I was lucky enough to always live off-campus, so I never had the true “dorm cafeteria experience,” nor did I have to balance a microwave, laptop, and television on my small desk that barely fit in my room. I had a kitchen, but that didn’t necessarily mean I ate balanced, healthy, home-cooked meals all the time. College budgets are small, so for me, there was a lot of pizza and Kraft Mac and Cheese. For a long time after I graduated, I couldn’t even look at a PB&J, as it had been a staple of my college diet.
For most students living in the dorms, dinner meant soup in a hotpot or getting pizza delivered. The most interesting thing about the campus dining hall was often the salad bar – and how interesting can a salad bar really be?
Those days are apparently behind us. Now, college students have much more gourmet palates and a “growing interest in preparing their own food.” Mini-refrigerators and microwaves are almost as essential on the dorm room checklist as laptops. Local chefs visit dorm kitchens to give lessons, and dining halls are providing takeout containers and ingredients for students who want to cook their own meals.
“‘Are we allowed to have mini-fridges and microwaves in our residence hall room?’ That may be the No. 1 question our residential staff encounter from new students entering Western Illinois University,” according to John Biernbaum, who oversees the school’s housing and dining services in Macomb, Ill.
“The culinary literacy of college students is increasing,” said Tom Post, president of campus dining for Sodexo, a food service and facilities management company that works with 600 campuses in North America. “Students today grew up watching celebrity chefs on TV, eating organic food, enjoying authentic world cuisine and valuing good nutrition.”
In response, cafeteria menus have changed, with Sodexo’s top campus foods for 2009 including Vietnamese pho (noodle soup), mini-samosas, goat cheese salad and chicken mole. But colleges are also catering to student demands for more flexible and individualized dining options.