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Accommodating Picky Palates

Accommodating Picky Palates

While there remains disagreement over the prevalence of the “Freshman 15,” college health and dining officials are trying to help students wade through many convoluted nutritional choices.

By Lydia Lum

The menu offers Indian and Thai cuisine, along with ethnic entrees from around the globe. There is also a salad bar with organic ingredients, pasta and made-to-order omelettes. Sound like Sunday brunch at a four-star hotel? Dinner on a cruise ship?

Such offerings are actually fast becoming the norm at college dining halls around the country. At a time when the children of Baby Boomers are hitting higher education in record numbers, college officials have scrambled to accommodate their picky palates and their insistence for healthier meals than were served to past generations.

Meanwhile, debate and disagreement about the so-called “Freshman 15” continues. College health and dining officials are trying to help students wade through myriad convoluted nutritional choices that include trendy diets like South Beach and Atkins.

In addition, universities are increasingly eliminating artery-clogging trans fat from cooking oil and from baked and fried foods. Low-sodium and less-processed foods are high in demand. Vegetarian and vegan options have expanded, while organic salad bars and sushi are fast becoming staples. Pizza and burgers remain cafeteria favorites, but these days they’re more likely to have feta, bleu or goat cheese rather than cheddar.

“Kids today can get in their cars and go get whatever food they want if they don’t like it here,” says Dave Annis, executive director of food services at the 29,000-student University of Oklahoma. “Each kid wants something different. Here, we try to make it like living at home. I don’t want any student to worry about food.”

OU requires freshmen to live on campus and to purchase a meal plan at its all-you-can-eat facility. Lunch choices on a recent Friday varied from Tandoori chicken to chicken fried steak. On a recent Sunday, vegetables offered at dinner ran the gamet from bok choy to acorn squash. Almost every day, students can choose from among Asian stir-fry, an extensive deli as well as smokehouse-style barbecue and grilled-to-order meats.

Food choices have grown so important to today’s college student that some surveys are showing it among the top factors — not far behind academic programs and location — in where students decide to enroll, says Annis, who is also president-elect of the National Association of College & University Food Services.

Most days at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., students can have a customized omelette or pasta — or both — cooked for them while they wait. The deli bar is a constant, too. When a student recently told executive chef Robert Vita of his doctor-prescribed diet limiting his meat intake to chicken, Vita told him there were plenty of options beyond the hot chicken entrees often offered in the line. Chicken appears daily on the salad bar, the sandwich station and the pasta line. It’s also a frequent pizza topping.

“They eat better than I ever did,” says Vita, a 1978 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. “There’s an incredible variety here. We go out of our way to accommodate all kinds of dietary needs.” 

Vita and his co-workers pay so much attention to detail that, at Marist, a separate toaster is used for gluten-free bread.

Themed meals are offered even at schools that still have 28-day menus that repeat every month. Savannah State University, for instance, offers an occasional Hawaiian luau and, at week’s end, fish “fryday.” Numerous choices of vegetables and soups also are showing up there every day.

Coinciding with the efforts to customize meals, campuses are increasingly trying to help students make healthy choices. For instance, many schools around the country now post nutritional information online or in their cafeterias. And many now have on-site nutritionists, says Julie Weber, New Mexico State University’s housing and residential life director. At American University, where Weber worked for 10 years, a nutritionist leads a tour of the dining hall, showing students how to make choices conforming to a Weight Watchers diet plan.

“Universities should offer not only a breadth of dining programs, but lots of choices in meal plans,” Weber says.

The Science of Lunchtime
Years ago, many schools renovated their traditional cafeterias into smaller, themed eateries, forming food courts. The problem, though, was that it promoted on-the-go eating and allowed fast food outlets to take over, Weber says. “Now, we’re seeing a shift back to the sit-down dining room.”

In fact, one of the things Annis is proudest of at OU is re-configuring some of the seating several years ago and adding a few TVs to create more of a community center atmosphere, rather than an institutional one. “We want students to wander around, but also to sit around and talk. We want it to feel like a living room, not like they’re pressured to get in and out of here.”

