College Dining: What I Wish I’d Known about Food on Campus

A student with pink glasses taking a bit of an apple.

Ranta Images /

Say you eat three times a day, and you’re moving to a college where you’ll spend about seven months a year. Where are you going to eat those 630 meals? Domino’s, probably, until you overdo it on the MeatZZa Feast. That’s when you’ll be glad that there’s a dining hall three minutes away.

I’m not going to pretend like dining halls are glamorous. My campus had just one of them. The hummus was inexplicably foamy, almost as if it had been sprayed out of a Cheez Whiz aerosol, and some varieties of soup were fluorescent, but overall it was decent. I happily piled stir-fry, grilled veggies, granola, tuna salad, and sweet potato fries onto my plate (sometimes at the same time; no parents, no rules). Wednesdays were the real highlight, though. The dining hall fried, scrambled, and boiled eggs all day, an event so popular that my college eventually printed “Eggs All Day” on school spiritwear.

A character stating that he likes food more than people.

Adventure Time / Giphy

When I visited my high school friends at their schools, I was always curious about their dining halls. Some gave me food envy: Kenyon College and Indiana University seemed to be going for the Hogwarts Great Hall vibe. University of Maryland’s dining hall, on the other hand, felt like a mall food court. University of Kentucky had over 20 facilities (and some of them were restaurants!), and the one I visited served the kind of Southern food that I order at Cracker Barrel.

Food is a huge part of our lives. Naturally, your school’s dining hall and your meal plan will be a huge part of your college experience. Nervous? Hungry? Don’t be. Here’s what you need to know.

Don’t base your college decision on its dining hall.

When you’re applying to schools, don’t worry about their dining facilities (unless you have a food allergy, in which case you should see below). If the college offers on-campus housing, it will have at least one dining hall. It might also have a coffee shop (or three), relationships with nearby franchises, and a late-night commissary where you can buy Ben and Jerry’s. As long as a college is residential, it will have basic food options, so focus your college search instead on its academics, location, size, and price.

Once you have your acceptance offers, weigh your options. This is when you can really think about food culture, housing, and other aspects of student life. Visit the colleges that have accepted you and eat at their dining facilities. You shouldn’t expect a gourmet meal at any school—you won’t find pan-seared filet mignon drizzled with a maple reduction anywhere—but you should look for variety. Do you have more than one option at mealtime? Can you see yourself spending time here?

There is support for students with food allergies.

If you have a food allergy or celiac disease, you might consider looking into a school’s dining facilities before you apply; it could be a matter of health and safety. Fortunately, most schools have adapted well to the dietary needs of their students in recent years. Reach out to the admissions office to ask specific questions about how the school has worked with other students with allergies in the past. You might try to contact one of them to hear about his or her experience. It’s also a good idea to visit the college.

Sneezy from Snow White sneezing

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves / Giphy

  • The dining hall
    • Is there a special station where students with food allergies can prepare their meals?
    • Is the ingredient list posted next to every dish?
    • Is there special kitchenware available that hasn’t been cross-contaminated?
  • Meal plans
    • If you are interested in food shopping and cooking your own meals, are you allowed to opt out of the meal plan or choose a small meal plan instead?
    • Are freshman allowed to live off campus or in apartments with kitchens?
    • Where is the closest health food store?
    • Does any grocery store nearby deliver?
  • Emergency preparation
    • Who is the contact person for students with food allergies? Is he or she easy to get in touch with?
    • With whom can you share your emergency contact information and treatment plan?

Most colleges are sensitive to food allergies these days, and they’re willing to consider your specific needs. It’s still a good idea to talk to someone in campus dining services before you accept an admission offer. You’ll want to make sure that your college is flexible, understanding, and proactive.

Choosing a meal plan doesn’t have to be stressful.

There are three main types of meal plans, and your college will probably offer only one of them.

  • All-you-care-to-eat visits to the dining hall: With these plans, you purchase a certain number of meals for the semester upfront. Every time you visit the dining hall, one point is deducted from the balance.
  • Dining bucks: These meal plans are like gift cards to the dining hall. You or your parents load money onto your student card. When you visit the dining hall, you are charged only for what you eat, and its exact cost is subtracted from your balance.
  • A combination of the two: You may have a certain number of all-you-can-eat visits to the dining hall each semester, plus cash loaded onto your student card which you can use at the campus coffee shop or store.

No one type of meal plan is better than the other, so don’t let a school’s meal plan system factor into your final decision.

Hermione hitting Ron and asking him to stop eating. In Harry Potter, the amount of food on campus for each student is unlimited.

Harry Potter / Giphy

Once you accept a school’s offer, it’s time to decide which size meal plan is right for you. A good rule of thumb is to start your first semester on the standard plan, which works for most students who live on campus. It generally allows you to eat at least two on-campus meals per day, which means you can occasionally grab breakfast out of your mini fridge or go out to eat with friends. If you get to campus and realize that the standard plan isn’t big enough for your needs, you can always pay for additional meals and then buy a bigger plan next semester. If the standard plan is too big, on the other hand, size down next time.

For more information about meal plans, click here.

You’ll spend a lot of time in the dining hall.

You will likely visit the dining hall hundreds of times over the course of four years. You will share meals there with classmates, friends, and professors. It’s a social hub, a study hall, and a kitchen all in one.

My memories of the dining hall are some of my most vivid memories from college. My roommates and I once decked ourselves out in costume jewelry for the thrill of being the fanciest students in the dining hall that evening. During my senior year, I hosted a weekly Spanish-conversation dinner for majors to eat together and practice the language.

The dining hall was there for me on Valentine's Day one year (read: all four years). It rolled out white tablecloths and decorated with roses so that the few of us in there felt like we had dates. On other nights, it brought in guest chefs from the community, and once, I had the pleasant experience of eating fresh sushi while drinking dining-hall chocolate milk.

To average it all out, I probably spent an hour or two in the dining hall every day. Most students do.

When it’s all over, you won’t miss the food, but you will miss the convenience.

Now that I’m not on campus anymore, I have to cook. I have to plan my meals in advance. I have to decide what I want to eat before I pick up my plate. When the food is foamy or fluorescent—and it often is—I have no one to blame but myself.

Enjoy the dining hall while you have it. It’s not that bad after all.

Sadness from Inside Out crying profusely

Inside Out / Giphy

About Gwen Elise

Gwen is an avid traveler who feels most at home in Kentucky and Argentina. Her closet is full of dark dresses, and her walls are papered in colorful maps. She likes to make puns, read, write, and translate to and from Spanish, and she misses Vassar College, her alma mater, which helped her get better at all of those things.

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