, Cup O’Noodles, popcorn, instant oatmeal and Hot Pockets.”

But Tim Massie, a spokesman for Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said he’s noticed a “dramatic change” in students cooking on their own. In the past, he said, it was frozen foods, pasta and Ramen noodles. In contrast, students recently invited him to a meal of “red wine risotto and chicken piccata and it was outstanding. ”

Brittany French started her freshman year at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M., eating 10 meals a week in the campus cafeteria. But she ended the year cooking most of her food in a dorm kitchen with friends.

“It was a social thing and a way to decompress, and a way to eat real food,” French said. “We wanted to be active in our diets.” They got ingredients from a farmers market, from stores – and often from the very dining hall they’d rejected as a place to eat.

“They have plastic containers – to-go boxes – and we’d go in there to the salad bar and get raw foods like carrots and broccoli and go back to our dorm to cook.”

– The Canadian Press