The evergreen memories of my dorm life in Coimbatore, India are highlighted with the haunting memories of food. It was a long walk from our rooms to the one and only cafeteria, which was appropriately named “mess.” This prestigious girls university with the best nutrition and food science program in the southern part of India served oily cardboard (pooris), glue (pongal), paste (upma), gutter water (tea) as meals to us inmates. They served the same inedible meals week after week, year after year, which left my taste buds numb. But it did make many of us appreciate our homemade goodies with true gratitude.
Here, in the United States, colleges have multiple cafeterias and many options.
Fall is upon us, and parents across the United States are preparing to send their kids to college. For freshman parents, especially, this is a huge life change. Their kids will be trying to figure out living on their own, for the very first time. Besides the turmoil of letting-go, parents will add a new worry to their list—Food!
A year from now my own son will be leaving for college. I thought that college apps were complicated, until I reviewed a few meal plans for students. It made my head spin. Since I haven’t set foot in a college dorm here in the United States, I decided to get the scoop on college cafeterias, and to try and peel the layers of this convoluted maze of choices and options called the College Meal Plan. Boy, was I in for a treat.
Some Straight Talk
While interviewing college students for this article, I was introduced to the acronyms 14 P, 19 Regular, and 19 Plus. You might think these are the sizes for clothes, but they are really names for meal plans. You must know by now that “Freshman 15” is the first 15 pounds every freshman adds to their body weight while eating in campus cafeterias.
Kavitha is a freshman at UC Berkeley. Her first semester was a love fest with pizzas. She ate pizzas almost every day.
“Most of the Freshman calories that my friends and I put on came from fermented drinks,” said Vineet, a freshman at George Washington University. “If my parents knew this they would be in shock,” he chuckled. “We ate unhealthy food at crazy hours. I never used my meal plan the first semester, as I was never up or had the time to go down when the cafeteria was open.”
While many students put on the pounds, the vegetarians lost weight as they had few vegetarian options in their meal plans. “All I get is a salad bar that serves the same wilted vegetables. I have new respect for my mom’s cooking,” added Rohan, a sophomore at UC San Diego.
“Freshman year is the hardest. You buy a meal plan and get tired of the same menu within a few weeks,” said Sonali, a freshman who drives home every weekend to get a decent meal.
Contrary to Vineet and Sonali’s experience, the UC Davis students I spoke with boasted of a great dining experience throughout their freshman year. Why? Because Davis grows its own food, and the chefs cook healthy, tasty meals every day. “Vegetarians and vegans have a feast here,” claimed sophomore student, Anjali.
Not so at Berkeley. “We pay fees too, and yet we get inedible food,” complained Kavitha whose brother goes to Cornell, an Ivy league that has cafeterias run by famous chefs, who serve organic healthy meals and world cuisines.
“We have many choices in and around Stanford,” said a Stanford freshman, adding that that is most likely the reason why the frat house kitchens rarely get used.
“The cafeteria is the selling point for many private colleges,” said a professor at a California university who requested anonymity. Then how come these cafeterias are ill-equipped to deal with dietary restrictions?
Dollars and Sense
Vandana Iyer, a senior at George Washington University, said that her first year was a complete disaster. They had $1700 per semester of food credits. Of these credits, $700 had to be used in the campus cafeteria. The remaining $1000 could be used in restaurants around the campus. The cafeteria was the capital of processed food nation, with unhealthy, greasy Chinese and American options. Vandana ate at the restaurants and used up her 700 dollars buying sodas, chips and milkshakes.
During sophomore year they had dorm rooms with kitchenettes and $1500 in credits to work with—again $1000 for spending at restaurants and $500 for the cafeteria. Junior year brought them a full kitchen. The Junior Year Meal Plan now gave them $1000 to spend at restaurants. They brought groceries and cooked a lot. The senior-only dorms had a full kitchen in each unit. She said that the boys and girls cooked a lot, and ate mostly balanced meals. Although her first year was bleak, she said that things have improved now in the cafeteria for the new incoming freshman. She suggests talking to the kitchen staff at your college, and giving them feedback, to help improve things.
The Power of Aramark and Sodexo
The effect of all the gallons of organic milk and the groceries and crates of fruits at Farmers markets that you bought as you raised your teenager is gone with the wind the moment they step onto a college campus. James Wheaton, who filed the ballot for the Prop 37 Initiative, called it “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.” If you said “NO” to Prop 37, this is the time to knock yourself on the head. Your child is going to live in a genetically modified world in college. Aramark and Sodexo, the gurus of processed foods (also called genetically modified foods, or GMOs) run most of the school and college kitchens across the United States. It is a $13 billion annualized business, dishing out unhealthy, greasy food to children across our nation. The mandatory meal plans we sign are designed by these food companies, who contract with the colleges.
Encourage, Empower and Inspire
So what options do we have as parents? Chef Jamie Oliver’s slogan is to encourage, empower and inspire youngsters. Teach and encourage healthy eating habits as early as possible. Empower them with all the knowledge available on health and help them to understand their bodies. Inspire them to cook for themselves and others. This will help them take control of their own decisions and choices. Teaching your kids to make a basic meal is a lifetime skill. Have them make breakfast on weekends a few months before they head off to college
Grad Gifts and Care Packages
Talk to other parents and buy the students a group cooking class as a gift. It is a great idea to register with a store, so that your teen does not get yet another clothing store gift card they don’t care for as their graduation gift. If they have a kitchen in their dorm, register for gift cards at a local grocery store, close to the campus. This will inspire them to cook at least on the weekends. Get them a rice cooker, pan and a slow cooker with recipes. Send them a care package with their favorite pancake mix, pasta and sauce. When they are home, make cooking fun.
