Surviving the Perils of a College Dining Hall

College dining halls. A peril only to be faced by the most daring of warriors. Or by unsuspecting freshman… Either way, it is quite the force to be reckoned with. These buildings house our main source or nourishment for our four years (or more) at school, so they must be approached cautiously. One can not make enemies with their dining halls, yet the relationship is not quite one of pure amiability. In this post wish to provide my fellow scholars with a practical guide to braving mass produced sustenance based on my experiences in the past four years. My first year of college I was housed nearest to the most daunting of the dining halls in my university. It had a reputation for foul food that only the honors and arts students could stomach. This hall was located in the most remote corner of campus and only those who had classes or lived nearby dared to enter. Throughout the rest of my years I ventured farther out to the other halls but found them to be just as formidable in their own way. Each had it’s own ups and downs and although I opted for take out whenever possible, when my bank account ran dry I was forced to again turn to the halls. And so I provide some valuable tips for surviving your undergraduate eating career.

1. Become allies with the gatekeeper. The little old ladies who swipe you into the dining hall are the key to finding edible food. If you are nice to them they will help you, but if you are frigid to them your path will be ever so more arduous. Give her (or him if the case may be) a nice smile and “how do you do” whenever you come in and they swipe your ID. If there is no line have a short friendly conversation. These lovely retired ladies (or gentlemen) may be lonely guarding the entrance all by themselves, make friends with them and they will give you valuable tips about the food that day.

2. Be prepared. Check the dining hall menus online ahead of time when possible and avoid food you know to be horrid. Do not let the gourmet names fool you. Food from a dining hall is food from a dining hall. Although Black and Bleu Cube Steak sounds enticing…. well I’ll get to that in a bit.

3. Avoid ethnic food. Nothing at all against ethnic foods (eg. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese) but when it is cooked by dining hall chefs on a mass scale, it doesn’t taste like what you get at a restaurant. Occasionally its tasty but most of the time…. it’s not.

4. Eat Kosher or Halal. Even if you are not a Jew or Muslim, the Kosher and Halal food at college campuses is usually cooked on a smaller scale. And since religious guidelines are so strict, the quality of the food is almost always drastically better. At my school the Kosher food is delicious and nutritious more often than not. Unfortunately our Kosher/ Halal kitchen is in a far corner of campus that I rarely journey to and so I am still subject to the regular food.

5. Check your meat before you eat it! This was a lesson I only just learned today. I was served my Black and Bleu Cube Steak and it looked wonderful but when I cut it open I saw that it was not cooked at all on the inside. This was rarer than rare and totally against health codes…. Were they trying to poison us? Maybe, maybe not but inspect your meat before you eat it.

6. Build up an appetite for pizza, salad, sandwiches and cereal. If there is nothing appetizing on the hot line there is almost always cold foods available that are hard to screw up. I know there have been some weeks where I live on salad, subs, pizza, and pasta from the dining halls. Also, I keep (mostly) kosher, so when there is only main dishes with pork I don’t really have a lot of choices.

7. Use the suggestion box. At my school the dining hall suggestion box is really popular. We ask for things we want more of and let them know when something is really awful. Sometimes a couple of comedic cards get in there too so they are fun to read. From my experience, the managers usually take most of the suggestions into account so you might as well take advantage of them. Can’t complain if you haven’t spoken up! (I have put quite a few of those cards in over my four years)

8. Attack your meals in pairs or groups. Generally it’s more enjoyable to go to dinner with friends. Especially so you can bitch about the food and let each other know what’s good and what’s not. One of the best parts of the dining hall experience (and believe me, there are not many) is getting to relax at meals with your friends and have a nice time. Put aside time for your meals when you can and spend them with good friends. The food is not quite so bad if there is laughter involved.

9. Pick a college that has good food. This is for any pre-college students who may be reading this. You’re going to be eating the food for a long time, make sure you try out a dining hall at each school you visit. It’s a good way to get a feel for the atmosphere of the student body and test out the food. Hey, food is pretty important, so if two colleges are pretty even and you can’t decide, make food your deciding factor.

10. Condiments. Nothing like some ketchup or BBQ sauce to add some flavor to really bland food. Get creative.  🙂

That’s all I have for now, but I hope it helps. Some of what I have written is specific to my school but most of it applies universally. Even though you may be discouraged after a few weeks of dining hall food, keep on trucking. Winter and summer breaks are a nice time to refresh your pallet and eat everything that is not delicious or available at school. Keep some snacks in your room too and most importantly, stock up on Ramen and Easy Mac. There’s a funny thing about the freshman fifteen. I have noticed that some people gain it and some people lose it. It all depends on your balance of eating and exercise.

Then again, maybe it just depends on the dining hall and your survival techniques…..