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College students expect lots of healthy options when eating on campus

From vegan, vegetarian and halal offerings to gluten and allergy-free dishes, students have more choices than ever.

College students at Illinois Tech’s Commons dining facility are able to choose from a variety of healthy dining options that fit any lifestyle.
Bonnie Robinson/Courtesy of Illinois Tech

Growing up in Pakistan, Nosheen Iqbal ate mostly organic and natural foods, so that’s what she hoped to find in the dining hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

“But it was mostly fries and burgers,” says Iqbal, a junior studying mechanical engineering. “There weren’t enough options for international students. … We eat a lot more spices and flavors, and that was lacking.”

Two years later, Iqbal says dining at IIT has changed for the better. More fresh food options are available, and after the school chose a new vendor – with input from Iqbal and other students – there have been new food stations featuring Indian, Mexican and Japanese food. The new provider, Chartwells, also pays close attention to food allergies; peanut butter is no longer out in the open, and shrimp is rarely served, Iqbal said.

Like many other Chicago colleges and universities, IIT also caters to students following a vegan or vegetarian as well as those needing to be gluten free, and there’s a halal station, where food is prepared as prescribed by Muslim law.

A fresh fruit bar is among the options for students dining at Illinois Tech.
A fresh fruit bar is among the options for students dining at Illinois Tech.
Bonnie Robinson/Courtesy of Illinois Tech

Over the 18 years Katherine Stetz has worked at IIT, she has seen students become more health conscious. They want a variety of fresh foods, they favor organic and want made-to-order meals whenever possible, says Stetz, IIT’s vice provost of student affairs and dean of students.

But students still crave fried and junk food. When she walks into the dining hall at McCormick Tribune Campus Center, Stetz notes, “the grill always has a line.”

That’s where you’ll find IIT sophomore Derek Rhea about half the time. The physics major usually checks out the special first – one day it might be pasta, the next day omelets – and if there’s nothing he likes, then he’ll head over to the grill.

“As a college kid, we focus on getting as many carbs as we can,” Rhea says. “The biggest thing college students are looking for is a meal that resembles what they would get at home.”

Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, he remembers always being served a meat, a carb and a vegetable at dinner. So he tries to do that at school.

A different type of meal is being served at some universities, mainly on the East and West coasts. Maureen Timmons, director of dining services at Northeastern University in Boston, says her school is part of the “menus of change” university research collaborative, which was co-founded by Stanford University and The Culinary Institute of America. A primary aim is to increase the number of people, especially college students, eating more healthy and sustainable foods.

“It’s just a great framework,” Timmons says. The emphasis is on more fresh produce and whole grains, fewer sugary beverages – and moving legumes to the center of the plate, she says.

Illinois Tech students enjoy an uptick in fresh and healthy dining options on their Bronzeville campus. Photo credit: Bonnie Robinson courtesy of Illinois Tech
Illinois Tech students enjoy an uptick in fresh and healthy dining options on their Bronzeville campus.
Bonnie Robinson/Courtesy of Illinois Tech

In mid-July, the Boston university served a planetary plate in some of its dining halls – half of it was vegetables, with meat served as a garnish. “Vegetables are the center of the plate. … It’s flipping the plate. People didn’t know what half of it was, but they thought it was delicious.”

Students still have their old standbys – like chicken fingers and fries – but these favorite dishes are more like treats, Timmons says. Some schools are working on a blended burger using mushrooms, beans or lentils. The trick is trying to find the right taste. “It can be healthy and good for the environment, but if it doesn’t taste good, they won’t eat it.”

At the University of Notre Dame, also a member of the menus of change university research collaborative, students can try food like jackfruit at special tastings. The university also serves a planetary plate; “it’s the idea that dairy and meat don’t have to be a central part of your plate,” says Chris Abayasinghe, senior director of campus dining at Notre Dame.

At the school’s two traditional dining halls, 23 percent of the main entrees served are vegetarian, while 18 percent are vegan, a big change from years ago when Abayasinghe was in college. Back then, if a student was a vegetarian, they could eat at the salad bar or maybe pick up French fries at the grill. “But that was it.”

Many students are looking for healthy food options while they’re away at college. Schools are adjusting their cafeteria and dining hall menus to accommodate the uptick in healthier eating habits.
Many students are looking for healthy food options while they’re away at college. Schools are adjusting their cafeteria and dining hall menus to accommodate the uptick in healthier eating habits.
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An increasing number of students are eating a flexitarian diet, which is mostly vegetarian but includes meat, fish or poultry. That’s a trend that will continue to gain speed, says Mark Little, who works at DePaul University as a district manager for Chartwells.

Starting this fall, DePaul will expand its vegan and vegetarian options to include hot specials every day. Students will be able to “go right to that station, and it’s always going to be something different,” Little says.

Students are more aware of and asking for different ingredients from across the globe. “They’re super informed,” he says.

And students expect a diversity of choices – from vegan, vegetarian and halal to gluten and allergy-free.

“The general (student) population is shifting toward a more balanced lifestyle … they’re taking more interest in what they’re putting in their body,” says Loyola University dietician Lindsey Harrigan.

Harrigan meets with students who need an accommodation, like allergy-free food; those struggling with an eating disorder; and others who don’t know how to make a healthy plate, are overwhelmed by their choices or just want more information about eating better.

“People are at different stages of change,” Harrigan says.

She and others in dining services view their role as more than providing healthy meals. It’s also educating students about their health, teaching them habits that will last a lifetime.

“What they learn in college is going to follow them the rest of their lives,” Notre Dame’s Abayasinghe says. “The food you eat can be the most powerful form of medicine, or it can be a slow form of poison.”

One of the next trends, DePaul’s Little says, will be personalized nutrition. How someone processes food can differ from another person, and that could lead to still more changes in food offerings on college campuses.

One unlikely change? Students’ demand for the not-so-healthy food.

At IIT, they love their chicken strips and and cheese, Stetz says. And at DePaul, Little says, “the two biggest purchases are still hamburgers and chicken nuggets.”

Even though school menus are including healthier options when it comes to the food choices, hamburgers, pizza and mac and cheese are still on many menus for students who still prefer their favorite comfort foods.
Even though school menus are including healthier options when it comes to the food choices, hamburgers, pizza, chicken nuggets and mac and cheese are still available for students who prefer their favorite comfort foods.
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