Guest Blogger: College cafeteria food

The food I ate before going vegan: chicken nuggets, pickles and cucumbers, squash sauteed in butter
As I prepared to go off to college I had one giant fear—the freshman fifteen. Despite what my tour guides told me I expected to be ordering out frequently because I couldn’t stomach the slop from the dining hall.
            After a week of eating two squares a day in the caf I knew I was going to have the opposite problem—an all-you-can-eat buffet of pretty tasty food all day, every day. There was a pizza bar, burgers and hotdogs, waffle irons with delicious sweet batter, and a cart overflowing with cookies, brownies and cakes. Sure, there was also a long salad bar and plenty of fruit, but those things didn’t interest me nearly as much as schmearing my brownies with peanut butter or the pizza topped with crispy buffalo chicken.
            And if I wanted something to eat when the dining hall wasn’t open (which happened quite often because it had horrible hours) my only option was the Grill. This was the fast food option at school. Double cheeseburgers, personal pizzas, paninis, milkshakes, and lots and lots of fries. Their salads were prepackaged bowls of iceberg lettuce, crispy fried chicken, and tomatoes with ranch dressing. They also had some of the most decadent brownies and cake masquerading as blueberry muffins.
        This was a popular place to grab a quick breakfast (usually a plain bagel and massive amount of cream cheese) before class or a fourth meal for most students. Without a doubt, I sampled these culinary creations once or twice (or every time I woke up hungover).
            This ritual of indulgence occurred twice a day for nearly a month. In that time I gained weight and lost energy. I was napping everyday, snacking through my morning, falling asleep in class.
            Very quickly, though, I got fed up with my clothes getting tighter every time I put them on. I got tired of being tired.
            So I cut out the junk. No more fries at every meal, massive slices of cake, or burritos the size of full-term babies. I started eating the way I had been doing for years before coming to college—healthily. And you know what?
            The weight came off. The need for a daily nap almost completely vanished. I stayed awake in class (unlike in high school). It was amazing how much of a difference my diet could make. And before long I even had enough energy to start working out again.
            Then, half way through my spring semester I made another dietary change—I went vegan. I cut out all animal (and bug) products and once again had to learn a new way to maneuver the dining hall.
This change wasn’t terribly difficult since we have a vegan station, but if I ever tried to venture away from this one safe corner, I was shot. It seemed like everything was cooked in butter, smothered in mayo, or generously sprinkled with cheese. Who puts cheese on steamed broccoli? That just seemed ridiculously to me. Like Mrs. Q, the days I could just find plain, unadorned vegetables was a glorious day.
Food I eat now: a big, beautiful, delicious and diverse salad
I make my dining hall sound horrible, I realize. In all honesty, I am luckier than most students. My dining hall uses mostly organic, local foods and practices sustainable dining (no trays, recycled napkins, real plates and silverware, and they compost all leftovers). But pork chops, regardless of the food the pigs were fed and where they come from, are still unhealthy when deep-fried and drowning in gravy.
Once the year ended, I was amazed to see that I had managed to lose a pound or two. But even better than completely avoiding the dreaded freshman fifteen was realizing the power of healthy eating. And realizing that I had the power (and knowledge) to say no to most unhealthy foods.
My name is Kara Hadley and I blog at
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17 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: College cafeteria food

  1. That was a lovely and insightful post.
    I am currently a student, in my second year of studies. Surprisingly for me I found when I had full control over my own diet I was able to lose ten pounds. Though I do not have the luxury of prepared meals, I know the feeling oh so well of being tempted into grabbing takeout on my walk back home to where I stay.
    And like Kara, I no longer fall asleep during classes ( Like I did throughout highschool ).
    Thank you Kara.

  2. If you're a college student stuck with poor quality grub in the dining hall, get involved with the Real Food Challenge.
    This organization is active in over 300 colleges across the country advocating for real food. They are awesome!

  3. I really liked reading this post. I'm also a college student who tries to eat healthily with a meal plan (although for the first time next year I'll be off-campus), and even with a well-equipped dining hall it can be difficult. I'm not a vegetarian or vegan and I constantly think about how difficult it would be if I were – there are a few options here and there, but pretty much if you don't eat meat, they serve very close to the same thing day in, day out.

    It's also nice to hear about a dining hall with such sustainable habits, though; my dining hall's "sustainable days" consist of recycled paper plates, styrofoam hot cups, and plastic forks and knives.

  4. Knowledge IS power! Give them the tools from a young age and the kids WILL make better choices later on in life….

    Well done on being vegan Kara…I think about it often but just can't make that transition…yet.

  5. I'm a freshmen in college, and I can relate to this post! The only thing that's healthy at my dining all is the deli area, that has sandwiches, soup, and salad. I got fed up with the food there quite early. That's why my roommate and I for next year, will start to cook our own food at our dorm's kitchen. 🙂

  6. I faced a similar situation in college, but the deck was even more stacked against me. Our dining halls weren't an all you can eat buffet style kind of deal like most college dining halls are. We had to pay for each individual item, and when you can get a Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza for $3.50 or 2 burritos from Taco Bell for $3 as opposed to paying $6-$8 for a medium sized salad, cheap usually wins out. Even with trying to eat cheap, I still ran out of money on my meal plan about 8 weeks into the 11 week term, then I subsequently had to pay for my food with my own money. This all amounted to me gaining about 100 pounds by the time I graduated from college.

