In the past decade, American eating habits have changed significantly. People, and by extension college students, are more conscientious about what they eat. Sustainability and food safety are increasingly important. These values have affected the country’s restaurant scene and the options available to college students in their dining halls.
Below, we’ve evaluated the best dining halls around the country, and our list reflects the remarkable changes in the campus food service industry. More resemblant of a collection of restaurants than a cafeteria, students today have access to specialized food choices and a variety of dining concepts.
Our rankings emphasize innovation in food sourcing, waste reduction, and other sustainable practices. We consulted food industry sources to evaluate award-winning programs, and nearly half of the schools listed have won a Loyal E. Horton Dining Award in the last three years. Schools offering healthy menus also rank well, and are highlighted in our profiles.
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.
If one word summarizes the food service philosophy at Kennesaw State, it's “sustainability.” The school started a small, two acre Farm-to-Campus program in 2010; five years later, KSU grows a quarter of its own produce. They also raise their own chickens, and have started a 42-colony apiary to produce honey for campus use. Additionally, the innovative Farm-to-Campus-to-Farm program recycles food waste with composting, vermiculture, and by converting used cooking oil to biodiesel.
Berkeley's Caldining is one of the greenest food service programs in the country. Endeavoring to reduce waste to 0% by 2020, Caldining emphasizes ecologically-sound practices. Brown’s Café is “hyper-local" and offers ingredients exclusively sourced within 250 miles of Berkeley’s campus. Caldining instituted a pre-customer food-waste prevention program that measures all kitchen waste, and it encourages staff and students to change their preparation and ordering practices accordingly.
Emory’s dining services program has an ambitious goal for 2016: source 50% of its food locally or sustainably by the end of the year. With Atlanta's warm climate, that's quite a bit of seasonal produce. Their Local Harvest Calendar lists 45 varieties of fruits and vegetables, from apples to watermelons. The student-run Food Advisory Committee at Emory meets once a month to bring together students and dining staff to ensure that student needs and wants are being considered.
UMass serves over 40,000 meals daily to 16,500 students, making it the second-largest campus dining operation in the country. It is SPE Certified, which is an industry-wide program for restaurants serving delicious and healthy foods. The Dining Commons strives to introduce students to interesting ingredients like quinoa, pistachios, and pomegranates.
Dining Services at Vanderbilt trumpet their Campus Dining App (iOS & Android) on their website and even boast their own Twitter account. Vanderbilt has been innovating for a while now, and their dining services team has won over 40 Food and Dining Awards since 1997. Several of their dining locations are open 24 hours a day and they even offer a Table Tent advertising service free to university offices, academic departments, and student groups.
Pitzer offers Theme Nights each weeknight at McConnell Café with Mongolian Mondays leading the list and the ever-popular Taco Tuesdays following up. Pitzer also uses reusable to-go containers to reduce trash and their website has a Google Map featuring the locations of farms from which they source their local foods.
Located in a large city, the University of Chicago offers students plenty of interesting options. All of the milk used on campus is from a dairy in Michigan just 150 miles from campus. The school also supports local minority- and women-owned businesses, purchasing nearly 40% of its food from these sources. .
In 2015, Geneseo signed the TasteNY Pledge, committing themselves to increase their purchases and uses of local New York grown and produced products in all campus outlets. For the first year, they bought 20% of their food and beverages locally. With local products like Chobani Yogurt and Monk’s Bread available, this percentage will only increase. Geneseo has won multiple NACUFS medals and was ranked the #2 Gluten-Free college in 2014 based partly on Kasha, the gluten-free kitchen in Food Studio North, one of the all-you-can-eat restaurants on campus.
Home to just 1,400 students, Hendrix College has nonetheless earned a national reputation for its excellent dining services. Their residential dining has been awarded gold or silver Loyal E. Horton Award medals for the past 13 consecutive years. Students love the fact that none of the food is processed and that the dining staff is friendly and accommodating. They even bake cakes for students on their birthdays!
UC San Diego offers both a la carte and all-you-can-eat options, and the school provides dietician services to help students with dietary concerns customize their menu. There are two on-campus food trucks,Flavors of the World and Incredi-Bowls. They even offer classes at the 64 Degrees Demonstration Kitchen, where students can learn how to cook for themselves,
Yale has 23 on-campus facilities serving over 14,000 meals a day. They have several specialized dining halls, like the one for kosher meals as well as the neogothic Hall of Graduate Studies Dining Room for graduate students and their families. Yale’s sustainable food program was started in conjunction with world-famous chef Alice Waters when her daughter Fanny enrolled at Yale in 2001. Since then, Yale has started an on-campus farm and greatly increased their efforts at educating students in sustainable agriculture.
Virginia Tech’s Dining Services serves over 7 million meals per year to over 18,000 meal-plan holders. They partnered with College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Kentland Farm to grow produce for on-campus dining with the goal of a farm-to-table timeline of 24 hours maximum. Since starting a compost program in 2009, Virginia Tech has diverted over four million pounds of food waste from landfills. To counter the proliferation of empty water bottles, they offer refillable water bottles at a nominal cost with free water refills at any dining facility.
UCLA was named PETA’s most vegan-friendly campus in 2010, and with their recently opened Bruin Plate Residential Restaurant, they opened one of the country’s first health-themed on-campus dining halls. Additionally, Covel Commons has a wood-fired pizza oven, and FEAST at Rieber Restaurant is an award-winning pan-Asian concept..
MIT’s House Dining Rooms feature hormone-free meats and locally-sourced fresh vegetables. Kosher and halal options are available on campus and every dining facility offers vegetarian options. Like many locations at MIT, there is an online virtual tour of McCormick Hall’s dining facility.
