The Best Colleges for Dining Hall Eats

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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.

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.

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 Cornell University’s Moosewood restaurant. An award-winning restaurant, it has dishes to delight every vegan and vegetarian on campus. Those vegetarian students on the west coast should consider 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.

Deciding what college to attend is a big decision, and many factors come into play. When touring a campus or speaking with an admissions counselor, it might be smart to ask about or drop in at the dining hall. Remember, it’s not your mom and dad’s dining hall anymore.

The Best College Dining Halls

  1. Liberty University

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    Concentrating on fresh ingredients and culinary options, Liberty University has several dining options. The Reber-Thomas Dining Hall offers an innovative approach to dining with nine different areas, like the Main Dish, featuring homestyle comfort foods, or the Red Avocado station, with all of the ingredients needed for a made-to-order burrito or taco. Doc’s Diner features classic diner fare, with hearty breakfasts and juicy burgers. With large screen TVs, it’s the perfect place to gather with friends to watch the big game.

  2. Cornell College

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    Cornell’s dining services focus on nutritious ingredients that incorporate locally obtained farm-fresh produce, fish, and meats that practice sustainable farming methods, creating homestyle meals. Both our main dining room and grill are being renovated for a new look for the start of the 2013 school year. It’s easy to find special dietary items such as vegetarian or gluten-free choices with our menu icons and signs denoting these and other healthy items in the dining room.

  3. Ohio State University

    The Ohio State University

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    With over 20 different dining options on campus, you’ll never go hungry. From nourishing, familiar comfort foods to quick, grab-and-go soups and sandwiches, ice cream, pizzas, burgers, pub fare to cafés for a quick pick-me-up cappucino and biscotti, everything you need is right here on campus.The university also has plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free options for students, and common allergens such as wheat, eggs, or soy are clearly denoted.

  4. Kennesaw State University

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    With a commitment to sustainability, recycling, and using fresh, locally-grown products whenever possible, Kennesaw State University dining services provides fresh, creative cuisine with students’ health in mind. The school grows its own hydroponic lettuce, herbs, and shiitake mushrooms. All bread, desserts, pizza dough, and sauces are made from scratch, and 20% of the produce used is grown right on campus. Vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options are available, including favorites like pizza, pasta, and desserts.

  5. Gettysburg College

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    Gettysburg College features five different dining facilities catered to a college students needs. The main dining room is the center of campus life. Open seven days a week, and serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it is the most popular spot. Ike’s, named after President Eisenhower, serves fresh sushi, soups, and salads. The Dive, located in The John F. Jaeger Center for Athletics, Recreation, and Fitness serves up refreshing smoothies, fresh juices, and healthy sandwiches.

  6. The University of Chicago

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    Leading the way in sustainable dining since the ‘80s, up to one-third of the budget goes to environmentally friendly food that is locally grown and organic. The three dining commons have choices to meet every dietary need. Vegan and vegetarian choices, halal, kosher, and gluten-free options are available at every meal. Choose from traditional breakfast options such as cereal, oatmeal, eggs, and sausage, or try a slice of quiche, a breakfast burrito, or fresh fruit and grits. Burgers, tacos, and milkshakes are available for a late-night study snack.

  7. Roger Williams University

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    Committed to using fresh, locally obtained and sustainable products whenever possible, the dining available at Roger Williams University is bar none. With several dining facilities available on campus, students are never far from a nutritious and delicious meal. In addition to the main dining room, the Upper Commons, where everything is a gigantic all-you-can-eat buffet, the other locations have plenty of grab-and-go sandwiches, soups, and pizza for quick bites on the run.

  8. Bryn Mawr College

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    Bryn Mawr College operates four conveniently located dining halls on campus. Hafner Hall is the focus of the vegan program, featuring vegan entrees, breads, and desserts. Freshly steamed rice as well as hummus is available at every meal. In addition to regular milk, each dining facility also provides soy milk and rice milk. Gluten-free options are available, and the soy sauce used is gluten-free as well, enabling students with Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity to enjoy our stir-fry station. Comfort foods round out the options.

  9. Pitzer College

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    McConnell Bistro is the main dining hall at Pitzer, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Monday-Friday, and brunch and dinner on the weekends. Campus favorites include pizza, traditional, home-style meals, homemade soups, grilled chicken, and vegan and vegetarian choices. The Pit-Stop Café serves quick-and-easy gourmet sandwiches, wraps, fruit cups, salads, quiches, and coffee, espresso drinks, and fresh pastries. Everything is made from scratch, therefore no MSG or preservatives are used. The Farm to Fork program implements using locally grown foods whenever possible.

