Top Trends in College Food Service

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

College food service has reinvented itself to mirror current food trends. Ethnic foods, sustainability, and menus for students with special dietary needs are among the hottest trends.
College students meeting up for lunch
©iStockphoto.com/shironosov

If you’re thinking cafeteria lines and mystery meat, think again. College and university food service has become every bit as innovative as in the commercial markets—perhaps even more so given the need for many higher-education operators to meet tightening budgets.

Today’s higher-learning students enjoy options their elders never had: more choice and variety; more options for special diets; more health-and-nutrition initiatives; more socially conscious food programs. Along with the more traditional academic and social criteria, prospective students—and their parents—can make their college-bound decisions based on the quality, cost, and diversity of the food program. 

Larger institutions can have state-of-the-art student unions and food service outlets numbering in the dozens, while even small schools are working hard to stay competitive.

For instance, at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, the Aramark-managed Fresh Food Company offers residential students small-platestyle dining that allows for more flavor experiences, as well as an array of customizable platforms serving everything from vegetarian fare to pizza to an exhibition Mongolian Grill. 

Here’s what’s happening in both residential and retail campus dining.

Ethnic Options

Not only are Millennials and Generation Z more ethnically diverse than any other cohort, but these people born after 1990 have likely grown up in households where sushi and tacos are as common as burgers and pizza. And that creates all kinds of demand for ethnic and fusion options.

At Sodexo-managed Binghamton University, Indian food came to the State University of New York campus through a partnership with a local restaurateur. Moghul Fine Indian Cuisine and Tapas Bar joins 10 other retail outlets—including Asian and Mexican concepts—at the newly redesigned MarketPlace facility. Offerings help meet demand for healthy vegan, vegetarian and Halal dietary options, along with popular specialties such as Chicken Tikka Masala, Chicken Vindaloo, Lamb Pasanda, and kabobs.

Get Started: Nestlé Professional offers a number of products that adapt to ethnic flavor profiles, including Maggi® Thai Style Red and Green curry pastes; Chef-mate® cheese sauces; and a large variety of Latin and Asian flavor concentrates and sauces from Minor’s®.

Sustainability

Fresh food, sustainably sourced has become a mantra for many college-and-university food service operations. 

At Williams College, in Williamstown, MA, sustainability isn’t just part of the dining programs, it’s also a fully integrated discipline that reaches into every corner of campus life, from the Sustainable Food & Agriculture Program to the use of locally sourced foods in the food service operation

The dining department at the University of Montana, in Missoula, the dining department has launched an aquaponics program, a closed-loop, 180-gallon system that supports leafy greens as well as fish. There’s also a campus garden and a plot that grows microgreens. Other sustainability initiatives include Farm to College and the Food Zoo Reusable To-Go Container program. 

Customization

“Have it your way” isn’t just an invitation for college students, it’s a born right. Customizable menu concepts give customers what they want: small portions or large; vegetarian or meaty; healthy or hearty. Customization also helps provide variety, and increases participation as diners come back again and again to try different combinations. Customizable concepts can even help reduce waste and the need for kitchen prep space. Everyone wins.

According to a recent Datassential PULSE report, operators are doing a number of different things to create customizable menus, including:

  • Highlighting multiple options for sandwich meats, cheeses, and veggies

  • Making pizza to order with a choice of toppings

  • Offering a station with customizable concepts such as an omelet bar, stir-fry station, toss-to-order pasta, etc.

  • Implementing visible prep lines that allow customers to pick ingredients as items are assembled

  • Using buffets and salad bars

  • Providing condiment stations with lots of variety

Get Started: Nestlé Professional Action Stations represent a perfect vehicle for adding a customizable menu platform in college-and-university food service locations. Easy-to-implement options include Wellness, Dessert, Breakfast, Street Food, and International Soup & Noodle, Salads, Street Food, and Wellness stations.

Special Diets

Gluten free, nut-free, vegan, kosher, vegetarian. College and university food service is all about meeting the special dietary needs of the student population—above and beyond avoiding the proverbial Freshman 15 weight gain. 

Food allergies, in particular, are of concern to parents and students, who are often living away from home and making their own food decisions for the first time in their lives.

Mindful is a Sodexo program for workplace and schools that addresses mindful eating on a variety of fronts, including special dietary needs, as at William & Mary, in Williamsburg, VA. 

Other colleges and universities are responding in ways as diverse as online resources, nutrition consulting, detailed menu-offering analysis, and even dedicated facilities offering vegan, gluten free, kosher, or nut-free options.

Did You Know? Nestlé Professional has introduced or reformulated a number of key products that answer the demand for gluten free options, a line that now includes Stouffer’s Alfredo Sauce, Stouffer's Alfredo Parmigiana, and the brand’s popular Spinach Artichoke Dip and Queso Cheese Dip.