    Fortunately, after I graduated I had a bit more time to work out and to cook for myself, so I've since dropped about 60 of those 100 pounds.

  7. It is so hard to eat healthy in college cafeterias. I gained nearly 30lbs in one yr. I am a vegetarian and even though they had a line labeled for us they only thing it served was grilled cheese and grilled PB&J. Obviously if u don't eat meat u don't deserve choices I guess!

  8. Oh boy.

    My college's horrible cafeteria is what inspired me to learn to cook my own food, and get interested in food in the first place. In retrospect, it makes me angry just HOW bad we had it, compared to other schools. I went to a small private arts school, and all on-campus freshman were REQUIRED to get a meal plan. A several thousand dollar meal plan.

    It evened out to $4 for breakfast, $5 for lunch, and $6 for dinner. I could barely afford my first year as it was, and it was such an insult paying such high prices for such bad food. And, no small coincidence, our food provider was Chartwells, the same supplier for a lot of elementary and middle school cafeterias.

    Now that I know what food actually costs, I can't believe how much of a con our school had going. $15 a day for food comes out to $450 for a month. And people think whole foods is expensive. The meals were prepaid and non-refundable, so if you missed a meal, you still paid for it. Our meal times were only an hour long, so if you didn't make it to the cafeteria in time, you just lost the $5 or $6 you already paid for your food. If you went out to eat with your friends instead, you just lost the money you paid for your food. Etc.

    In addition, the food was never fresh or particularly appetizing, a lot of students had health problems by the end of the year (my roommate got appendicitis) everything was fried, and the only consistently "freshly" cooked entrees were burgers, chicken fingers, and fries.

    The bright side? At the start of my sophomore year I was given Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything and I never went back to the god-awful school cafeteria. It was enough eye opening motivation to get me and several friends cooking and interested in eating well.

    1. Erin, I was researching school cafeteria’s because mine makes me so sick and gives me so many stomach problems. I couldn’t relate to any of these posts but then started reading yours and it sounded just like my experience! And guess who our school’s provider is? CHARTWELLS! It’s honestly the worst food I’ve ever had and my school FORCES us to be on the meal plan for all four years! I couldn’t believe how much your post related to me! Hope you were able to be healthy after college! I’m hoping that much for me!

  9. I also went vegan once college began, since it was a natural step for me in healthy eating. It was tough to stray from the steamed veggies and salad bar unless I cooked for myself (which was a rarity with no real kitchen). Next year will be culinarily promising, since I love to cook and will have a kitchen…hope you're equally as fortunate!

  10. Kara is my best friend & this girl is an inspiration when it comes to maintaining your health. I recommend that everyone follow her blog and ask her about her fresh home baked vegan goods. delish!

  11. One thing that I have to say was great about BYU was that we had a number of different meal plans, and some didn't even need to involve a dining hall at all. We had apartment style dorms that had kitchens, so my meal plan was $30/week at the BYU supermarket. It was overpriced, but because we had to buy a meal plan the first year, it was worth it. Even so, the allure of the dining hall still remained and I gained about 10 pounds the first semester and lost it all the second semester.

  12. Like a couple of the other commenters, I'm a college student as well. The first two years of school, I went to a community college. The cafeteria was pretty small. There was a salad bar, a breakfast station (wafflemaker, toaster, bagels, danish, etc), a pizza/hot food station, and a salad bar. There was also a station where there was always two soups (always greasy), some kind of chili, and rice. Since I was commuting from home, and since my classes were not that long, I could pack a lunch no problem. Usually, a salad with goat cheese and cranberries, or pb&j with an apple or banana. The salads you could buy at school were charged based on weight, so if you didn't put anything exceptionally heavy in it (like mozzarella balls), they usually weren't more than $6. We also had a Panchero's and a Subway within walking distance. Neither of them are shining examples of health, but roughly $5 for a vegetarian burrito (filled with veggies, not made with meat substitute meat)? Not bad.
    Now, I'm going to a different school, a four-year school. I'm commuting still, but now I have six hour long studio classes to contend with. The school cafeteria at the university is…well…a lot like the one described in the post. I went one day during the week to drop off some paperwork and visit a friend. I got a salad with rather questionable lettuce (ewww, slimy mixed greens?!). My friend, like 98% of the other people in the cafeteria, went to one of the hot food stations. There was a cheesesteak station, a pizza station, a "grill" station, etc. And one. Lonely. Salad bar.
    Now, I am far from a health nut. I admit to eating some seriously unhealthy food (like nutella crepes from IHOP last night…). I just know if I eat like that -every day-, I'll feel sick and miserable. The prospect of school food actually makes me feel better about commuting from/living at home…

  13. great post. except… as i'm reading this i'm eating stir-fried veggies, including broccoli, with a sprinkling of mozzarella cheese… so, to answer the question, i put cheese on my broccoli. and it's delicious!

    i never had to deal with the horrors of campus dining, as i've lived off-campus in an apartment alone since i started college. but i've seen the students sporting their freshman 15 (30, 40, 50, too) leaving the dining halls double fisting ice cream cones. college is a lesson in self-control, i suppose.

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