Gone are the days of limited, greasy dining options at colleges. Today, the best college dining halls offer a variety of nutritious foods that promote dietary health. While comfort food is still readily available, students can now access healthy menu options from diverse cultures.
This ranking of the best college dining halls considered variables like nutrition and wellness, dedication to waste reduction and sustainability, student satisfaction, and community outreach. We also considered how well dining halls accommodate students with dietary restrictions and the availability of diverse dining options.
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Top College Dining Halls
Best Dining Halls
Located in Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin College provides students with a strong liberal arts education in an intimate setting; the school has a total enrollment of less than 2,000 learners.
Bowdoin's dining services are among the nation's best. At Thorne Hall and the Moulton Union, students can select from a variety of healthy choices, including an assortment of vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options. Dishes often use local ingredients sourced from farms in Maine.
In addition to quality food options, the college takes environmental stewardship and sustainability seriously. Bowdoin's dining policies are made with input from the school's Environmental Committee.
Founded before the American Revolution, Brown University boasts a prestigious academic reputation and provides students with an array of dining options.
Offering some of the best college dining halls, Brown provides two main cafeterias: the Verne-Wooley and the Sharpe Refectory. In addition to all-you-can-eat options, students can take advantage of an in-house butcher, a bakery, and a market providing locally grown produce. Smaller on-campus cafes like the Blue Room and Ivy Room offer additional places to eat.
All of Brown's dining options are certified by the Green Restaurant Association. The university employs a composting program and also donates unused ingredients to cut down on food waste.
Washington University in St. Louis
Located in St. Louis, Missouri, Washington University is among the most prominent private institutions in the Midwest. In addition to offering high-quality academic programs, Washington University boasts quality dining options. It also minimizes waste through environmental initiatives.
Focused on providing varied, delicious food options for students, the university's food programs emphasize wellness through a healthy, balanced diet. The Bear Balance Movement prioritizes healthy dining, and school menus use food products sourced from regional farms that eschew hormones and antibiotics in farm animals.
Washington University is also dedicated to minimizing its environmental impact. In addition to repurposing cooking oil as biofuel, the university's dining halls use compostable, recyclable, and reusable cutlery and dishes.
Dedicated to providing excellent academic options and student amenities, Northwestern University is a premier private research university. It also operates some of the best college dining halls in the country.
In addition to the traditional fare associated with the typical college student diet, Northwestern provides several healthy dining options. The university employs a full-time dietician to ensure students have access to nutritional food options. This dietician helps students with food restrictions come up with suitable dining plans.
Northwestern also actively addresses its environmental impact. The university has championed several environmental initiatives, including a composting program, plant-based diet promotion, and a campus Styrofoam ban.
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Serving over eight million meals per year, UMass Amherst operates one of the largest collegiate dining programs in the country. The university offers an array of food options, while also focusing on quality ingredients and student health and wellness.
The nation's first SPE-certified university, UMass Amherst guarantees the food students eat is not only delicious but also sustainably sourced. Additionally, the UMass Permaculture Initiative offers a cutting-edge sustainability program that engages both students and the community, while also providing organic produce to the university.
To address student food insecurity, the university instituted the No Student Goes Hungry Policy, which provides learners in need with nutritional support. The school also operates a food pantry, offering free, nonperishable goods to all students.
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Founded in 1872, Virginia Tech has earned a place among the most respected public research universities in the United States. With over 29,000 undergraduate students — many of whom live on campus — the university offers ample student amenities, including some of the nation's best college dining halls.
Virginia Tech provides more than seven million meals per year. The university's You're Eating Smarter Program benefits student health while minimizing environmental impact. Virginia Tech also houses Homefield Farm — a student-run organic farm that supplies dining halls with more than 50,000 pounds of produce each year.
Founded in 1866, Carleton College is a private liberal arts school based in Northfield, Minnesota. The college enrolls just over 2,000 students and provides healthy and delicious dining options while promoting environmental initiatives. Carelton uses compostable dining products and encourages students to reduce food waste through the Carleton Food Recovery Network.
Carleton's students can access five dining locations. Carleton's commitment to sustainability also includes a composting program, which has composted food waste and other biodegradable materials since 2007.
Carleton participates in the Real Food Challenge — a nationwide initiative to shift school food budgets from factory farms and junk food toward local, humane, and ecologically sound food sources.
Established in 1831, Denison University is among the oldest colleges in the Midwest. Denison enrolls just over 2,000 students and boasts a thriving campus culture. Food is a big part of that culture, and the university houses some of the best college dining halls in the U.S.
Denison currently offers six dining options. The Curtis and Huffman dining halls, along with the Slayter Market, all serve freshly made, locally sourced food. In the more than 850,000 meals that Denison serves annually, 38% of all produce is from local sources. The university also operates an on-campus coffee shop and smoothie bar.
The first college chartered after the formation of the United States, Dickinson College is situated on 170 acres in rural Pennsylvania. The school maintains a rich history, while also taking progressive positions on environmental issues. Among its many forward-thinking initiatives, Dickinson College promotes a waste-free ethos in its campus dining halls.
