Another school year is finally upon us, and with it comes the reality that for many, many schools across America, the dining options are nothing short of grim at best. For many students who are reliant on a meal plan, the less said about the meals eaten in campus dining halls the better. But some colleges and universities go above and beyond in their efforts to serve fresh, wholesome meals to the students who are living and studying there. From a college in Vermont that only sources its food from local vendors to one in Massachusetts that hosts a farmers' market that’s entirely student-run, we tracked down the 60 best colleges for food in America.
Last summer, The Daily Meal conducted an eye-opening study, building on our previous ranking, that examined the most outstanding campus dining at nearly all of the approximately 2,000 four-year colleges across America. We discovered some schools that gave their students top-notch dining experiences, while others failed to pass even the most simple health inspections. However, in the end we found 52 clear winners that refused to accept the stigma that comes with collegiate dining, taking the ordinary campus meal and turning it into an extraordinary dining experience.
For this year’s second annual study, we had a few goals in mind when revamping the list: to see if the schools that wowed us last year were still maintaining culinary perfection; to see the improvements some of the average dining programs have made to possibly rise in the ranks; and to see if any colleges that didn’t make the cut last year have begun to see the importance their dining services have to students.
We connected with passionate and candid dining services directors, managers, and chefs, and learned that more than ever, students on the whole are already passionate and knowledgeable about food when they arrive at campus, and are interested in trying new foods and want to know where it's coming from.
Here's a look at the top 10:
1. Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine
As our top dog this year, Bowdoin College is used to receiving praise for their outstanding food. Serving dishes like mussels in butter sauce, haddock with jalapeños, squash fettuccine, and roasted root vegetables with polenta, it has been ranked near the top of the Best College Food list by Princeton Review, as well as other national lists. "Our dining program has kept pace [with student tastes] without forgetting the basics, which are to provide a welcoming, comfortable counterpoint to the stresses of college life and help students develop a lifelong relationship with healthy, delicious, 'real' food," Michelle Gaillard, the associate director of Operations and Dining Service-Administration, told us. With an emphasis on local purchasing at the on-campus farmers' markets and locally sustainable produce, their kitchen is preparing some truly gourmet fare. And because of this, Bowdoin features some favorite recipes right on their website for students to enjoy at their home away from home. If that wasn’t exciting enough, check out their iPhone app. "If our checkers and servers feel like family, if our dining halls feel like home, if students look forward to relaxing with their best friends over a delicious meal cooked especially for them, then we’re doing our part to enhance the overall educational experience," Gaillard said.
2. Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis
With themed dinners like Dr. Seuss Night and Low Carbon Diet Day, WashU is at the top of their game in terms of dining hall entertainment. This university takes the extra step to make sure their students are not only satisfied with what their dining services offer, but also what they can get from it. By hosting more than five events per week, including interactive cooking classes and chef demonstrations in Studio 40, it’s clear that providing their students with a top-notch dining experience is a major priority for the school. Under Bon Appétit’s management, WashU features dishes like orange pork stir-fry, an exemplary fresh fruit bar, and deliciously satisfying barbecue, not to mention the Bear’s Den stocked with two carefully tended tandoori ovens. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, their dining service program is completely committed to sustainability: turning their wasted oil into biofuel, composting food, and only sourcing their ingredients from local vendors. With facilities like these, it’s easy to understand why students at WashU have so much school spirit.
3. Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.
Virginia Tech is no stranger to landing at the top of collegiate food service rankings. Through their award-winning dining plan, this university showcases outstanding dishes like polenta with spicy vegetables, Buffalo chicken pizza, and whole-wheat pasta with sun-dried tomatoes. The regular faculty-student dining days and backyard barbecues have students excited to form relationships with their professors outside the classroom. And as if the campus isn’t already filled with passion, VT’s dining services take sustainability very seriously. Their project Farms and Fields provides all the best local and organic meals. Delicious examples include apple chutney and Cheddar panini — organic Granny Smith apples with onion, red-wine vinegar, brown sugar, orange peels, fresh ginger, and local cheese served on locally made organic bread. Additionally, their on-campus garden, filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, receives regular visits from the community. However, meat lovers shouldn’t fear: Virginia Tech’s Meat Science Center serves meats that are produced and processed right on campus grounds. Through VT's Y.E.S (You’re Eating (and Living) Smarter) Nutrition Program, Hokies are genuinely interested in living sustainably as well as eating deliciously.
4. Emory University, Atlanta
Emory’s dining services has gone above and beyond the call of duty. Not only do they offer an extensive list of dining events — homecoming weekend barbecue, heirloom tomato festival and Valentine’s Day dinner — they aim to provide the ultimate dining experience filled with excitement and variety. Although kitchens whip up specialty dishes like toasted grilled vegetable and balsamic panini, many students stick to the basic but stocked dining hall salad bar to satisfy their palates (check out their hilarious video). This university also recognizes students’ desire to munch on Chick-fil-A and sip Starbucks while still providing local and fresh produce in their dining halls. With a student-run food advisory committee running the show, Emory falls near the top our list for understanding how to please their students through their dining services.
