What college dining halls have the best food? This might not be the most important question high schoolers should be asking when putting together their application lists, but it’s not a trivial concern, either! Everyone has to eat, and active, growing college students are definitely no exception! Realizing that campus food will form the majority of their diet for the next four years, it’s worth considering what that will look like – from the variety of options available, to nutrition content, to accommodating dietary restrictions (due to allergies, religious customs, moral/ethical concerns, etc.).
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The 50 Colleges with the Best Food Ranking Methodology
Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, taste is in the mouth of the diner. In other words, determining an objective measure of the “best” food for college students would be nearly impossible. Some think taste and variety are the most important factors, while others place a premium on nutrition content or sustainability. Still others emphasize participation in food-related events or wellness programs.
In the end, we decided that all of these factors are important – and more! Therefore, we built one comprehensive ranking by combining the results of five other studies on college dining halls all across the country:
Niche: focused primarily on student surveys of campus dining. Average meal plan cost also played a minor role.
The Princeton Review: based entirely on student responses to the survey question “How do you rate the food on campus?”
College Rank: looked at factors such as versatility, nutrition and wellness, sustainability, and accessibility (accommodations for special diets).
The Daily Meal: focused on accessibility and quality of service, educational efforts, and food-centered events. It also took into account the quality of off-campus dining and “x-factor” characteristics.
The Best Colleges: determined quality based on sustainability efforts (innovative sourcing, waste reduction, etc.) and awards earned.
Taken together, the scores that each college received from the websites above accounted for 84% of our total ranking. We allocated the remaining 16% to measure affordability, which we calculated by looking at each college’s net price. We obtained net price figures, which combine tuition rates and fees/other expenses (e.g. cost of living) with average financial aid, from the National Center for Education Statistics.
After crunching the numbers, we came up with our final ranking of the 50 best college dining halls.
It should come as little surprise that Bowdoin College tops our ranking of the best college dining halls. Publications such as Restaurants and Institutions Magazine, The Princeton Review, and HerCampus.com have all praised Bowdoin's commitment to healthy, delicious food. Part of the school's claim to fame is due to its focus on sustainability; it features an "in-house meat shop" with "local, grass-fed beef," and many of the dining halls' fruits and vegetables come from an on-campus organic garden. What's more, Bowdoin shows sensitivity to special diets by placing allergen labels next to all food items and providing both vegan and gluten-free options at every meal.
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Choice is a key part of the dining experience at Virginia Tech University. The school supports about a dozen different dining centers on campus, from traditional cafeterias to food courts featuring popular chain restaurants. VT Dining Services also owns two food trucks, both of which "steer clear of a predictable menu" and park at various campus hot spots throughout the day to meet the needs of hungry Hokies. And like most colleges with the best food, Virginia Tech places a strong emphasis on sustainability. Most notably, the Farms and Fields Project (located in one of the food courts), serves up exclusively local, sustainable, and organic dishes.
Few universities go to the lengths that UCLA does to keep its students well-fed. For starters, the university's four "residential restaurants" (located in the undergrad dorm complexes), give Bruins easy access to healthy, culturally-diverse cuisine. And yet, students who don't want to take a trip downstairs can simply pick up their phone and order pizza or wings from MyPizza, the university's exclusive online food delivery service. As if that weren't enough, UCLA's quick-service restaurants provide the best food for college students on the go. This includes two combination eateries/coffee bars that stay open until 2am to satisfy late night cravings.
With 28 on-campus dining options, the only food-related complaint JMU students are likely to make is that they can't decide where to eat! One of the most striking features of the university's dining profile is the number of chain restaurants it features, from Chick-Fil-A and Dunkin' Donuts to Starbucks and Subway. Or for a more traditional meal, Dukes can head to E-Hall, which features made-to-order omelets, an "authentic Tandoori oven," and plenty of options for vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free diets. Lastly, those seeking to maximize their intake of healthy college food should check out the Fueled Food Truck. This mobile restaurant aims to bring nutritious, locally-sourced food to campus (in the form of delicious Asian fusion cuisine, no less!).
What makes college food good? High quality taste and nutrition, of course, butlocation is also important. After all, a delicious meal is only as useful as its proximity to hungry people! Washington University in St. Louis has mastered this concept with a triad of dining establishments that stretches the full length of its 169-acre campus. At the northern end is The Village, home to casual restaurants like Stir Fry, Old World Deli, and Comfort Food. Journey to the center of campus to find The DUC, one of the most impressive college cafeterias west of the Mississippi. Further south lives the Bear's Den, where students can chow down on authentic international fare from the Mediterranean, Latin America, India, and even Mongolia.
