Can Your Institution Give Students the Ultimate Healthy Dining Experience?

WRITTEN BY: Aramark Higher Education Team

ChefToday’s students want healthy options for on-campus dining.

With heightened awareness of conditions like celiac disease, allergies and high obesity rates, 56 percent of college-age adults agree it is important to eat healthy and pay attention to nutrition information, according to the 2014 Generational Consumer Trend Report by Technomic. Whether it is the paleo diet, vegan options or lean proteins, college students know what they want.

And modern generations are not shy about sounding off on social media to make their demands known. At the click of a button, they can share photos of their food, giving campuses instant feedback on whether their dishes are a culinary delight or a dining disaster.

There are many ways to get on board with the trend toward healthier campus dining. Here are the top considerations for higher education institutions to propel the student dining experience from good to extraordinary.

Students Expect Healthier Options

Just 35 percent of students surveyed by Technomic felt their college or university did an adequate job of offering healthy foods. With an increasing demand for nutritious foods, students are looking for a wider variety of options beyond the mainstay dishes of the past like mystery casserole or gray gravy.

“If you don't have some type of healthy meal options in the dining halls, you will have a lot of complaints,” says Paula Ciavarella Caravati, Ph.D, R.D.N., a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Aramark who offers nutrition counseling at the University of Virginia. “Healthy, vegan, gluten-free and allergen-friendly are things that I see that students really go for.”

Vegan, vegetarian and gluten alternatives are becoming popular even for students who do not have dietary restrictions but are making the lifestyle choice to eat better. Students are also asking for whole grains, lower sodium and allergen-free menu items.

Younger generations are more interested than their older counterparts in counting calories and knowing where their food comes from, opting to buy local food whenever possible. They want to know the nutrition facts about what they are eating and prefer customization so they can substitute or omit ingredients to adhere to their healthy preferences.

How Food Affects Students’ Learning

Students are almost twice as likely as the general population to eat three square meals a day with snacks in between. This may be because of their easy access to food, with several on-campus dining locations to choose from. This is particularly prevalent among students who have a dining plan.

With the demands of studying and performing well in class, as well as extracurricular activities, students need to take care of themselves, and that means eating well.

“It's critical students remain healthy to maintain their grades,” Caravati says. “It's really important they maintain a healthy status with regards to what their job is at school in terms of study and success. Beyond that, institutions can teach ‘healthy’ and the ‘influence of healthy’ and its effect on students’ lives in the future, including chronic disease prevention.”

Developing healthy habits in college and maintaining them in the future can help prevent chronic diseases associated with poor diets, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Late-night eating is also common among college students, who tend to stay up late to study. According to Caravati, research has shown no direct link between late-night eating and weight gain. She suggests those late-night hunger pangs could be the body needing more fuel to power through an all-nighter. While students should not go crazy with late eating, they should do what they feel is right for the situation, Caravati recommends. If they are trying to get through a late-night study session, a balanced snack will provide them with the energy they need to finish their studies — and they will expect your institution to provide that convenience, no matter the time.

Getting Started with Healthy Dining on Campus

Have a goal in mind when developing healthy menu items. Whether the menu will contain vegan items or items low in calories or fat, make sure the food is labeled well and the students can read the nutrition information.

Make sure, however, that the chefs on your campus can execute the menu you’re trying to achieve. Keep in mind factors such as cost and ingredient availability. Without the right ingredients, the recipe cannot be created as it was designed and won’t deliver the intended experience.

Another way to incorporate healthy menu options is to educate the students on what it means to eat healthfully. Providing them with the nutrition information they want to see and offering programs to help them make the right choices can satisfy students’ need to live a healthier lifestyle.

“At the University of Virginia, we host nutrition education programs at each of the dining halls on a monthly basis,” Caravati says. “This month, we're talking about wellness and how you can eat healthy in the dining hall. This is particularly important for first-year students who are overwhelmed by choices, sometimes they only see the unhealthy choice and don't plan for the healthy.”

Forming partnerships with health organizations can build credibility and position the college dining experience as more than just ramen noodles and the Freshman 15, but also as wholesome nourishment for students. At Aramark, we recently entered into a groundbreaking initiative with the American Heart Association called Healthy for Life 20 by 20. This commitment will reduce calories, saturated fat and sodium levels by 20 percent and increase fruits, vegetables and whole grains by 20 percent on all of our menus by 2020. Changes will impact more than 2 billion meals that are served annually, including meals at thousands of schools and universities.

“Experts have estimated that if the American public increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables to meet current public health recommendations, 127,000 lives could be saved each year,” says American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown. “It’s essential that we make healthier options more easily available to consumers and empower them to choose these options for themselves and their families.”

The Bottom Line

“Assisting students in maintaining the highest level of health they can achieve should be a top priority for higher ed institutions,” Caravati says. “Sometimes when people think about food service, they're not thinking we are partners. What I do is about trying to get students to a level where they achieve and maintain optimal health.”

Students are becoming more and more savvy about what they’re eating, and demanding that colleges and universities offer healthier options. Is your institution prepared to meet their needs?

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