There is a growing trend of college dining halls going upscale to lure in students because,contrary to popular belief, most of us are extremely unsatisfied with the idea of consuming pasta with meat sauce, hot dogs and unnaturally tough “mystery” meat for any extended period of time.
Bowdoin and Virginia Tech rank first and second on the best campus food list published by the Princeton Review. Apparently Virginia Tech offers its students “whole Maine lobsters, steaks and grilled sesame-crusted tuna with wasabi mayo,” in addition to a wood-burning oven. Bowdoin College believes that they “have an important role to play in the life of our students…and we’re here to support their efforts by providing great food, friendly service and a comfortable, collegial atmosphere.”
Well, props to students at Virginia Tech and Bowdoin whose extra-curricular worries can be focused on mastering their Zumba skills or the non-creepy flirtatious smile at their newest crush, but for the rest of us is it possible to tame our food anxieties, which emerge immediately upon entering the dining hall? The answer is yes. It really is not that difficult to make dining room food taste homemade. Here’s my simple 3 step process.
Step One: Surveillance. Even in smaller colleges, dining halls are built to feed thousands of hungry students with varying dietary needs. There are always the staple items, a salad bar, plain pasta, steamed vegetables, bread, sandwich meats and then the potentially questionable chicken pot pie or vegan spicy vegetable stew. From past experience, I would suggest picking simpler and fresh-looking items and adding to them. Before piling anything onto your plate, do a walk-around the dining hall and get a sense of what’s been put out there. After careful surveillance, come up with a game plan for how to mix and match the simple ingredients into a whole meal. Examples of such plans may include: farfalle pasta, fresh cherry tomatoes, olives, and shredded cheese or grilled chicken breasts, salsa, lettuce and wraps.
Step Two: Adding Flavor. The unforgettable added touch. The main issue with so many dining hall dishes is that they’re flavorless. The hamburgers taste like cardboard, the chicken like rubber, and the pizza like…nothing. Here is a guide to adding flavor to some of the best dining hall standbys.
Oatmeal: In a bowl: add one scoop of plain oatmeal, a teaspoon of brown sugar, sprinkling of raisins and cinnamon, cut up a banana or an apple and pour on some milk. All of sudden, sticky beige goo is transformed into a wholesome breakfast concoction! Search out these ingredients in the dining hall’s nooks and crannies of the cafeteria, and, if not, buy your own stash of cinnamon and raisins and bring individual-sized portions to each meal.
Pasta: Fill your bowl with plain pasta (wheat or white depending on taste preference and availability). Add as many cherry (or diced) tomatoes, olives, spinach and onions as you’d like and can find. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle in some red pepper flakes, salt, pepper and mix together. Top off with cheese – best type available and stick the whole thing in the microwave for 20-30 seconds or until the cheese is melted and the bowl is steaming.
Quesadilla: *Note quesadilla option requires sandwich grill* First, place a wrap down on your plate. On top, add sliced-on chicken, lettuce, salsa, shredded cheese and anything else that you think would taste good. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and Tabasco. Next either fold up or place another wrap on top and stick the whole thing in the grill until the cheese is melted and the wrap is on the soft-crunchy border. Et Voila! A tasty alternative to Chipotle. Garnish with sour cream and guacamole if you can find ‘em around!
Step Three: Do not over-consume one type of food. Over-consumption of one type of food tends to cause extreme resentment in students. My roommate ate hotdogs all freshman year and tuna sandwiches with olives all sophomore year and she harbors quite hateful feelings towards all on-campus food. It’s important to come up with at least fifteen meals to alternate between for lunch and dinner and five different breakfast combinations. Obviously, you will like some dishes other than others – but this is the same as at home.
As a general rule of thumb, survey for simple and fresh options, then combine ingredients and add flavors (olive oil, S&P, cinnamon, Tabasco – whatever your inner-home chef desires) and microwave or grill until warm and steaming. And lastly, alternate your wholesome creations to avoid over-consumption of hot dogs and possibly extreme dining hall hatred. Follow this three-step plan and make Mom proud.