Ironically, that kind of lingering can also increase the risk of overeating and obesity. Dr. Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, has published several books on overeating based on experiments and studies of the general population. In his 2006 book Mindless Eating, Wansink contends that how someone eats is as important as what they eat.

He suggests, among other things, that at parties and group gatherings, a person could try to be the last one to start eating in order to avoid overeating.

Weber and others say the pervasive myth of the Freshman 15 weighs heavily on the minds of new students. But some research suggests the 15-pound gain is greatly exaggerated. A Rutgers University study of 67 of its freshmen showed only 49 gained an average of seven pounds, according to findings published last year in the Journal of American College Health. The other 18 students lost weight, and no one gained 15 pounds.

And even if students gain 15 pounds or more, it might not be reason to panic. In an article posted on the University of Maryland’s parent network Web site, health officials say the weight gain “may be an acceptable and healthy weight gain with the transition from adolescence to adulthood.”

What has health and food services professionals more concerned than pounds is what students are — or aren’t — eating in the first place. According to the Journal of American College Health, a 2006 survey of 94,000 students throughout the country showed that less than 8 percent ate the five recommended daily servings of vegetables and fruits. That statistic has shown very little variation in recent years in the survey, conducted annually by the American College Health Association.

“Most students have a pretty good idea what’s healthy to eat and what’s not,” says Karen Moses, Arizona State University’s director of wellness and health promotion. “But many of them don’t like vegetables in general, and they really don’t like overcooked vegetables. They don’t think about the finger veggies, like raw baby carrots, which would be great for them, and they don’t think to ask for vegetables to be added to the stir-fry they’re ordering, or to their kung pao chicken takeout.”

Regular surveys of ASU students indicate “high interest” in learning more about nutrition and fitness, says Moses, a registered dietician and certified health education specialist. But typically, presentations and programs on these topics in dorms and elsewhere on campus are a lower priority than those on alcohol and drug abuse, sexual health, depression and stress management.

At OU, Annis finds himself regularly educating students in the cafeteria. Recently, he says he was chatting with a young woman who boasted of eating a turkey wrap every day, which she believed was the healthiest of the sandwich choices. “What she didn’t realize was that the tortilla for her wrap had more calories than the bread on a hoagie,” he says. “There’s no doubt we need to provide education along with the food.”

  Earlier this academic year, the 33,000-student University of North Texas took that education a step further when it revamped one of its cafeterias under the new name “Mean Greens.” The new cafeteria offers no fried foods, and all dishes are portion-controlled. Entrees have fewer than 300 calories, desserts fewer than 150. Every day, Mean Greens displays three meal combinations with nutritional tallies so that students can see what a balanced meal looks like, especially in terms of portion size. A UNT press release describes the intent to help students “manage their intake wisely and provide a variety of healthy dining options with less temptation.”

Moses and her counterparts hope such efforts expand elsewhere. “Universities need to be a lot better in providing options that taste good,” she says.

A Pound of Knowledge

* In the United States, the food industry spends more than
$33 billion a year on advertising. By comparison, the National Cancer Institute spends $1 million per year to encourage people to eat fruits and vegetables.

* Fast food companies make higher profits on soft drinks than on their food products.

* 12- to 19-year-old boys drink on average 868 cans of soda per year, girls drink about 651 cans per year.

* In the United States, obesity is second only to smoking as a preventable cause of death.

Source: Media-Awareness Network, 2003

Fat Facts

* Health care costs from obesity were $240 billion. Americans spend more than $33 billion on weight-loss products.

* The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that nearly 280,000 Americans die every year as a direct result of being overweight.

* Americans drink soda at an annual rate of about 56 gallons per person, or nearly 600 12-ounce cans of soda per person. 

* In 1950 a child-size Coca-Cola was 8 ounces — now it is 12 ounces.

Source: “What Fries Beneath — America Under Big Mac Attack,”

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