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Don’t Forget the Dining Hall on Your Next College Visit

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

This might seem like a strange topic.

However, when I worked in admissions (I worked at my alma mater for 12 years!) one of the students’ major topics was the food at the Central Market, our main cafeteria. They liked to debate the merits of “fresh cookie day” and “sundae Wednesday.” They talked at length about the tacos that day and whether the “hot” salsa was more popular than the “mild” salsa.

As a former college student myself, I understood.

Students’ lives revolve around food. Choosing a college that serves crummy food can make you pretty miserable. You want to make sure you do your culinary homework when you visit colleges. Sure, it’s important to make sure the college offers the major of your dreams, but you also want to make sure the food makes you drool.

Check out the list below to analyze a school’s cafeteria to make sure it carries the full package.

What to Look for in College Cafeterias

Analyze the quality of the food.

Um, yes. Of course, you want to taste the food.

You want to plunk yourself down in a seat of the cafeteria and gobble until you wobble.

When you visit colleges, taste a little bit of everything, particularly if colleges offer buffet options (hopefully that’s the case so you have lots of options every day). 

If your college visit doesn’t offer the opportunity to eat in the cafeteria, ask if you can put it into your schedule. Make sure you make it a part of your visit at every college.

See how students interact with each other. 

This is a great place to scope out the scene. It gives you an idea of how students interact, whether they look like they have a great time together or whether they all eat alone (hopefully not).

Due to COVID-19, this could look different, depending on the school’s rules on dining, but it might still offer some great clues. 

If the students look engaged, if the faculty members look like they also eat with the students and each other, if they look like they all enjoy each other—super!

Also, if you can envision yourself hanging out with these students and think, “Hey, they could be my friends,” that’s also a good sign.

Find out about accommodating dietary needs.

Do you have specific dietary needs?

For example, let’s say you stick to a gluten free diet because you have celiac disease. You want to check at the cafeteria right away to make sure that gluten free food spends all of its time away from “regular,” non-gluten free food. 

Does staff have the capability to prepare it separately? Do you know for a fact that they take gluten-free eating seriously? Do they clearly label the food and offer a wide selection for those who eat exclusively gluten-free and maybe even include a list of ingredients so you can double check? You want the schools you shop around at to remain as transparent as possible.

Scope out the cafeteria to make sure that these items work to your satisfaction.

How to Cook for Yourself Cook in College

Talk to your date over lunch.

Did the admission office pair you up with someone to have lunch with? Or did the soccer team offer to eat lunch with you on your visit?

Now’s the time to pick this person’s brain. You want to do everything you can to unearth as much information from that individual as possible. Ask them questions that make them squirm, such as “What would you change about this college or university?” 

And definitely ask them about the food.

Just remember that even if you ate in the most wonderful restaurant every day of your life, you’d eventually get tired of the food—so remember that if and when your lunch date spends 10 minutes complaining about the food on campus.

Find out if you can get out of the meal plan—if you need to.

You might not want the meal plan at all, so find out if you can get out of it. For example, you may plan to live off campus. In that case, you should easily be able to get out of your meal plan. 

However, some colleges require students to live on campus, so the meal plan is non-negotiable!

Look for opportunities to give feedback.

Can students offer feedback to cafeteria employees? If so, fantastic.

Whether that just involves a suggestion box or rigorous feedback between the student senate and the director of food management, find out what students can do to change the direction of food options. Even if it involves offering three more kinds of cereal, learn about the degree of difficulty involved in making changes.

Check for organization. 

Does the cafeteria seem organized? Or does it seem like a line of army ants trying to get around a buffalo?

Does it seem clean, neat and orderly? Is it obvious where you need to stand in line to get food? Or do you feel lost at every turn? 

Not knowing where to go can seem overwhelming, especially if nobody helps you understand how to “use” the cafeteria. If the cafeteria has “stations,” it might have lines swarming around a more popular station and it might take you 30 minutes to get through the line.

You don’t want to spend your whole college career late to classes.

Analyze the employees.

Do the employees seem enthused to work there?

Many students work in college cafeterias for work-study money. Do they seem like they enjoy working there as much as the adults who work there?

You want to eat in a pleasant environment because you might visit that cafeteria for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for an entire school year.

Scan the room for cleanliness.

Who wants to eat in a dirty cafeteria with trash or day-old hamburgers strewn about? 

Have You Analyzed the Cafeteria?

Naturally, more goes into choosing a college than the cafeteria alone, but so much of our lives revolve around food. You’d hate to go to a college where the food tastes inedible.

Also, find out about all the different food options. Can students eat at a grab n’ go location or can you only eat in the main cafeteria?

Learn about the different types of foods and available options for each.

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Author: Melissa Brock

Melissa Brock is the founder of College Money Tips and Money editor at Benzinga. She loves helping families navigate their finances and the college search process. Check out her essential timeline and checklist for the college search!