5. University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles
With more than 500 staff members on UCLA’s dining team, it can’t be surprising that the university is committed to making sure their students receive the best collegiate food experience possible. UCLA has received numerous awards, including the PETA award for most vegan-friendly university due to their dedication to nutritional education. From the Student Nutrition Awareness Campaign (SNAC) to their "Here’s to Health" initiative that provides students with a broad list of healthy and tasty ingredients that they should be enjoying, UCLA is above the pack. Taking feedback very seriously, the chefs methodically chose their recipes based on student preferences. Seafood pizza, chicken and dumplings, chicken chile verde — all mouthwatering dishes found on this campus. And if students are still unsure, Dolores, the residing dietician on campus, provides any and all answers through her extensive program.
6. Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
Cornell might be known as an Ivy League school with top-notch academics, but they’re more than just that. As the runner-up for PETA’s most vegan-friendly college award, Cornell’s dedication to local foods and environmental conservation is something to be noted. By implementing initiatives like supporting Local Food Growth, Take Back the Tap (choosing tap water over bottled), and responsible coffee sourcing to lessen a chemical footprint, Cornell students are not just educated through their studies, but in their lives. And while this is commendable, Cornell’s dining service is all about their events. Happenings like The New York Times columnist Mark Bittman dropping by to discuss his book about nutrition, the National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS) annual chef competition, and themed dinners like "A Night at Hogwarts," offering nothing better than chocolate frogs and butter beer, bring excitement to an incredibly hard-working student body. With more than 30 eateries on campus alone, Cornell offers incentives to encourage students to lead sustainable lifestyles: if you buy a mug on campus, you can get a large coffee, tea, or hot chocolate for the price of a small one. Overall, it seems that Cornellians are more than happy to participate in all their collegiate dining services has to offer.
7. UMass Amherst, Amherst, Mass.
UMass Amherst might seem like another large school with plenty of food options, but their dining service program really knows how to please its students. Late-night dining is found in almost every dining hall on campus (as well as one delivering food as late as 4 a.m.)! And why wouldn’t you want to order this campus’ food around the clock? Blackened tilapia, chicken breast schnitzel with chipotle salsa, and Irish coffee bread pudding with Kahlúa sauce are only a few of the delicious dining hall offerings. While many students rave about Baby Berk, the burger and taco food truck conveniently located on campus, the school's pledge to stay local and organic is not overlooked. Through their "Real Food Challenge Campus Commitment," UMass Amherst hopes their food will be at least 20 percent locally grown and fairly traded. And if their Composting Program and Local Purchasing Program didn’t convince you enough, there’s a farmers' market on campus that is entirely student-run. Additionally, students can enjoy a slew of social dining events every semester, such as the Spring Fling BBQ that precedes an intense Dance Dance Revolution competition. Their highly impressive dedication to satisfying the student body and the planet places them high in our rankings.
8. Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Ga.
If you needed to describe Kennesaw State University’s dining services in one word, it would be "originality." They do everything they can to provide their students with the most exciting dining services possible, and they’re doing a great job. Jenifer Duggan, the school's director of culinary and hospitality services, told us that KSU’s dining services changes menus constantly, providing students with more than 150 new dishes each day. One way KSU showcases their exemplary dining program is through their dining events: Black and Gold dining, which occurs twice a month, has students dining on steak, lobster, and king crab, and the Cram Jam, their kick-off event for finals, features mocktails, a DJ and dancing, and even a Jell-O-eating contest. And as if they aren’t already serving five-star dishes, like chipotle ribs and Louisiana seafood gumbo, their "Get Wild" event features exotic meats like kangaroo, rattlesnake, and emu right in their main dining hall! And many ingredients are sourced through their Farm-to-Campus Program, featuring three on-campus farms, multiple herb and vegetable gardens, and locally sourced meats and fishes. KSU seeks to pave the way for students to truly enjoy eating healthily and living sustainably.
9. Tufts University, Boston
Tufts University, home to the Jumbos, is just as passionate about its academics and athletics as it is about its campus food. With menu items ranging from old-fashioned rolled oats and fresh mozzarella ovallini with roasted red peppers and basil pesto to their delicious roast beef sandwich with crunchy slaw and smoky bistro sauce, students never feel unsatisfied. Intensely committed to environmental initiatives, Tufts is a front-runner for ensuring its students know how to live and eat sustainably. Abiding by their well-known motto, Think Global but Buy Local, Tufts’ dining services creates an atmosphere where students are amped to embody the slogan. For example, their fall farmers' markets give students the opportunity to purchase fresh produce right on campus. Tufts serves 100 percent cage-free eggs and sustainable fish, like salmon and tilapia. Patti Klos, the dining services director for more than 20 years, told us their secret: taking immediate action on students’ needs and desires through menu changes, dining events, and sustainable dining. Talk about top-notch service!
10. Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
Yale’s dining program couldn’t be more impressive if it tried. With menu items ranging from roasted pork chops to potato pancakes, beer-battered fish and chips, and vegan ravioli, you’d be hard-pressed to find a student leaving the dining hall unsatisfied. And why shouldn’t they be? They offer so many dining events, like a student culinary competition and a Spring Fling catered meal, not to mention an entire dining series called "Reality Bites" that offers the students programs on mixology, the best wine and meal pairings, and formal dining etiquette. And the best part is that new information is being constantly updated through their mobile app, website, and their dining newsletter, the D.I.S.H. While that’s all fun, Yale has very serious values when it comes to sustainability. Through STEP, their nutrition education program, students can take part in the Local 2 Yale and Erase the Waste programs. It seems like the Bulldogs are on top of their game!
More from The Daily Meal