With special meals for Ramadan, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Chinese New Year, the food offerings at Roger Williams are quite eclectic. Add in an option for parents to make “Surprise Your Student” care packages, and you’ve got a complete dining experience.
With their dining services run in-house, Georgia has the ability to customize the dining experience for its students. The school does just that, offering an award-winning variety of special events including “Georgia On My Mind,” featuring all-local ingredients and “Taste of America del Sur,” with traditional foods from South American countries.
Washington University offers local and artisanal foods from more than 25 vendors and features hormone-free meats in its dining rooms. The kitchen has recycled more than 23,000 gallons of cooking oil into biodiesel that fuels campus delivery trucks. This helped Washington win a 2014 gold medal in the NACUFS Sustainability Awards.
As New Hampshire’s land grant college, one of UNH’s missions is to support agriculture in the state. To this end, they have created the Local Harvest Initiative which sponsors an annual Local Harvest Dinner open to students and the public alike.
Iowa's Cornell College has a lengthy track record of sustainable food service. In 1999, Cornells' Cafe Bon Appétit launched the Farm to Fork Program, a sustainability initiative promoting locally sourced meat and produce at all of the school's on-campus dining facilities. Cornell also pledged to exclusively serve rBGH-free milk in 2003 and transitioned to hormone-free beef in 2012.
Tufts has FEAST (Food Education and Action for Sustainability at Tufts), a multidimensional partnership between students, dining services, the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at the Fletcher School, and the Tufts Institute of the Environment. These groups share the common goal of educating the Tufts community in all facets of sustainable and fair food practices.
Widely known for its great variety of foods (their “Milkshake Mania Lunch” was once mentioned in the Wall Street Journal), they also score highly for vegan offerings with an “A” on PETA2’s Vegan Report Card.
Occidental’s dining services are proudly “in-house” and the school takes quality and sustainability seriously. Occidental’s evening Coffee Cart is an innovative option that caters to students looking for a late bite or espresso.
In addition to having 11 on-campus cafés, eight markets, and seven residential dining halls, Michigan has achieved national recognition for its online nutrition and allergy management program, which is useful for students with special-needs diets.
Those of us who have attended college have at some point eaten a meal in the college dining hall. Depending upon where one attended college, the thought of those meals may still be waking you up at night in a cold sweat. When people used to talk of college dining halls, the words that came to mind were less than flattering. Cold food, undercooked food, mystery meats that gave no clue as to their true identity were the norm for those from the dorm. College food was often thought of as disgusting, and many parents worried how their kids would do when they went off to college and had to start eating at the dining hall.
Well, while there may still be some dining halls that are less than ideal, the college dining experience has definitely undergone a transformation for the better. Gone are the standard cafeteria-like settings, with lunch lines and trays full of non-descript and boring foods. What has replaced them is a smorgasbord of well-known restaurants full of everyone’s favorite foods. The lunch lady in the kitchen stirring the mystery soup has been replaced at many colleges by an executive chef and well-trained kitchen staff, whose job each day is to create culinary masterpieces sure to delight any college student’s stomach.
Better Eats, Better Health
The health implications of having a good college dining hall are numerous. Previously, most students who chose not to eat in the dining hall instead became regulars at local fast-food and pizza places, eating unhealthy meals two or three times per day. This not only leads to weight gain but also other health problems such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Most of us have heard of the so-called “freshman 15,” where first-year students would put on an additional 15 pounds due to eating so much unhealthy food. Nowadays, the threat of a huge weight gain is much lower. Students in today’s dining halls have many choices of good, low-fat and low-carb foods that will fill them up without filling them out. Students who have health issues such as diabetes or other conditions requiring special diets can have those taken care of in today’s dining halls. Many more students today are into health and fitness, and are much more careful about what they put in their bodies. Colleges who are emphasizing healthy eating can also cater to these students, helping them stay in shape while completing their studies. Upgraded dining facilities also lead to fewer students getting sick because of what they ate, helping colleges gain a reputation for good food while decreasing the number of students in the infirmary.
Having great food can have a real impact on one’s college education. We are what we eat, and what goes into our bodies can have a real impact on how we feel during the day. Going to class on an empty stomach or with a stomach full of bad food leads to problems with concentration, mood swings, headaches and more. Being able to eat good foods morning, noon and night can help students feel better both physically and mentally. College dining halls are places for students to get together, and the more inviting they are the better students feel. Dining halls such as Virginia Tech’s West End Market offer students everything from Italian restaurants to big-screen TV’s in sports lounges. Students can enjoy good food while catching up with friends, turning dining halls into campus hangouts instead of places to avoid.
Dietary Preferences and Restrictions
When students are deciding which school to attend, the usual stuff comes into play such as academic programs, athletics and extracurricular activities. However, with the evolution of college dining facilities this has also become part of the decision-making process. Students considering a school need to consider the dining facilities as well, particularly if they have a medical condition that requires a special diet. Those students who are vegetarians or vegans also need to take a close look at a college’s dining arrangements. Vegetarians and vegans are becoming more numerous on college campuses, resulting in more schools creating restaurants specifically for this student population. A great example of this is UCLA, which recently won an award as the Most Vegan-Friendly College from PETA.
Students taking a look at the dining halls of colleges and universities should also consider the variety of foods offered. While healthy eating is still the goal, many students still like a thick slice of pizza or a big burger and fries now and then. And who can pass up a good chocolate-chip cookie or slice of homemade pie? Some college dining halls, including Virginia Tech and others, actually use recipes from parents of students for some dishes. Sushi, wings, gelato and more are being offered to students on today’s college campuses. Some colleges, such as St. Olaf’s in Minnesota, use meat, poultry and vegetables grown on the campus organic farm. Fruits are brought in from a campus orchard, and dairy products are from nearby farms.