At first glance, it might not seem like Kennesaw's Culinary and Hospitality Services are anything to write home about. Indeed, the school's dining profile consists mostly of fast-casual restaurants like Chik-fil-A, Hissho Sushi, and Burrito Bowl. However, KSU also has one of the best college dining halls on the East Coast. This modern cafeteria, known as "The Commons," is the go-to spot for healthy, diverse fare any time of day. Students can even access an interactive online menu that provides detailed nutrition information, with labels about portion size, sustainable ingredients, and vegan/vegetarian options.
With an enrollment of fewer than 2,000 students, Bates College has little need for massive food courts. In fact, hungry students at Bates generally go to one place: Commons. Utilizing a rotating schedule of menus throughout the year, this cafeteria provides some of the best and healthiest food for college students. Breakfast, for example, includes an omelet station and waffle bar seven days a week, plus extra-delicious brunch options every weekend. Later in the day, diners can fill their plates at the traditional "Bobcat Bar" or check out the Pasta, Deli, or Vegan Bar. Grill, Brick Oven, and Bakery stations are also open at every meal!
Most college dining programs have one job: feed students! While this is certainly a worthwhile goal, Emory Dining takes on a much larger role in campus life. Of course, like all colleges with the best food, Emory offers a wide array of healthy options, including vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and kosher meals. The school's main dining hall, known as the DUC-ling, also adjusts its menu throughout the year to incorporate as many fresh, seasonal ingredients as possible. But Emory Dining's impact doesn't stop there. Not only has the program pledged to acquire at least 50% of its food supply from local and sustainable sources, but it also serves as an advocate for farmworker rights and nutrition education.
One aspect of Middlebury's dining services immediately distinguishes it from other schools: its lack of meal plans! Where other colleges make students pay for a certain number of meals per semester or fill their ID cards with pre-purchased points, Middlebury goes completely off book. According to its website, "Students can eat wherever they'd like, whenever they'd like, and as much as they'd like" in exchange for one all-inclusive fee. This is an especially great deal considering Middlebury is home to three top college cafeterias, each of which offers a unique dining experience. An outspoken friend of the environment, the school also strives to cut down on its ecological footprint by composting up to 99% of its food waste.
Because NYU doesn't operate a traditional college campus, it wouldn't make sense for the university to force students - who attend classes in buildings spread throughout the city - to eat meals in one central location. So instead, NYU dining offers students their choice of 16 establishments across Manhattan and Brooklyn. Those who choose to purchase a meal plan (as all freshmen are required to do) will likely gravitate toward Washington Square. Here, students can get their fill of great college food from dining halls, food courts, and casual eateries serving up a wide variety of both local and international cuisines.
Stanford already has a reputation as one of the most academically challenging, forward-thinking universities in the world. But few would have thought that this penchant for innovation would extend to its dining halls! Sure, Stanford is one of the colleges with the best food, but it's also one of the schools with the most unique food programs. For example, students can sign up for Jamie Oliver's Cook Smart Program, which teaches participants basic cooking skills as well as about healthy and mindful eating. Alternatively, a student may elect to become a dining ambassador, promoting events in the dining hall and informing their peers about wellness, sustainability, and nutrition.
Considering the vast majority of its students are enrolled in online programs, Liberty might seem like an odd choice for this ranking of colleges with the best food. But in fact, the university's Reber-Thomas Dining Hall has repeatedly earned national recognition for the quality of its fare. Operated as a food court, Reber-Thomas houses nearly 20 dining establishments under one roof. Among the more unique stations are the Training Table, which serves nutrient-dense meals specifically designed for athletes; Simple Servings, which prepares all meals free of at least 7 out of 8 common food allergens; and Global Fusion, which combines live-action cooking with authentic Asian and Mediterranean cuisine.
Harvard University Dining Services (or "HUDS") takes meal time on campus very seriously. Students at this elite college maintain busy schedules from morning 'til night, and many only take breaks to eat. As such, HUDS strives to make eating a socially as well as physically reinvigorating experience. Each dining hall is associated with a particular house (undergraduate residence) and maintains a unique schedule that encourages community bonding. For example, one facility sets aside a few hours each day just for freshmen to eat, while another has established "community dinners" just for house members. But regardless of where they eat, Harvard undergrads can feel confident that they'll be chowing down on some of the best college food in New England.
