Options abundant for students dining on campus
Monday, April 20, 2015

Walk into any dining hall on the University of Iowa campus and you might think you’ve stumbled upon a shopping mall food court. 

Gone are the days of one-meal-fits-all, cafeteria-style service. Today’s college students enjoy a plethora of choices—try 25 to 30 entrees—served from stations offering barbecue, home-style, Southwest and Asian cuisine, and more. 

If that’s not enough, made-to-order stations allow food-savvy millennials to build their own burgers, burritos, or omelets, not to mention salad bars, carving stations, soups, and breads. There are even yogurt and potato bars on some days.

To top it off, student eating areas at the UI aren’t called cafeterias anymore; they’re Market Places. 

But the biggest change in campus dining over the past 25 years is the sheer number of choices. Food service dietitians are also more conscientious about food allergies and providing vegan and vegetarian options. 

“We used to offer two or three entrees, a starch, vegetables, and a couple of desserts,” says Jill Irvin, director of University Dining. “Now we have stations scattered around the room, and students can come and go as they please.”

Chef cooking burgers at Hillcrest Market Place
A staff member at Hillcrest Market Place cooks a perennial favorite among college students: burgers. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

There are about 10 stations—including standard options such as salad bar, soup and bread, sandwiches, and dessert—at each Market Place location in Burge and Hillcrest residence halls, and both sites offer something unique. Burge has made-to-order burritos, while Hillcrest has made-to-order burgers. When the new Mary Louise Petersen Residence Hall opens in the fall of 2015, students can visit Black’s Gold Grill, a self-branded burger joint that will stay open until midnight. Another residence hall recently approved for the east side of campus is expected to offer all-day breakfast. 

Why all the choices?

“Today’s college students are much more knowledgeable about food and nutrition,” Irvin says. “They come as savvy customers.”

According to a study by the Hartman Group, a market research and consulting firm in Bellevue, Washington, 16- to 30-year-olds eat less meat than earlier generations and try new ethnic foods more often than their parents. The study also found college-age millennials graze more during the day, prefer to eat with friends, and don’t mind a vegetarian meal even if they still eat meat.

They also like customized meals, which is why the made-to-order stations at the Market Places are so popular, Irvin says. 

“Students love the made-to-order food because they equate it with freshness,” she says. 

Jonathon Pearson, a first-year student from Des Moines, couldn’t agree more: “You can tell it’s fresh because they make it right in front of you.” 

University Dining offers students, faculty, and staff a welcoming and affordable dining experience. With 14 locations campus-wide, staff members prepare more than 400 unique foods and serve some 16,000 meals everyday.

Another big change is the culinary skills of the cooking staff. Beginning in the 1990s, universities and colleges across the country began hiring chefs to meet the demands of the students’ increasingly sophisticated palates. Today, the UI dining service has 10 chefs on staff. Students who grew up eating at restaurants expect variety and foods that are not only tasty and nutritious, but look good, too.  

“We needed to step up our game, and that’s why we began hiring chefs,” Irvin says. “Food service can influence a student’s choice of which college to attend. Colleges truly compete against each other in terms of food service.”

Fred Kurt, manager of the Hillcrest Market Place, says in today’s competitive college food service market it’s important to stay on top of trends in the industry. For example, Hillcrest followed a popular trend several years ago when it gave up trays, prompting students to take only as much food as a plate could hold. 

“There is less food waste because students tend to take only what they are going to eat, which helps prevent them from putting on weight,” he says. 

A recent Y-Plus study found 82 percent of colleges and universities reported having a wellness program for their students. That includes the UI, where students have free access to a state-of-the-art recreation center and a wide array of health programs and services. 

Millennials care about health and nutrition and expect to see fruits, vegetables, and other nourishing foods in their dining halls, Irvin says.  

Still, some things never change. The most popular foods on the menu are the ones young college students have been devouring for years: burgers, fries, and pizza. 

While college students today are more adventurous than their parents when it comes to food—first-year student Matthew Dunn of St. Paul, Minnesota, loves Hillcrest’s chicken and waffles with syrup—they still have a soft spot for a taste of the familiar. 

“You can’t beat a nice bowl of Fruit Loops,” Dunn says.