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Dining hall boredom

Help! I've been at college for two months and the monotony of the dining hall is killing me! Does anyone have ideas for meals I can assemble in the dining hall using items from the salad bar/pasta/stirfry/grill line and a microwave or panini press? There are really a lot of options but I'm running out of healthy ideas.

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  1. I graduated only a few years ago, so I definitely can relate! One of my go-tos: Load up your pasta with veggies from the salad bar, then stick in the microwave for a minute to semi-cook the fresh veg. i.e. pasta with marinara or pesto, with shredded carrots, onion, broccoli. Or try to really make your salads "recipe"-type salads--cranberries, nuts, and feta with balsamic for an elegant salad, or carrots, corn, beans, and ranch with some red pepper flakes mixed in for a southwestern salad. Also experiment with interesting fruit/veg combos on your panini: turkey on rye with apple slices, red onion, cheddar cheese, and honey mustard. Overall, though, if you're anything like me, the challenge over the next few years will be NOT overindulging just to satisfy a craving for good-tasting food. Even at the best dining hall, that's unlikely to happen, and you'll just end up piling on the pounds. Try to look at the food from a nutritional-benefits standpoint, if possible (ie salad bar instead of kielbasa lol).

    Oh, and try breakfast, even though you have to get up early! Interesting oatmeal or omelet combos can help offset the boredom at later meals. And don't be afraid to ask the staff for special requests. If they don't set out brown sugar, but you want it for your oatmeal, just ask!

    1. Walk aroud the cafeteria thinking like a chef, not like a diner. View the place as your supermarket--pretend that you're shopping. Feel free to use items from one area with foods from another area. Simple examples of this include using the salad bar items to lavishly dress up an otherwise plain burger or hot dog. Don't overlook texture: many of the most satisfying meals offer contrasts not just in flavor but in texture as well.

      Another key is to think thematically. Dining halls offer almost TOO much variety these days, and it can be overwhelming to your palate to encounter a bean burrito, pasta salad, a cinnamon roll, and steamed broccoli in the same meal. Pick your entree, and build a complementary meal around the flavors & textures in that item.

      Lastly, make friends with the folks who staff the place. They work with food every day, and if you show some interest & appreciation, you're sure to get better service and better food.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Hungry Celeste

        I second the advice to get to know the dining hall staff... When I was in college I used to strike up conversations with the pastry chef (don't think he actually went to culinary school, but call him chef anyway out of respect) on a regular basis, and always got a heads up about special desserts and breakfasts coming up :) I also got to know the guys who ran the stir fry line, eventually they started letting me in on their special sauce/spice blends and giving me more options for customizing my plate.

      2. Perhaps it would help to invest in several mixed herb/spice blends to make meals more interesting. I like a southwest blend on eggs that are scrambled with fresh tomato. There's a great locally made garlic/salt/pepper/etc blend. In some areas it's called a campers blend. I like this on plain meats instead of simple salt and pepper. It's also great on baked potato. My favorite chicken or turkey salad contains diced apple, raisins, diced onions and a bit of curry powder in the mayonnaise.

        1. My sister got me a book called "Tray Gourmet" when I went to college. It had all sorts of recipes in it using dining hall staples, salad bar items, condiments, etc. Some of the recipes got incredibly complex but it was a fun read. It's available on Amazon.


          1. it has been many years since i ate at the dinning hall. The fried foods were everywhere but I remember making my own tuna sammy everyday. They had canned tuna with out mayo in the salad bar, so I would make my own receipe (no mayo), cut my own veggies and so own.

            I also would ask the ladies behind the counter to grill my chicken breast and they always did.

            I also would take tupperware with me and "take" veggies and lunch meats back to the dorm for late snacks :). You carry a backback in, just be subtle.

            Good luck.

            1. Now and then I have to eat at buffets. Perhaps my strategy will work for you. As others have suggested, I look over all that is available and then carefully put together a meal. Think - imagine "elegant restaurant", take a clean plate, and plate something beautiful, not crowded with too many choices, and without taking too much. If you have a salad, plate it on a small plate as a side - not on your large plate. Use greens to garnish the plate. Try new combinations. Plate so that you think about the sauces or dressings: a bit of the sauce down first and then whatever placed on top and garnished. Lots of negative space on the plate. Of course, this sounds like decades out of date plating, but the basics of plating remain: create a visually simple presentation and you're likely to get cleaner, simpler flavors far superior to a heavy, ugly laden plate with a bit of each of this and that.

              1. You have probably already tried these but I see a lot of kids take the chili and make it into a taco salad by spooning chili onto lettuce and such and then topping the chili with cheese and chopped onions. My dining hall is cutting back this year, they used to have lovely pies. I never did it but I could have topped the pie (or a waffle) with ice cream. I get full too quick so my only "invovation" is to make a sort of milkshake by adding chocolate milk to a scoop of ice cream. The soup at my school is usually good but typing this makes me think I could probably play with the soup by tossing in more stuff. Sounds like fun.

                1. If you want a creative stir fry, bring over your own vegetables from the salad bar section. A lot of dining halls use the canned stuff for stir fry, but you can try different combos. What about chicken, broccoli, and sugar snap peas with an Italian style stir fry sauce?

                  I stay away from my college caf because the food is truly gross, but look around and see what other people are eating. If you see someone eating something that looks good, ask what it is and what station they got it from. Same goes if you see someone eating something truly gross. I found out that my school 'brews' instant coffee some mornings instead of the real stuff because I asked.

                  1. The salad bar (or taco bar if you have one) will always have grated cheese. A lot of the hot dishes will be instantly improved if you slather lots of grated cheese over them and run them in the micrwowave for a few seconds to melt the cheese. Tried and true.