Like many smaller, private liberal arts colleges, Brown University relies mainly on traditional dining halls to serve students. More specifically, the campus has two "all-you-care-to-eat" cafeterias, each of which serves up a wide array of dishes for breakfast, brunch ("continental breakfast"), lunch, and dinner. Diners looking to make educated food choices can use an online tool called MyMeal to see nutrition and ingredient information, and all meal items are marked with special labels to designate vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. And thanks to its Express Delivery service, Brown has some of the best food for college students who want their meals brought to them.
Chefs who work at Johns Hopkins' top college dining halls follow rigorous standards as they prep thousands of meals each week. Because the school is devoted to offering as much fresh food as possible, employees bake bread daily, make their own stocks from scratch, and use the freshest vegetables they can find. When possible, they also use local, sustainably grown produce to reduce the university's environmental impact. And because the dining program values community, the team puts on regular food-focused events (think cultural nights and a cooking demonstration series) that help get students more involved in what they eat.
For a dining program that benefits its entire community, give the University of California - Davis a look. Not only does Davis's top college cafeteria practice waste-mitigation techniques such as composting and source reduction, but it also donates fresh food to community groups through food recovery programs. In addition, students can "donate" their meal swipes during twice-yearly drives, and Davis will give an equivalent donation to a local food bank. Back on campus, nutrition talks help students make healthy choices, and a nutrient ranking descriptor on signage indicates the nutrient density of each menu item.
Like most colleges with the best food, Arkansas' Hendrix College strives to offer options for every preference. Hendrix takes it a step further with customizable stations where students can make meals to their own tastes. From a surprisingly robust salad bar to a DIY stir-fry station, Hendrix hands the reins to students. The school is also an active participant in Meatless Monday, giving chefs the chance to reinvent classic dishes in new ways (think buffalo cauliflower pizza or ratatouille wraps). Plant-based eaters need not worry the rest of the week, either: the school always serves at least one vegan option with each meal and often adds a vegetarian option too.
The University of San Diego consistently receives awards for its dining concepts as a whole and for its individual offerings (PETA gives its vegan menu an A+). One of its most inspiring concepts is La Paloma, a stand-alone cafe that prizes sustainable, local ingredients with an international flavor. The cafe uses locally made tofu and serves hormone- and antibiotic-free meat, and it avoids artificial sweeteners, colors, and additives. Not only does it offers some of the best food for college students, but a commitment to sustainability means that everything is recyclable, biodegradable, or eco-friendly.
From classic Maine blueberry pie to plenty of seafood, the College of the Atlantic offers food inspired by its location in Bar Harbor, Maine. It also pays more than lip service to the importance of healthy college food. More specifically, chefs make all dishes from scratch with fresh, local ingredients, and they take pride in creating innovative dishes. A whopping one third of all dishes are vegetarian, and students can find plenty of vegan options as well. For students concerned with animal welfare, the school always opts for humanely raised and sustainably sourced products. All coffee (and many bulk staples) are fair-trade, and the staff is working towards an entirely fair-trade menu in the future. And finally, a composting partnership works to reduce food waste.
Recognizing that students with celiac disease need a safe, contaminant-free space to eat so that they don't get sick, Kent State built Prentice Hall, the first Gluten Intolerance Group-certified college cafeteria in the country. This top college dining hall is a true safe zone and had to meet strict criteria for qualification. It's also convenient: students can order ahead and pick up meals later. Prentice Hall isn't the only innovative dining option on campus, though. Kent State also operates Fork in the Road, a food truck that serves up creative entrees around campus. For busy students, the ability to grab a burger or veggie wrap on the go could be a lifesaver.
Carolina's dining program receives awards nearly every year, and it's easy to see why. From a diverse range of choices to a school-wide focus on health, Carolina has plenty to offer. The university provides more than 10 dining plans, allowing students to customize their meals to their style and preference. And because of its partnership with Sodexo, Carolina's top college cafeterias include many healthy choices. In fact, the school incorporates both Simple Servings (allergy-friendly options) and Mindful meals, which meet specific health standards. For students who prefer chain restaurants, Carolina has quite a few franchises on campus - including five Starbucks locations!
