College Millennials Eating

Understanding College Dining Habits

College Dining Habits, Defined

College Dining HabitsUnderstanding what students want is the first step to running a successful college and university foodservice program. Across the country, college and university foodservice directors are revamping their dining programs to reflect recent food trends and preferences of the Millennial generation. Students have strong opinions when it comes to their dining options and foodservice directors are doing everything they can to satisfy them. Today’s students expect their on-campus menus to offer an array of healthy options, authentic ethnic offerings and customization opportunities, as well as convenient on-the-go meals and snacks.

College-age consumers are paying attention to diet and nutrition. According to Mintel, 54% of students want healthier and better tasting food options1, which is evident as more students limit their meat consumption in favor of vegetarian and flexitarian diets2. There is an increased desire for nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables as well as protein alternatives like yogurt, eggs and beans. Foodservice directors are updating menus to feature better-for-you choices for all day parts, providing low-fat alternatives to traditional breakfast staples, and increasing vegetarian dishes during lunch and dinner service. Favorite comfort food dishes are even getting a makeover as chefs replace ingredients like regular sour cream, cream cheese and mayonnaise with nonfat Greek yogurt to reduce fat and calories. From decadent parfaits to signature spreads, dressings, marinades and more, yogurt can be used to help reduce fat and calories without losing flavor or texture.

As today and tomorrow’s generations become more ethnically diverse, the demand for authenticity has become greater than ever before, particularly amongst Millennials3.

According to a recent Y-Pulse study, today’s college-age consumers are more diverse and aware of global cultures and cuisines than any previous generation.4 As the American palate continues to evolve, foodservice operators need to be prepared to offer an array of authentic ethnic dishes. For example, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania presents a monthly meal featuring the cuisine of a single country or region, like Peru, Canada, and “On the Bayou,” as part of its International Dining Series.

College Millennials EatingMillennials demand authentic and spicier offerings in everything from ingredients and preparation to presentation. They consider food an adventure, and seek out different, ethnic and artisan foods. The Hartman Group recently reported that 40% like to try new kinds of ethnic cuisines.5 Ingredients like yogurt are versatile and universal and can be used in just about every type of cuisine. Mediterranean- and Middle Eastern- inspired chefs have been using yogurt as a key ingredient for generations. For example, ethnic-inspired favorites like gyros with tzatziki sauce, fruit-flavored lassis and spicy Thai curry dishes all can be made with yogurt.

Students also expect the option to customize their meals, which can be beneficial to operators, since studies have shown that having customers get creative with their meals leads to higher satisfaction. Given students desire for customizing foods through add-ons or mix-ins, many foodservice operators are increasing the opportunities for “build-it-yourself” foods and customizable menus like a sandwich and burger menu that allows students to develop their own combination of fillings and toppings.

Dining services may also want to position customized action stations as the place to highlight premium, high-quality ingredients. For example, yogurt bars offer a fun and engaging way for students to customize their meal. Whether opting for a healthy snack or a decadent treat, students can use yogurt bars to create endless flavor combinations to fit their taste preference. Foodservice operators are encouraged to enhance their experience by offering a range of flavors and textures including traditional and Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, crunchy nuts and granola, traditional sweets like candy and cookie pieces, and even vegetables and flavorful sauces like pesto and hot sauce. In an effort to engage more students, Bryn Mawr College developed a variety of action stations including “Make Your Own Milkshake” and “Make Your Own Yogurt Parfait” stations. When it comes to customized drinks, Millennials tend to gravitate toward freshly made smoothies, shakes and juices.

With hectic schedules, students will be attracted to fast, portable meal options like sandwiches and wraps. Students who are constantly on the go want fresh, fast fuel for their bodies. They prefer to eat small snacks throughout the day rather than three large meals a day, suggesting that small-portion offerings could be positioned as portable meals or snacks.

Y-Pulse noted that about 83% of Millennials say healthfulness is an important factor when choosing snack foods6; they want high-quality convenient options with a homemade taste. And it’s not just limited to food – smoothies and protein shakes are easy, satisfying options.

There are many factors that college and university foodservice directors need to consider in order to run successful foodservice programs. Most importantly, they need to understand their students’ needs.


1Mintel, College and University Foodservice – US – February 2013

2CCD Innovation, “Collegiate Millennials Shape Culinary Trends of Tomorrow,” August 2012

3National Restaurant Association, “Millennial Ethnic Food Demand Influencing Menus,” April 2013

4Y-Pulse, “Top 10 Foodservice Trends on Campus,” 2014

5The Hartman Group, “When Millennials Get the Munchies: How They Differ from Previous Generations,” 2012

6Y-Pulse and The Culinary Visions Panel, Snacking Behavior Trends, March 2014