Cooking in College
A fork, a spoon, a microwaveable cereal bowl, a pyrex dish, a small knife and a cutting board can help students make a decent meal in the room. Remember that if your child had no interest in cooking at home, they are not going to start cooking because they are in college unless they have a hot girl friend or boyfriend who loves to cook.
Vandana mentioned that one of the students made breakfast every morning during the frosh year in their common kitchen. What a great way to make friends especially if you start with having no friends on campus. My brother met his future wife because of his dorm cooking skills.
Shivali, a UC Davis junior loves to cook. “I never cooked at home, but somehow watching my mom cook for 15 years, it just came back to me. I love to cook and my friends love my food.”
Some colleges allow appliances in the dorm room during freshman year. If they do, a small rice cooker comes in very handy. It is a one pot meal device. Khichdi, pasta, soup, and hot chai can all be made with this simple cooker.
My nieces Nikhita at Brown and Vidya and Vandana at George Washington all cooked in their dorm rooms from their sophomore to senior years. I would get calls from them for a quick soup recipe or pasta recipes every now and then.
Getting Creative With the Salad Bar
If no appliances are allowed, then creative options can be made with items from the cafeteria and salad bar. Bread and cracker sandwiches with a jar of almond butter and bananas is a healthy option. Dried cranberries, blueberries, raisins, and nuts are good additions to the boring cereal. Cold steamed vegetables can be warmed in a microwave with a dash of crushed pepper and salt to make it edible. Raita with the salad bar cucumbers, tomato, peppers, yogurt, salt and pepper is an alternate option. A jar of tomato chutney serves as a tasty spread for sandwiches, a side for naans, and a great addition to a rice pilaf.
Open bags of chips, week old pop tarts, fizzled out coke cans on the floor, dried out pizza, along with books, dirty clothes and an unmade bed, I shudder at this visual image of my son’s future dorm room. The thought of losing him to processed foods, stale salad bars and carbonated calories is disheartening. But then again, I hope that I have inspired, empowered and encouraged him to make the right choices. I sincerely wish that he goes for the apple and not the Snickers bar.
Praba Iyer teaches custom cooking classes around the SF Bay Area. She also blogs about cooking at rocketbites.com.
Naan Pizza Snack
1 Naan bread
1 tsp olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato sauce or pesto or
½ cup spinach
½ cup cherry tomatoes halved
salt and crushed red pepper
½ cup grated mozzarella cheese
a few fresh basil leaves
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Brush the naan with olive oil, spread the tomato sauce, tear the spinach and spread it on top along with the cherry tomatoes. Season with salt and crushed red pepper. Sprinkle the cheese and bake in the oven till the cheese melts or for about 5-7 minutes. Garnish with torn basil leaves. Eat warm.
Microwave: Place the assembled Naan in a microwave and cook on high for 25-30 seconds or until the cheese melts.
Variations: (i) Mango chutney spread, sliced apples and goat cheese. (ii) Tomato chutney spread, hash brown potatoes and mozzarella cheese. (iii) Black beans, salsa and cheddar cheese.
Microwave Mint Pilaf
1 cup Basmati rice (wash, soak in water)
1 tablespoon butter/oil
½ cup frozen vegetables (peas, carrots, cauliflower etc.)
1 teaspoon pulao masala powder
lemon garlic salt to taste
Fresh mint leaves
Place the butter/oil in the microwaveable dish along with the frozen vegetables and pulao masala powder. Cook for 1 minute on high. Remove and add the washed Basmati rice, 2 cups of water, lemon salt and mint leaves. Cook on high for 12 minutes or until rice is well cooked. Fluff with a fork and eat warm with yogurt and chips.
Variation: Beat an egg in a cereal bowl and cook it in the microwave for 40 seconds. chop it up and mix it in the pulav. A quick protein fix to a simple pilaf.
4 Yukon gold potatoes chopped
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1/ 2 teaspoon of crushed pepper
1 teaspoon of dried herbs
lemon salt to taste
Mix the potatoes with olive oil, crushed pepper, herbs, and salt. Place the potatoes in
a microwaveable dish and cover it with saran wrap and cook it in the microwave for 12- 14 minutes or until done.
Variations: Add any salad bar vegetables like bell peppers, onions etc and change the herbs and spice mixes. Make it Indian with ½ teaspoon of garam masala and cilantro.
Choosing a Meal Plan
Meal plans are cash cows for colleges, and it makes sense to do your research before signing up for something you are not sure about. Here are some tips.
• To figure out a meal pattern, note down the number of meals that your teen will need in a week and the total in a semester. Keep in mind that most freshman students have no time for breakfast because of very early classes.
• If the college or university is in a city like New York, a meal plan might not make sense at all after a semester or two, as it is easy to find good restaurants, food trucks, and food hubs with decent food right around the campus.
• If your teen is at a small town college or university get a meal plan no matter what. Cafeterias are the headquarters of college social life, where they would meet new people and make new friends.
• Get the least number of meals for the first semester because the first week is usually free food week provided by college clubs. Many colleges don’t have a rollover plan and you end up losing dollars or feeding friends for free, just to use up your meal plan.
• Don’t get a specific meal plan for your child just because her friend is on the plan. Meals plans should be individualized to suit each person’s nutritional needs and tastes.
• Colleges have devised plans that can be confusing: “120 to 150 blocks” which are meals per semester or “12 plus and 9 regular” which reflect the number of meals per week. The names are different for each college and the benefits also vary quite dramatically.
• Get a flex meal plan, premium, plus or commuter plan especially if the cafeteria has a limited menu. This will provide them the flexibility to go out to eat at other cafeterias on campus and get to-go meals.
• Swipe card systems are tricky, some colleges have a policy that every swipe is a meal no matter whether they get a smoothie or a full fledge dinner. Watch out for these.