Key questions to ask about college dining services

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect detail about Georgetown University’s policy for students requesting a meal plan exemption because they keep kosher. This version has been corrected.

April 12, 2011

If you’re a high school senior deciding what college to attend in the fall, you’re probably focusing more on academic offerings and finances than on what’s for lunch. But it’s worth taking a close look at schools’ food offerings: For better or worse, college food will soon be an important part of your daily life. Don’t wait until you land on campus to figure out whether the dining-hall scene is a good fit for you.

Here are a few questions to ask if you’re choosing among eight of the major universities in the greater D.C. area — or anywhere else, for that matter.

1. Will my dietary needs be met?

Vegetarian, vegan. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you won’t starve on campus. Most colleges offer vegetarian options as part of their menus, and some feature dedicated vegetarian, and even vegan, stations in their dining halls. At American University, for example, food stations offer vegetarian and vegan options, from veggie burgers to cheeseless vegetable pizza, says university spokeswoman Maralee Csellar. Johns Hopkins University promotes Meatless Mondays.

Kosher. For those who keep kosher, some schools simply offer kosher selections. Others have a kosher deli (George Washington University) or a dedicated serving area for kosher foods (Johns Hopkins University), while University of Maryland runs a Hillel center where kosher food is prepared and served under the direction of a Mashgiach. Georgetown University does not provide for kosher diets (or halal, either); students can request meal-plan exemptions.

Gluten-free. Most schools accommodate celiac disease and gluten intolerance, though to differing degrees. GWU ensures there are plenty of gluten-free breads, salads, soups and other options. Catholic University makes it a priority to provide a range of gluten-free foods at every meal. Georgetown provides dedicated toasters, panini presses and other equipment to avoid cross-contamination.

Allergies. If you have a food allergy or intolerance, ask to speak with the nutritionist or dietitian on the dining services staff and the head chef. The former can help devise a general strategy for navigating the dining halls; the latter can fill you in on the details of how your needs will be met. Dining services Web sites list basic information about how special dietary needs are accommodated.

2. What are the meal plans?

Comparing meal plans can be confusing, as each campus has an array of dining halls, a mix of campus-run eateries and fast-food chains, and different ways to organize your meal budget.

Some dining services are entirely a la carte, meaning students pay for each item individually, usually with a card that deducts from a pre-purchased set of points. But most combine a la carte “dollars” or “points” with plans under which you buy a certain number of all-you-can-eat meals per week, month or semester (Catholic, George Mason and Howard universities, for instance). U-Md., currently all a la carte, will open an “all you care to eat” dining hall in the fall.

Freshmen living on campus (and sometimes sophomores, too) are usually required to participate in a meal plan and are limited to certain options. Check the policy on rolling over points or meals; most systems set deadlines by which you have to use them or lose them, though a few will let you carry unused points over to the next semester.

3. How green are the services?

Green and sustainable initiatives are big on college campuses, as well they should be. Most promote recycling and have replaced Styrofoam carryout containers with biodegradable ones. Some, such as GWU and U-Md., have sophisticated energy- and water-conserving dishwashing systems and use recyclable tableware.

Many, such as Georgetown, compost leftovers for use in on-campus vegetable gardens. Some make sure to use locally sourced bread, dairy and produce (as at Catholic), participate in programs to reduce the system’s carbon footprint (American, U-Md.), and regularly donate to community kitchens (GWU).

4. Do students have a say?

Some schools, such as American, have simple comment boards in the dining facilities; others offer comment cards or encourage students to leave suggestions online.

Almost all have student advisory boards devoted to dining services or to overall residential life. George Mason University’s Student Dining Committee meets weekly; others meet monthly. U-Md. has a special Vegetarian Advisory Board.

Most schools conduct some kind of food-services survey: Catholic does so every semester, Howard annually. Johns Hopkins convenes focus groups several times a year, while George Mason posts dining-service managers’ phone numbers in the dining halls.

At some schools, parents have a say, too: Every fall at Maryland, parents of freshmen are asked to submit “recipes from home” for meals their kids might be missing. A campus chef adapts the recipe, and if it’s popular enough, it gets added to the rotation.

5. How healthful is the food?

Some schools, such as Johns Hopkins and American, emphasize the use of fresh, whole, locally grown ingredients and hire executive chefs to prepare healthful, high-quality meals. At other schools, convenience and accommodating busy student schedules is considered key, so you may see more “fast”-style food (Howard, George Mason). Many offer a mix of the two.

You can get a sense of the quality of the food from the nutrition data and healthful-eating advice offered on dining-service Web sites. Georgetown’s offers a nutrition calculator, and low-fat menu options are marked with a cartoon heart.

At Johns Hopkins, lower-fat and -calorie foods that deliver lots of nutrition are marked with the “Hopkins Healthy Option” logo. And Howard invites students to look for specially marked healthful options on Wellness Wednesdays in the dining areas.

Variety, the spice of campus life

If variety is important to you, keep these
tips in mind:

- In general, the larger the school, the greater and more varied the dining options.

- Big-city schools such as George Washington and Johns Hopkins provide plenty of choices because they know they’re competing with nearby restaurants.

- Schools that offer more vegetarian, vegan and kosher items inherently have more options.

- Look for lots of food bars (salad, taco, baked potato, sushi) and stations (grilled foods, pizzas, wraps).

- If dining-hall menus are posted online, scroll through a few and see how often items are repeated.

Q&A: Eating right, exercising and keeping up healthy habits on campus

How do local universities compare? We found out the most popular menu items, and more.

Twitter: Follow @jhuget and @postmisfits for nutrition and fitness updates.

Blog: Read the Campus Overload blog to keep up with the latest on university life.

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