College Dining Halls Are Making Shifts to Include Plant-Based Meals

Every year, many students embark on a journey where they leave the nest of their parent or guardian and head off to college—a first taste of many firsts, the most predominant one being freedom. Freedom to sleep when you want, freedom to do what you want—to succeed and fail on your own terms. It is also crucially the first time many young adults will have total freedom over their dietary choices.

The College Dining Hall Experience

The college experience has changed in many ways throughout the years and will likely continue to do so. One that hasn’t changed, however, is the phenomenon known as the “freshman 15”.

Thankfully, the freshman 15 isn’t always a solid 15lbs. However, weight gain is a very common occurrence for teens and young adults going away to college. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main reasons is that a majority of students will have an unrestricted diet for the first time, as well as not have the privilege of a good home cooked meal.

Well-meaning parents want their kids to have access to meals and not just relying on their child eating fast-food or fending for themselves every day, and so college meal plans remain the norm. Some schools, such as Duke University, require students to have a meal plan. Regardless, having access to the school’s dining hall can be an easy way for students to meet their daily nutritional needs.

The only problem? The menu. College dining halls currently, while changing to accommodate new tastes, still are stuck serving old fare. Chicken nuggets, pizza, pastas, burgers, fries, grilled cheese sandwiches, sausages, bacon, pancakes, — these are just a few of the most notoriously common foods that college dining halls serve to students.

To students that are away from home for the first time, this can be an exciting shift in their nutritional direction at first—but it quickly can get old. Something we’ll tackle a bit further down in this article is how Gen Z’s tastes are evolving in a different than prior generations.

Problems that College Education Foodservice Faces

College education foodservice is a big business, second only to elementary school foodservice. There are a lot of hungry students, and there must be some kind of provisioning from the school to meet nutritional needs while providing enticing options.

Things have changed rapidly in the past 10 years alone due to how fast information and trends spread in our smartphone era. The result is that dietary preferences among students today are more diverse and ethnically driven than they have ever been, with many young people favoring an array of different herbs and spices in their food—can traditional college cafeteria food keep up?

With apps such as GrubHub, Delivery Dudes, UberEats, etc., students have far more options than ever before if their college’s dining hall offerings are not aligned with what they want. There are many articles dedicated to showing how impactful Gen Z will be in any given industry. They are the first fully digital generation that have grown up with an abundance of choices in every category of life, including dining.

Dining halls and the major foodservice providers that are typically partnered with them, such as Aramark, US Foods, Sodexo, Bon Appétit Management Co., Chartwells, etc., face unique challenges to appeal to the distinctly different dining habits of Gen Z.

Gen Z is Quickly Adopting Plant-Based Eating Habits

Millennials and prior generations fought a battle to establish vegetarianism, veganism, and plant-based eating as not just niche dietary choices, but a way forward that satisfied our need to be more mindful of sustainability and our health as a country.

Those efforts have borne fruit as Gen Z rapidly adopts plant-based eating into their already notably different eating habits. Major foodservice provider Aramark, who supplies food for campuses across the United States, shares some of their insights into campus dining for Gen Z. Some notable facts are that:

  • Gen Z has a “functional” eating style emphasizing speed, efficiency, and snackability—or convenience.
  • Like Millennials, Gen Z is a big consumer of organic products or foods emphasizing health.
  • They focus on “clean eating” as an important quality of life factor.
  • Dietary concerns such as vegan-friendly, plant-based, and gluten-free are of great importance.
  • Their leading health food claims are Vegan and Vegetarian by a long margin.
  • 57% of individuals surveyed stated the would be more likely to eat on campus if there were a broader selection of healthy options

According to Aramark’s survey—which this information was published in 2019, 60% of Gen Z reported that they wanted to reduce meat consumption and not only look for, but expect plant-based options.

Aramark wasn’t the only one to report such findings, with the National Restaurant Association publishing their own personal experiences in providing for Gen Z college students.

A few of the major factors were as follows.

