“Students really want options,” Meyer says.
At Berkeley, the largest of the university’s four dining halls, Crossroads, serves 4,000 meals daily from the nation’s first organic-certified kitchen on a college campus. It features nine stations: deli, organic salad bar, comfort foods, vegetarian/vegan, grill, bakery, soups, pasta/pizza, and chef-prepared specialties from around the world.
“On any given day, there might be Mexican, Hawaiian, Thai, maybe German, or American,” Shen says. “We always have pizza, pasta, and deli, and we are always reevaluating our menus and want to give students what they want.”
The campus’ student body includes a huge population from Asian descent, so authentic dishes from China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, India, and other Far East countries are very popular.
“And Mexican food is comfort food, not exotic in any way,” Shen says.
These ethnic-based foods are popular all across the country. Sushi, tacos, and cooked-to-order stir-fry have become mainstream. Dishes like Vietnamese pho, Korean barbecue, and Indian tandoori chicken are attracting a growing following.
At the University of Colorado at Boulder, one dining hall features a Middle Eastern station. The Persian Ghaza prepares flatbread in a stone oven and kabobs on swords over a flaming grill, using locally raised lamb that is certified halal.
“Students’ taste buds are more sophisticated today,” says Ahmed, who is also past president of the nine-state Midwest region of the American Association of College and University Food Services. “They are growing up with all kinds of options.”
The popularity of various ethnic dishes isn’t just found at big universities.
When students at Washington & Jefferson College vote on menus at the main dining hall for the upcoming month, sushi and authentic Asian and Mexican cuisine are near the top.
“Sushi always gets picked,” says Aaron Weaver, general manager of dining services for Parkhurst Dining Services at W&J, a small liberal arts college of about 1,500 students near Pittsburgh. “It’s rather phenomenal how popular it has become.”
Allowing students to select their food, even to the point of choosing specific dishes, also is part of a growing trend.
“When I started in this 13 years ago, we basically did what we thought was best,” Weaver says. “Now, we have student dining committees, social media, and other ways students can tell us what they want. You have to listen or the college will find someone who will.”
Shen says social media makes this practice much easier at Berkeley. “We’re all about the students and what they want. We don’t read minds, and we’re doing everything, including social media, to get them to communicate easier.”
Most college students have cell phones and a majority have smartphones, making social media communication almost second nature. Mintel’s Giandelone says Millennials are far more comfortable than earlier generations using smartphones to learn about and order food.
Among the most vocal students are vegetarians and vegans, who combine for fewer than 15 percent of collegiates overall. “They usually let us know what they want,” Shen says.
The number of real vegetarians “is consistently about 6–7 percent,” Toong says. Flexitarians, those who eat mostly vegetarian but will also eat meat and fish, “probably boost that up above 10 percent.”
Still, dining directors note that a growing number of non-vegetarians are selecting meat-free items, particularly as the taste of those options improves. And gluten-free food also has become more popular.
Berkeley’s dining service recently added a registered dietician to help reach out to students, especially those with allergies, about healthier and safer eating. Numerous other colleges have looked at these issues, as well as at educating students about food sources.
“We know students want food that is more natural, fresh, and less processed,” Toong says. “They want it customized to their needs. But we also know student behavior. They eat healthier in the morning and drop their guard later in the day. So we have to help.”
As in the restaurant industry, Amherst campus-dining leaders have reduced sodium, replaced some traditional pasta with whole-wheat varieties, and made several cookies with whole grains, often without telling students. Additionally, contests promote healthier eating.
Part of the educational process also may include inviting visiting chefs to cook special items, hosting cooking classes, and helping students understand foods’ origins.
Duke University has an annual Local Ingredients Day. The event is sponsored by the university’s dining partner, Bon Appetit Management Co., and began as a way to educate students about the carbon footprint of the food they consume.
“We believe the role of dining service on campus is not only to provide great food and great service, but equally important is education and building community,” says Rick Johnson, assistant vice president of student affairs, housing, dining, and residence life.
Despite all the dining changes at universities, some things stay the same. Comfort foods remain popular, no matter how good or bad they may be for you.
Burgers are still very popular, as are chicken tenders and nuggets. Even PB&J, with various types of peanut butter and jelly, can draw a crowd.
Clam chowder remains big in New England, while barbecue and chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy are winners in Texas. And chicken Parmesan and pierogies make the grade in western Pennsylvania.
“Students sometimes just crave those tastes from home,” says Texas dining chief Meyer.