The college maintains a "tray-free” policy, encouraging learners to reduce their own food waste. Additionally, Dickinson College operates a farm to provide food services with sustainable, organic produce. The school is also home to The KOVE — a cafe serving vegan, certified kosher foods.
James Madison University
With a student body of more than 22,000 undergraduates, James Madison University maintains an efficient and effective selection of dining services. JMU currently oversees three dining halls, six restaurants, and several coffee shops and convenience stores.
Through the Healthy for Life initiative, JMU works with the American Heart Association to improve students' health. In recognizing the broad scope of nutritional health, this initiative also looks at the environmental impact of food choices, informs learners about healthy dining choices, and supports underserved people within local communities through nutritional education.
Rhode Island School of Design
Dating back to the 19th century, RISD maintains a reputation for cutting-edge art. Located in Providence, the school also provides students with progressive academics, helpful student services, and a multitude of dining options.
Students at RISD can grab food at five main locations, including The Met, which is the largest dining hall on campus. Dedicated to providing freshly prepared food, RISD's dining menus offer a variety of creative cuisines, such as several vegetarian and vegan options.
RISD focuses on sustainability by prioritizing produce and practices that minimize environmental impact. The school's dining program regularly showcases local farms, vendors, and startups.
College of the Holy Cross
Based in Worcester, Massachusetts, Holy Cross is one of the oldest Jesuit colleges in the United States. Maintaining a reputation for supporting social justice causes, the college is also progressive with its food options, offering some of the best and healthiest college dining halls in the region.
Among the first colleges to establish an allergy-sensitive menu, Holy Cross accommodates dietary restrictions of all kinds. Alongside nine convenient and healthy dining options, Holy Cross operates a grocery program that allows students to select items and pick them up at the college's main dining hall.
Additionally, in 2019, Holy Cross installed "the world's first fresh food robot." Located within the Cool Beans coffee shop, Sally the Robot provides customized salads 24 hours a day.
Founded in 1834, Wheaton College maintains a long tradition of offering rigorous academics while promoting a strong connection to the local community. In addition to promoting environmental initiatives, Wheaton's dining program offers a variety of healthy options.
Recognizing that food choices directly impact student health and academic success, Wheaton maintains a team of chefs and dieticians who provide healthy options while accommodating learners with different food allergies, preferences, and dietary restrictions. Wheaton's Green Thread initiative emphasizes responsible sourcing, waste minimization, and transportation management.
Founded in 1852, Tufts University is a private research institution with over 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students. This prestigious New England institution offers learners a variety of dining options while maintaining a dedication to environmentalism and sustainable food causes.
Tufts provides students with 12 dining options, including main dining halls and smaller cafes. Tufts also offers several options for students with allergies and dietary restrictions. At the university's two main dining centers, menus include a lengthy list of vegetarian and vegan options.
Tufts also works diligently to limit food waste. The university uses a sophisticated food waste tracking system and donates excess food to help combat hunger in the local community.
Warren Wilson College is a private liberal arts school tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. Recognized for its holistic environment, the college requires that all students work an on-campus job and perform community service.
Maintaining a long history of environmental activism, the college also provides a long list of nutritional dining options. Dedicated to providing healthy options while encouraging plant-based dining, the school's Cowpie Café serves GMO-free ingredients and is entirely vegetarian.
In addition to ensuring that at least 25% of all produce is sourced locally, Warren Wilson College raises 100% of the ground beef served on campus on school land. The college also holds an A+ rating on PETA's Vegan Report Card.
How Do College Dining Halls Work?
College dining halls provide food options for campus-based and off-campus students, faculty, and staff. Schools typically run dining halls in a cafeteria-style fashion, offering diners a variety of options three times daily. Additionally, many schools have smaller cafes and convenience stores that provide students with easy access to food throughout the day.
Meal plans act as prepaid accounts for on-campus meals. At the beginning of each term, students or their families pay for meals they will consume throughout the semester. They can also add additional funds to students' accounts to use at other on-campus dining options.
Are College Meal Plans Worth It?
The value of a college meal plan depends on the student. If you only eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a meal plan may not be a good value. Many colleges and universities require on-campus students to register for a meal plan. Meal plans are usually cheaper than paying cash for each meal.
Most financial aid options regard meal plans as a legitimate education-related expense.
What Do College Dining Halls Do to Keep Food Safe?
College dining halls, like any dining establishment, must adhere to strict, state-mandated food safety guidelines. All on-campus restaurants, cafes, and dining halls undergo health inspections to guarantee they provide safe food in a clean environment. While foodborne illnesses are rare, colleges have taken steps to keep students safe and fed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to limiting the number of students allowed in dining halls at a certain time, schools have developed inventive ways to allow for social distancing. Food ordering software and online menu options have helped this effort.
How Can I Eat Healthy in College?
Maintaining a healthy diet in college is becoming easier for many students. Many colleges provide healthy options that routinely include vegan and vegetarian options. Schools also understand dietary restrictions, customizing menu options for learners with allergies and other food avoidances.
Additionally, many schools are doubling down on efforts to curb waste and reduce emissions. Colleges often work with regional food producers to provide students with healthy, local, and/or organic food options.
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