My College:
Housing & Residential Life

Campus Dining Ins and Outs

David Tuttle


A faculty member once told me that there are three eternal givens on college campuses: There is no parking, the campus food is horrible, and faculty morale has never been lower.

For students and parents, the food issue crops up often. Having worked and lived on campus for nearly 40 years as a residential and student life professional, I ate on campus A LOT. I have visited a lot of campuses as well. Dining services have evolved and improved over that time, though listening to students and parents, one might not know it.

Managing a campus dining program is really challenging. So is eating on campus day after day as a student. As a parent, you may hear complaints from your student about the dining program.

My advice: Listen, urge your students to manage it themselves, and then move on. I have seen many students and parents waste more time on this issue than almost any other.

So, what are the issues?

I used to frame the values for our dining programs as a starting point for building strong operations.

Quality

Food quality is a common complaint from students. I used to hear about food that was inedible. I found this complaint to be rare and often exaggerated. But I have tasted my own cooking.

Most programs are a far cry from the slab of meatloaf and greasy pizza era of old. If your student complains, go have a meal on campus with them when you visit, and see firsthand. I don’t know what students have been eating at home for 18 years but one would think that parents out there are all master chefs! Get a realistic sense, if you can, by eating the food yourself.

Variety

Think of your favorite restaurant. Now think of eating there every day. Two or three times a day. At what point will you tire of the food? For students, finding variety can be a challenge, especially if there are dietary restrictions resulting from health and vegetarian or vegan diets.

It's no surprise that most students will say breakfast is their favorite dining hall meal. While there may not be a lot of variety, these meals have the standbys students are familiar with from home: eggs, cereal, oatmeal, pastries, fruit, and yogurt.

Lunch and dinner are trickier. Most dining programs offer options either on a rotating menu cycle or have stations based on types of cuisine. This is where students can find variety that may keep them from getting bored. And think about your own cooking. Chances are, there are four to six go-to meal options at home.

Perspective is important. As a parent, try to help your student explore options and be realistic about what their choices are. They may have more options than they did when they were under your care.

Convenience

Busy students often want to grab meals quickly and take them to go, especially between classes and activities. Before the personal technology boom, students were more likely to gather in dining locations and linger over meals. The social nature of dining is important for students, and you can still see crowds at meal times.

Encourage students to dine with others, especially younger students. However, if they really are too busy, help them look at what to-go options exist at the main dining hall. This may vary from all-you-care-to eat plans and a la carte plans. The former may have some restrictions on taking food out of the dining hall. There are likely several smaller to-go options throughout campus they can use.

Value

For students with busy schedules, satellite campus dining options — usually food courts or name brands in student centers and even libraries — can be ideal. Understand these may cost more and that the money is generally coming from flex dollars or personal funds not the dining plan.

Help your student understand what kinds of meals to eat when and where to optimize their dollars. You don’t want them to leave a lot of dining hall dollars on the table.

Health

Perhaps the biggest change in dining services has been the increase in healthy options. I can tell you that, while students clamor for these choices and most programs oblige, these are the least used options in dining halls. Pizza, burgers, and pasta still reign supreme.

Most dining halls offer vegetarian or vegan options, huge salad bars, and ways to modify meals with meatless options. Those with celiac disease, gluten-free lifestyles, and other specialty diets should speak to dining staff, including dieticians, to maximize quality and variety.

What are the challenges for campus dining operations?

Dining staffs face many, many challenges in offering quality programs. Here are three things it helps to be aware of.

  1. You get what you pay for. In most cases, there can be a range in food quality based on the level of dining plans the institution signs on for. As you look at managing costs, meal plans can take a bite out of your wallet. Just remember all dining plans and programs are not the same. Have realistic expectations based on what you are paying. For me, as a parent, I simply encouraged my kids to use their plans effectively and then I stepped away. Make sure they have the money they need on their plans and let them manage from there.
  2. Students eat in waves: Dining operations have to be staffed for the busy lunch and dinner periods. Students may wrap up their late morning and afternoon classes in clusters. This means the dining areas are packed, so there will be longer lines and certain items may run out. Think of the challenge the staff faces in dealing with these significant daily rush periods and the impact on quality and variety. If you spend any time in a dining hall, witnessing these rush periods is instructive. Staff members have to ramp up, throttle down, and maintain products and services for the in-between times.
  3. Staffing shortages: Now more than ever, it is really challenging to hire and keep strong staff members given the wages. When employees call in sick, managers must often step up, and this can have a cascading effect on the whole operation.

Urge your student to understand these challenges. Many will, as they often develop really good relationships with the employees serving them meals day in and day out.

What else can you do?

Back away.

I used to tell students and parents that generalized complaints to parents and on social media are ineffective. Urge your students to offer direct, specific, and timely feedback to dining staff members.

If the food is bad, say something. Specifically, is the food poorly cooked, cold, or are portions out of whack? Students should express concerns to a front-line server or manager directly. This individual will usually fix the problem and may address it broadly for other diners. And make the feedback then and there. Talking about last week’s meal will yield few positive results.

This can be hard for students who may not want to offend workers. But it's a disservice in the long run, leading to global and non-specific complaints about dining. The best thing you can do is coach your student to advocate for their own needs. It is an important life skill. They can’t just not go back to this restaurant. They are stuck with it.

We used to offer meals with dining managers and forums for feedback on our campus. These were lightly attended in proportion to general complaints. This frustrated dining staffs and was ineffective for students.

Understand and purchase the appropriate plan.

If you learn nothing else, understand the difference between the main dining hall and plan and the flex and bonus bucks plans.

Go light on the meal plan.

You probably know this, but at a certain point in the semester or term, the meal plan gets locked in and can’t be changed. You can always add money to dining dollars, but will almost never get money back that isn’t used.

Talk to your student about budgeting.

Some dining programs have calculators on their web pages for students to determine how many meals or dollars they should use weekly or even daily. It isn’t your job to budget, but urge your student to do this so they maximize the money you are investing in their meals.

Look at the campus dining webpage.

You will often find meal options published. It will help you respond to your student if they say there is no variety. You can often see firsthand what is available when. At least you will know, and you can potentially suggest they branch out from their go-to selections.

Use campus convenience stores only for emergencies.

Students and parents may bemoan the high prices, but these are no different than corner stores or airport kiosks. Customers, including students, are a captive audience. The best way to get grocery store prices is to go to grocery stores.

Complaints about dining food are as old as college campuses. Save your angst and energy about this! Let your student grouse. Coach them to self-advocate, and do some of your own research online or in person during visits. Help them be responsible stewards of their dining funds.

Then, heat up your fish sticks and think about how much you would appreciate your own dining program.

David Tuttle spent over 30 years in higher education in Residential Life and Student Affairs and has sent four children to college. He is the proprietor of a student and parent assistance service, PROsper Collegiate, LLC. Contact him at [email protected]
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