Customizable Meals

It may come as no surprise that the generation that grew up on apps are not only used to having it their way, but having it exactly as they like. Specificity is an important factor for Gen Z diners that want to easily be able to sub out items or switch the composition of their meals depending on their nutritional goals for the day.

Everything is Contained in One Bowl or Dish

bowl of nutritious plant-based foods


















Take a look around at the most popular fast food establishments for students or young people under the age of 25 and you will undoubtedly see that many of them are not fast-food but fast-casual restaurants that specialize in quick-to-make orders that typically follow an assembly line model.

Consider the choices: acai bowls, poke bowls, salad bowls, and the ever-popular burrito bowl are just a few of the numerous bowl style entrees that successful fast-casual establishments are succeeding with.

Power-bowl-style meals where all ingredients are combined into a single portable container that can be taken on the go or easily stored and saved for later are a crucial characteristic for college students looking for a good value.

Whole Foods and Whole Ingredients

We’ve already discussed how Gen Z has not only been rapidly adopting plant-based eating habits, but perhaps adopting isn’t precisely the right word. Many of them were born into a time where such dietary habits were placed front and center.

A big part of the plant-based revolution took place through social media, through the aesthetic portrayal of healthy, plant-based meals by popular food bloggers and celebrities. The iconic top down image of various vegan or plant-based recipes is so ubiquitous that even reading this, you probably have some sort of image in your mind. There are several studies that examine the correlation between the rise of vegan/plant-based eating mentalities.

For the generation that has the highest demographic presence on Instagram, you can see that eating plant-based meals is not a fringe dietary choice but an expectation of sorts.

Another expectation worth discussing is the emphasis on whole ingredients and a skepticism towards strange inclusions and things you can’t even pronounce on the nutrition label.

This is also a key point for Dr. Praeger’s products. We pride ourselves on the simplicity of our ingredients used. Wholesome ingredients combined with an array of savory herb and spices are enough to make our frozen plant-based products a mouthwatering addition to any household or college dining experience.

An example would be our juicy, plant-based Perfect Burger® which looks and tastes like a conventional burger but is made with veggie-forward ingredients.

The list of ingredients is:

  • Hydrated pea protein blend (20 grams!)
  • Sunflower oil
  • Beets
  • Our proprietary blend of natural flavors
  • Sweet potato puree
  • Butternut squash puree
  • Carrot puree
  • Methylcellulose
  • Oat fiber
  • Fruit and vegetable juice
  • Sea salt
  • Onion powder

The only “suspicious” ingredient is methylcellulose, and you will find that this one ingredient is a simple binding agent that has no known adverse effects and has been evaluated and approved for use by the FDA.

How Is This Affecting the Campus Dining Experience?

In the past, students were out of luck if they weren’t satisfied with their college’s food offerings.

With a plethora of off-campus options and near-constant delivery availability, college dining halls now find themselves in a difficult position as students can simply take their business elsewhere.

Foodservice providers and universities that contract them would like to continue enrollment in their dining programs and so are scrambling to reinvent their menus and dining experience to appeal to the rapidly shifting attitudes of Gen Z who are the primary college demographic now.

One of the primary issues is providing food that is plant-based, convenient, and most of all—accessible and easy to provide. These issues were further exacerbated by the pandemic which put enormous difficulties and strains on supply chains that resulted in less than satisfactory meals for students that were still living on campus and already had paid for meal programs.

Regardless, the quickly transitioning need for a robust plant-based menu for the growing contingent of students that want more plant-based items available is a pressing issue for colleges.

Satisfying the public’s demand for healthy and delicious frozen plant-based foods is a very familiar challenge to us. Dr. Praeger’s has been and industry leader for over 25 years, using recognizable ingredients to create products that are not only nutrient-dense, but also tastes great.

Dr. Praeger’s Foodservice division offers a wide variety of plant-based products for this market, including our California Veggie Burger, Kale Veggie Burger, and now our Perfect Burger, as well as Chickenless Chicken Breasts, Tenders, Strips, Patties, and Nuggets. For more information on Dr. Praeger’s Foodservice products, pricing, and availability, reach out to us so that we can discuss your foodservice needs today!