  10. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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    With five all-you-can-eat residential dining halls on campus, healthy, fulfilling food is never far away. Key components are common to all five halls. Start your day right with breakfast choices that range from cereals, yogurt, fresh fruits, peanut butter, bagels and cream cheese, hot-from-the-oven muffins, including gluten-free, to eggs, French toast, bacon, and potatoes. Abundant bountiful choices of locally grown produce fill the salad bar, soups are made from scratch daily, and the Pure station emphasizes vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free choices.

  11. UMass Amherst

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    Serving foods reminiscent of home, the University of Massachusetts Dining Commons uses locally obtained produce, meats, and seafood whenever possible. Only cage-free eggs and fair-trade coffee products are used. Creating fresh meals that incorporate global cuisines, there are plenty of choices to satisfy every appetite, culture, and dietary need. Halal, vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options are available at every meal. Reusable bags and reusable bottles are distributed to all students on the meal plan each year in an effort to reduce waste.

  12. Vanderbilt University

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    With several dining halls on-campus as well as retail outlets like Quiznos that participate in the Vanderbilt meal plan, there is a choice for every mood. Traditional, homestyle fare is available in the Commons. Made-from-scratch pizza, pastas, made-to-order stir fry, grilled burgers, falafel, po boy submarine sandwiches, salad bar, homemade soups and plenty of vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free choices round out the menu. Dozens of local restaurants also partner in the “Taste of Nashville” program, allowing students to dine off-campus as well.

  13. Emory University

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    Dobbs Market is the primary dining facility at Emory. Serving fresh food, one plate at a time, the variety of foods available is staggering. Global favorites are represented with the Wok Station, Streetcar food, and Vegan station. Fresh produce fills the salad bar with local and sustainable fruits and vegetables. Made-to-order deli sandwiches, lasagna, chicken nuggets, hot pizza – the market has it all. Additionally, the campus grounds have over a dozen retail outlets, like Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, and Domino’s.

  14. University of Notre Dame

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    The two main dining halls serve popular dishes from around the world, such as stir fry and tacos, as well as familiar, comforting, home style food like burgers, hot dogs, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and pastas. Four on-campus restaurants round out the dining options. Legends is a full-service restaurant and pub, Greenfields provides healthy options, Reckers features wood-fired pizza and fresh smoothies, and Café de Grasta serves specialty wrap sandwiches along with ice cold drinks and hot coffees and teas.

  15. Tufts University

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    Using top-quality meats and organic, locally-grown produce, Tufts University dining services prepares fresh, from-scratch meals that have lots of healthy grains, fruits and vegetables. A nutritionist plans all meals, ensuring students have plenty of healthy, low-fat and trans fat-free options. Homemade soups, a well-stocked salad bar, fresh sushi, made-to-order sandwiches and paninis are just a few of the campus favorites. With nine convenient locations dotted throughout the campus, there is something for everyone.

  16. UCLA

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    Each of the three residential restaurants on campus are all-you-can-eat dining facilities, serving up to 10 entrees daily. Covel Commons features made-to-order wood-fired pizzas, a fresh pasta station, and a popular grilled foods area. De Neve Residential Restaurant is the favored facility. With plenty of space, the dining room is a popular gathering spot. There are several food stations, one of the most popular being the sandwich station with dozens of meat, cheese, veggie, and condiment choices. There are five additional quick-service restaurants on campus.

  17. The College of William and Mary

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    In addition to two all-you-can-eat facilities, the campus also has five coffee houses, convenience stores, and a bakery as well as national chain restaurants. With outdoor dining space, the Marketplace Café has popular stations catering to Mexican cuisine, sushi, a deli, and pizza and pasta. The Commons Fresh Food Company prepares food right in front of students, with unlimited second helpings. Fresh soups, salads, sandwiches, flatbread pizzas, and comfort foods, like oven-roasted turkey, pot roast, and mashed potatoes provide something for everyone.

  18. Washington University in St. Louis

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    Committed to providing students with fresh, high quality foods that are locally produced whenever possible is part of the way dietary needs are met. Vegans, vegetarians, kosher and halal options are available, as are gluten-free choices and other allergen-free dishes. Over a dozen campus locations play their part in providing nutritious, convenient foods with a globally diverse perspective. Sushi, Asian chicken salad, lentil soup, sliced roast beef, and unique items like ricotta & roasted veggie panini are just a few of diverse choices available.

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