Though it can be difficult to stand out among similar colleges with the best food, Northwestern differentiates itself with a unique menu customization option. Following food industry trends modeled by fast casual restaurants such as Chipotle and Chop't, Northwestern's My Kitchen station allows students to prepare their own meals from a selection of ingredients. The station might feature paella ingredients one day and curry the next, and students cook their own meals (under the guidance of a chef) on induction stoves to avoid burn risks. Not only do students know exactly what they're eating, but they also learn how to prepare tasty, fresh meals from quality ingredients.
Columbia University in the City of New York aims for inclusivity in its meal options: The school offers healthy college food that meets the requirements of various cultural diets and religious restrictions. For example, Jewish students can enroll in a special kosher meal plan that includes access to a designated kosher dining area; they can also buy grab-and-go options at an all-kosher deli with great quick options. And Muslim students have a similar option with the halal meal plan, which entitles the students to dishes prepared according to the tenets of their faith.
Given the state of Oregon's renown as a beacon of sustainability, it should come as no surprise that the University of Oregon offers some of the best food for college students who want to know exactly where their meals come from. More than 25 farms in the surrounding Willamette Valley provide local produce, and the school's trained chefs incorporate these fresh ingredients into healthy options such as potato leek soup, vegetarian meatballs, and build-your-own bowls with lots of local veggies. The university doesn't let food scraps go to waste, either: It composts more than 130 tons of waste each year, and used fryer oil gets converted into fuel thanks to a partnership with a local company.
Thanks to its focus on sharing food from myriad cultures, Princeton runs one of the best college cafeterias for students who appreciate diverse flavors. The menu features creative, fresh dishes such as coconut basmati rice, Thai roasted vegetables, and Korean bulgogi bowls. And because the school values transparency, it rates dishes based on their carbon emission levels with designations that range from low to high (including a special "Earth-friendly" designation). On the online site, easy filtering options for specific allergens also make it simple for students to tell which meals meet their needs and preferences.
With its strong sustainability initiatives, focus on healthy food, and varied options, Muhlenberg College counts itself among the top college dining halls in the country. The school's on-staff registered dietitian brings evidence-based health initiatives to the menu, while an innovative sustainability internship lets interested students join the dining team and put their passion for sustainable dining to work. The unique internship includes a focus on marketing, giving it broader appeal and providing valuable experience. Muhlenberg also includes students in its dining team in another way: they help run a hydroponic garden that provides herbs to one of the main dining halls.
With its innovative menu app, the University of Houston is embracing current technology trends and appealing to an audience that expects updates at their fingertips. The school's Android and iOS app lists daily menus and nutritional information for both residential dining halls, giving diners the chance to plan their meals with ease. UH also offers some of the best food for college students who want details about what they're eating. Thanks to a comprehensive labeling system, each dish is marked for caloric content, sodium levels, dietary preference, and various other innovative markers (such as, "Baked, Not Fried" or "Hearty Whole Grains").
Among the best college cafeterias, Roger Williams' dining halls stand out thanks to their commitment to sustainability. A quarter of the school's food is produced within 150 miles of the Bristol, Rhode Island, campus, and chefs check a farmer update app so they can prepare meals using the best ingredients available that day. RWU encourages students to avoid food waste with awareness campaigns throughout the year, and they partner with food recovery agencies so leftovers go to local shelters rather than the trash. And finally, by using compostable materials, the school prevents waste from ending up in a landfill. Instead, it goes a local compost plant.
Thanks to its partnership with Chik-fil-A, California Baptist University could be a great choice for students who crave familiar food. But the school also offers plenty of original fare at its top college dining halls. The Foodology location provides quick service and farm-fresh meals, including to-go salads, sandwiches, and more, while El Monte Grill nods to California's great Mexican food with south-of-the-border specials. And for an all-you-can-eat option that's open to students and their families alike, check out the Sunday brunch buffet. With sushi, pizza, and standard breakfast fare, it has something for every appetite.
No matter what William and Mary students crave, the school's 10+ dining locations should have something that appeals. Pitas, barbecue, and pizza are just a few options, and the school has plenty of tea and coffee shops to give sleepy students a caffeine infusion. Like similar colleges with the best food, William and Mary caters to special diets, allergies, and intolerances through its Simple Servings stations. The school also designates certain dishes as "Mindful," meaning they meet specific health standards while still incorporating creative flavors. Students might choose a Blueberry Peach Muesli Parfait for breakfast, have a Tahini Ginger Crunch Wrap for lunch, and enjoy Samosa Stuffed Potatoes for dinner.
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