Are Colleges Windows to the Future of Dining?

Find out what we can we learn by studying how Gen Z eats

These dining halls are offering valuable insights into the meals, preparations and flavors likely to attract the 60 million-strong Generation Z demographic for years to come.

To be sure, these aren’t your college lunchrooms. Progressive-minded dining directors are pushing staples like pizza, chicken fingers and mystery-meat specials to the sidelines. A wide array of notably upmarket fare, including made-to-order preparations using quality ingredients and a diverse range of globally influenced offerings, are taking their place.

“Students are noticeably more interested in food than ever before,” says Zia Ahmed, senior director of dining services at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. “They’ve grown up eating out and have been exposed to so many different cuisines. Being adventuresome is who they are. Their appetites are diverse; they’re curious and open.”

Campus dining employee serving studentsTHE WORLD IS THEIR OYSTER
OSU’s sprawling dining facility in Columbus handles 40,000 transactions each day. In the past, food operations of this scale tended to offer safe and predictable dining choices.

Today, OSU students have access to a cultural smorgasbord of options, from Korean barbecue and rice bowls to a pop-up Indian concept and a churrascaria. “Their interest in food goes beyond nourishment,” says Ahmed. “For them, it’s an experience, and we have to bring it up to that level.”

Multicultural options abound at the University of Colorado at Boulder. A Persian food station serves halal meat, a curry concept draws from the top of India to the bottom of the South Pacific and a kosher concept has shown great cross-over appeal for non-Jewish students, says Paul Houle, director of campus dining services.

A weekly pho station with customized soup bowls, he says, draws huge crowds. “You think they won’t stand in line, but every Friday, they’ll be at least 30 deep. We serve 500 to 600 portions,” says Amy Beckstrom, executive director of housing and dining services at UCB.

Interest in vegetarian and vegan options remains strong on college campuses but in new and unexpected ways. “This generation is very aware of and focused on plant-based diets but not necessarily in becoming a vegetarian,” says Nona Golledge, of Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Bakergroup Foodservice Consulting and Design. “Flexitarian is closer to their reality.”

Students pedal their way to a smoothie at UC BoulderCollege students relish flexibility more than anything. It’s not uncommon, for example, for some students to begin their day by eating healthy, transition toward a greasy snack like french fries, sip some coffee as a mid-day restorative and finish with a balanced dinner or comfort food classic in the evening.

All-day breakfast menus are also on the rise. The breakfast stations at OSU serve more meals from 7 to 10 p.m. than they do in the early morning.

“Students do not label themselves the same way that the industry does,” says Eric Montell, executive director of Stanford Dining in Stanford University’s Residential & Dining Enterprises.

Food narratives matter to college students, according to Montell.

“They’re highly intelligent and expect easy access to information about their food choices,” he says. “They care deeply about food and what it means, especially in terms of climate change and sustainability.”

To ensure freshness and help reduce their carbon footprint, some colleges are building greenhouses and on-campus farms that supply just-picked produce specifically for their dining halls.

Executive Chef Erica Holland-Toll discusses her dish with students at Stanford University’s Chef’s Table.
Executive Chef Erica Holland-Toll discusses her dish with students at Stanford University’s Chef’s Table.

Nijo Joseph, assistant director of culinary excellence at Stanford Nijo Joseph, assistant director of culinary excellence, uses herbs from Stanford’s indoor greenhouse

Introducing authentic flavors doesn’t hurt either. Stanford University collaborates with prominent women chefs and restaurateurs, including Mai Pham for Asian cuisine, Iliana de la Vega for modern Mexican and Tanya Holland for African-American fare. The R&DE group provides comprehensive food education for its students so that they leave campus with a better appreciation of global food and a strong sense of its role in building community.

They hope Gen Z will take all these traits with them as they leave college and pressure restaurants to adapt and respond. “It’s an ever-changing landscape,” says Houle. “Every single year there’s a new set of needs.”

 Beckstrom agrees. “The days of ‘this is what we’re doing’ are gone,” she says. “You have to listen to customers and meet their needs. With so many choices, someone will give them what they want. If you’re not customer-centric, it won’t last.

Photography by Frank Lawlor