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What's new in campus dining? Kids cooking their own meals in the dining hall

On local college campuses, students are eating more vegetables and fruits along with their junk food. Dining operators say kids are more interested in plant-based food and in meals they can build - or even cook - themselves.

Antonia Caffrey makes a quesadilla at Erdman Dining Hall at Bryn Mawr College.
Antonia Caffrey makes a quesadilla at Erdman Dining Hall at Bryn Mawr College.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

In the dining halls at Bryn Mawr College, students whip up breakfast smoothies in a blender, grill paninis for lunch on a hot press, and stir-fry meat or vegetables at cooking stations, using a shelf of condiments and spices. Made-to-order choices and buffet-style food, like salad bars and pizza, are still available, but the cook-it-yourself opportunities added in recent years have proved popular. The same is true at Rowan University in Gloucester County, which has stir-fry stations and hot plates to cook omelets.

"They're big with vegetarians and the students with allergies, since they can see everything that goes into their food," Bryn Mawr dining director Bernie Chung-Templeton said. "And we like to get them comfortable with thinking about things they could make in their home kitchens."

The DIY stations encourage two trends that national food-service experts say are the future of campus dining: healthful eating and customized meals. Consumer trend reports cited by food service provider Aramark, with headquarters in Philadelphia, found that 60 percent of millennial students make their eating decisions based partially on health factors. Fifty-seven percent said it was important to be able to mix and match ingredients in the meals they ordered.

In response, schools have begun encouraging students to eat better by making more nutritious food available, by making healthy choices more appetizing, and by giving them plenty of ways to build individualized meals.

"We're in a mass customization world," said Jonathan Deutsch, a professor of culinary arts at Drexel University. "We could both go to Chipotle and order essentially the same thing, but our meals could be completely different. That's what students want now."

Getting young people to eat more healthfully has long challenged national health experts. In 2012, fruits and vegetables were added to school lunches in an effort to encourage healthy choices, a program heavily championed by Michelle Obama. But subsequent studies found the program often led to more waste, with many students throwing away fruits or veggies without tasting them. In May, the Trump administration announced a rollback of those standards.

Even though many of today's college scholars have not given up burgers and pizza and ice cream, many local campus dining operators said students were eating more fruits and veggies than in years past.

At Villanova University, that's not because there are more vegetarians or vegans on campus, said Timothy Dietzler, director of dining services. There, the use of a few marketing strategies has made plant-based meals more appealing to meat-eaters.

"When we labeled a dish as vegan, we found a lot of students wouldn't eat it," he said. "But if we don't and, instead, just list the ingredients and the vegan attributes under the title, they will."

Villanova now buys 50 percent more produce than it did three years ago, Dietzler said, and slightly less chicken and beef. The school is one of many nationwide that has switched to lower-fat hamburger patties made with a ground beef and mushroom blend.

"We know that students are not all going to go meat-free and that many of them are going to go for that hamburger when they want it," he said. "But now, they're making a slightly healthier choice."

Deutsch, of Drexel, said students also have more sophisticated palates than they once did, as well as greater interest in food-sourcing and environmental issues surrounding meat and fish. An increase in food allergies has led to greater demand for a better variety of gluten-free, vegan, and other options, which puts pressure on dining halls.

"But the flip side of that is that it's created a movement toward normalizing different cuisines," Deutsch said. "I could go to [Philadelphia restaurant] Dizengoff and order a vegan lunch, and it might not even occur to me that it's vegan. There's nothing unusual about it."

Bryn Mawr, ranked ninth in the country for campus dining by the Princeton Review for 2018, makes vegan desserts daily. The University of Pennsylvania, which last year expanded its halal offerings to accommodate the school's growing Muslim population, this year made all chicken halal in one dining hall.

Temple University's newly renovated food court, which has couches and charging stations, includes a number of vendors that offer build-your-own meals, such as Saladworks. The choices, which can be bought retail or as part of a meal plan, include Chick-fil-A, BurgerFi, Mediterranean, Japanese, and more. In addition to area restaurants, Temple dining operators are competing against the food trucks outside that cater to students.

"The awareness, from a health perspective, that students are bringing to campus," said Michael Scales, associate vice president of Temple's business services, "forces you to recognize that if they can't get something on campus, they'll find it somewhere else."

Emilia Kraft, 19, a sophomore at Temple, had mostly praise for campus dining. Kraft, of New Jersey, was eating a salad at the food court with Hira Shaikh, a freshman.

"It's actually not bad," Kraft said. "There's a lot of variety. This here is the best place to eat. It has Chick-fil-A. There's no competition."

Shaikh said her roommate was gluten-free and vegan and mostly made her own food. "I don't really know how she survives," Shaikh said.

Chung-Templeton, Bryn Mawr's dining director, said pleasing students' wildly fluctuating appetites had always been one of the biggest challenges. A few years ago, when she got complaints that she was serving too much chicken and beef, she added occasional lamb and veal dishes. She was immediately hit with backlash from students appalled by the ethical practices of veal production.

"Students were telling me don't I know how terrible it is to serve veal?" Chung-Templeton said. "But the other part was, students loved it. At the same time they were telling me how terrible it was, we were serving 400 portions every time we made it."