Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Accommodating Picky Palates: While There Remains Disagreement over the Prevalence of the "Freshman 15," College Health and Dining Officials Are Trying to Help Students Wade through Many; Convoluted Nutritional Choices

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Accommodating Picky Palates: While There Remains Disagreement over the Prevalence of the "Freshman 15," College Health and Dining Officials Are Trying to Help Students Wade through Many; Convoluted Nutritional Choices

Article excerpt

The menu offers Indian and Thai cuisine, along with ethnic entrees from around the globe. There is also a salad bar with organic ingredients, pasta and made-to-order omelettes. Sound like Sunday brunch at a four-star hotel? Dinner on a cruise ship?

Such offerings are actually fast becoming the norm at college dining halls around the country. At a time when the children of Baby Boomers are hitting higher education in record numbers, college officials have scrambled to accommodate their picky palates and their insistence for healthier meals than were served to past generations.

Meanwhile, debate and disagreement about the so-called "Freshman 15" continues. College health and dining officials are trying to help students wade through myriad convoluted nutritional choices that include trendy diets like South Beach and Atkins.

In addition, universities are increasingly eliminating artery clogging trans fat from cooking oil and from baked and fried foods. Low-sodium and less-processed foods are high in demand. Vegetarian and vegan options have expanded, while organic salad bars and sushi are fast becoming staples. Pizza and burgers remain cafeteria favorites, but these days they're more likely to have feta, bleu or goat cheese rather than cheddar.

"Kids today can get in their cars and go get whatever food they want if they don't like it here" says Dave Annis, executive director of food services at the 29,000-student University of Oklahoma. "Each kid wants something different. Here, we try to make it like living at home. I don't want any student to worry about food."

OU requires freshmen to live on campus and to purchase a meal plan at its all-you-can-eat facility. Lunch choices on a recent Friday varied from Tandoori chicken to chicken fried steak. On a recent Sunday, vegetables offered at dinner ran the garnet from bok choy to acorn squash. Almost every day, students can choose from among Asian stir-fry, an extensive deli as well as smokehouse-style barbecue and grilled-to-order meats.

Food choices have grown so important to today's college student that some surveys are showing it among the top factors--not far behind academic programs and location--in where students decide to enroll, says Annis, who is also president-elect of the National Association of College & University Food Services.

Most days at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., students can have a customized omelette or pasta--or both--cooked for them while they wait. The deli bar is a constant, too. When a student recently told executive chef Robert Vita of his doctor-prescribed diet limiting his meat intake to chicken, Vita told him there were plenty of options beyond the hot chicken entrees often offered in the line. Chicken appears daily on the salad bar, the sandwich station and the pasta line. It's also a frequent pizza topping.

"They eat better than I ever did," says Vita, a 1978 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. "There's an incredible variety here. We go out of our way to accommodate all kinds of dietary needs."

Vita and his co-workers pay so much attention to detail that, at Marist, a separate toaster is used for gluten-free bread.

Themed meals are offered even at schools that still have 28-day menus that repeat every month. Savannah State University, for instance, offers an occasional Hawaiian luau and, at week's end, fish "fryday." Numerous choices of vegetables and soups also are showing up there every day.

Coinciding with the efforts to customize meals, campuses are increasingly trying to help students make healthy choices. For instance, many schools around the country now post nutritional information online or in their cafeterias. And many now have on-site nutritionists, says Julie Weber, New Mexico State University's housing and residential life director. At American University, where Weber worked for 10 years, a nutritionist leads a tour of the dining hall, showing students how to make choices conforming to a Weight Watchers diet plan. …

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