Appetite for learning? Top 6 universities for food lovers

April 23, 2012 at 1:36 PM ET

Jerry Naunheim /
A chef prepares a meal at Washington University in St. Louis during a cooking competition.

It’s that time of year — anxious high school seniors around the country are hovering by their mailboxes praying for big, thick envelopes from the colleges of their dreams. Deciding which school to attend is one of the most important — if not the most important — decisions a teen will make. It’s complicated. It’s nerve-racking. And it’s about to get a lot easier.

To help with the decision-making process, The Daily Meal re-ranked the nation’s top 20 colleges and universities (according toU.S. News & World Report’s 2012 list) based solely on their food options. You’re welcome.

6. Vanderbilt University

Every March, the USS Rand, an imaginary cruise ship, travels the world to bring Vanderbilt students the best in food. To do this, the university decks out the dining hall with props, actors, and food stations.

"We allow them to exercise their creativity," explains Camp Howard, director of Vanderbilt Dining, of the campus chefs. Other themed events have centered on Las Vegas and a “Willy Wonka”-inspired affair.

Keeping with the government’s food guidelines, Vanderbilt’s "menus and meals are really focused on the plate, rather than the stomach," shares Howard. What’s featured? Sausage breakfast burritos, Texas red chili and chicken tikka masala. With a focus on community, Vanderbilt invites local farmers to chat with students over family-style meals. In addition, the institution donates food to the Dimas House, a local organization helping people recently released from prison get back on track.

5. University of Pennsylvania

Forget to put National Peach Cobbler Day on your calendar? Penn’s got an event for that. And for National Pretzel Day. And for many other days you’ve probably never heard of.

Run by Bon Appétit, a food management giant that emphasizes fresh, sustainable food,Penn’s dining strives to employ the farm-to-fork philosophy. With on-site farmers markets and celebrity chef book signings, this institution takes its food very seriously.

Love Bites! Take our dating and dining survey

Featuring five residential spots and seven retail locations, the campus has plenty of places for starving undergrads to get their munch on. What’s on the menu? Omelettes made to order, fried chicken with garlic mashed potatoes and green beans and roasted eggplant.

4. Cornell University

"We work hard to ensure that dining at Cornell is more than a meal — it’s an experience," says Karen Brown, director of Campus Life Marketing and Communications for the university. Want to see the best of campus dining via video? Cornell presents “CU in the Kitchen,” a series that highlights the food, people, and things that set Big Red’s food service apart from the rest. Think of it as Food Network, but hyper-local.

Big on student engagement, the university hosts events like "A Night at Hogwarts," which featured British cuisine, butter beer, and chocolate frogs. On a more typical day, students can dine on pancakes and sausage, Ethiopian vegetable stew, and pork stuffed with apples. The Ithaca- based institution has more than 30 eateries.

Cornell offers promotions to encourage students to jump on the sustainability bandwagon. If you buy a mug on campus, you can get a large coffee, tea, or hot chocolate for the price of a small one. What’s next? "Two goals for the coming year are to offer more late-night dining options, and to communicate with our customers better using social media and smartphone technology," hints Brown. Expect a new eatery in partnership with the Cornell Dairy as well.

3. Northwestern University

The Evanston, Ill., campus has six dining facilities that serve up eats like Western scrambled eggs; peanut butter, bacon, and apple sandwiches; and Tuscan kale salad.

Passionate about student engagement, the university hosts events like Moroccan Dinner and Reggae Night Dinner. "Last quarter we hosted our global chefs, Tomo Irsic from Slovenia and Joachim Suarez from Columbia, for a week,” says Steve Mangan, managing director of Sodexo and Northwestern University's food service partnership.

Northwestern is also home to a branch of The Campus Kitchen, an initiative that helps students give back to the community by preparing meals and sharing them with the less fortunate. The university works toward sustainability by recycling its cooking oil and using bio-degradable bags on campus.

2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What has more than 30 food spots, including dining halls, restaurants, cafés, and food trucks? MIT’s campus, that’s what. The university uses Bon Appétit, the food management company dedicated to sustainably raised and regionally sourced food. Vegans rejoice! Bon Appétit’s commitment to quality means that produce is typically prepared and served within 48 hours. Kosher, halal, vegetarian, and vegan options abound. For those who prefer to cook their own grub, MIT has "Cook-for-Yourself Communities," located in seven residences. The university also has a weekly produce market.

From decorating cupcakes to pigging out at the late-night nacho fest, there is an event for everyone. Offering food-related events every day, MIT helps undergrads celebrate international cuisine with the "Taste of the World" series, which features the food of a selected country on a rotating basis. Every Thursday, the university offers cooking classes for those known to burn water.

On tap: Chocolate chip pancakes, chicken in coconut red curry sauce, and truffled roast beef with buttered leeks.

1. Washington University in St. Louis

From moonlight breakfast to barbecues to "Dine with a Dietician" classes, this university goes the extra mile to provide students with the best of the best, hosting five to 10 events per week. Want to learn how to roll sushi? Check out Studio 40, an open kitchen where students can take cooking classes, meet with chefs, and watch demonstrations.

Run by Bon Appétit, WU’s dining features dishes like blueberry crepes, vegetarian chorizo and potatoes, and orange pork stir-fry, with vegan, kosher, and halal options available. Two years ago, the university opened the new Bear’s Den, a facility with authentic food concepts, including two tandoori ovens tended to by trained chefs from Pakistan and India.

Jill Duncan, director of marketing and communications for Bon Appétit Management at Washington University, thinks the school’s sustainability measures set it apart from the pack — specifically regarding its conversion of waste oil to biofuel, the composting of food scraps, and the commitment to local food.

Attention to student feedback is another source of pride. "We have a very open communication environment and our managerial team is extremely visible and interactive with all of the students," explains Duncan.

See more from The Daily Meal's Top 20 list.

More from The Daily Meal