OPINION: Forget the dining halls. It’s thyme to cook for yourself

A hamburger drawn in black and white next to a can of soda.
Graphic by Natalie Bauer

Starting college comes with a lot of new things: new friends, new city, new classes. For most people, it means living away from home — being solely responsible for getting yourself up in the morning, getting to class on time, cleaning the bathroom and doing laundry.

In Britain, this list also includes cooking, grocery shopping, making shopping lists and food budgets, washing up, fending flatmates off your cheese with increasingly passive aggressive notes, dealing with moldy food bins and puzzling over the strange warning light on the freezer.  

At my home university, the University of Birmingham, first-years (or “freshers” as we call them in Britain) generally live in university-owned accommodations, divided into “flats,” each with its own kitchen. This is typical in the U.K. 

Some British freshers have a “meal plan.”  Usually, that means a certain amount of money on a card is available per week to spend in canteens and cafes across campus. But this isn’t the norm, and it ends after the first year, when nearly all students move out of university accommodations into privately rented houses.

For me, navigating the realm of discount supermarkets and frozen pizzas was as big a part of starting university as figuring out how to take useful notes at lightning-fast lectures. At the 5Cs, the colleges lighten the pressure of moving away from home by making you eat in the dining halls. 

In one sense, this is a real luxury. There’s no stress over what to cook. No dilemmas about whether walking 10 minutes to the shop is more or less effort than making a meal out of two frozen sausages and a questionable can of chickpeas. (For anyone who’s interested, the Instagram account @verysadfood offers a disturbing insight into some of the very sad food students at the University of Birmingham have cooked up recently.) 

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At the 5Cs, a mealtime dilemma is whether to queue for a burrito or a Sri Lankan curry. When I came to the 5Cs, I was astounded by just how much choice there was — pad Thai, pizza, pasta, cheesecake, melon, chocolate cookies — it was all delicious, and it was all-you-can-eat.

I have Pitzer College’s brunch to thank for introducing me to the little fried balls of fluffy potato deliciousness that I’ve since learned are called tater tots. 

Mealtimes here are a place to socialize without worrying about any of the logistics. The dirty dishes disappear onto a conveyor belt and magically reappear in clean, warm stacks. College becomes a bubble of learning and socializing that sometimes feels only loosely related to the rest of the world.

Dining halls are a luxury, but they’re also restricting. All the 5Cs require students living on campus to buy a meal plan, with certain exceptions for some schools due to medical conditions. Pitzer provides kitchens, but realistically, they’re impractical to use more than occasionally. It makes no sense to buy ingredients when a meal plan has already been paid for. 

A 16-meal per week plan at the 5Cs ranges from $3,686 per semester at Pitzer to $4,222.50 per semester at Harvey Mudd College. That’s between $230 and $264 per week spent on food. To put that into perspective, my weekly food budget at the University of Birmingham was £25 (around $32). California is expensive, but there’s no question 5C students could save a considerable amount of money if they were allowed to take responsibility for their own meals. 

You can eat very poorly if you’re cooking for yourself. I had a flatmate who, I’m pretty sure, ate nothing but humongous plates of plain spaghetti for a full year. My dad tells a tale of a 1980s student who suffered from scurvy after eating nothing but porridge oats for a year.  

But for myself, at least, it’s a lot easier to avoid buying a chocolate cake in the weekly shop than it is to avoid taking a slice when it’s sitting right there, in the dining hall, staring at you. 

Part of becoming an adult is learning to live independently. Being forced to use the dining halls, for all their tater tots, has made me feel 17 again. Cooking can add to the stress of moving away from home, but most of us have to figure it out eventually. 

Cooking for yourself may not be right for every college student, but it should at least be an option. The food at the dining halls are delicious, but the 5Cs need to accommodate students who want to take on the responsibility and the freedom of cooking their own meals. 

Ellie Woodward-Webster is a Pitzer College exchange student who is a literature major on exchange from England. Her favorite things about California so far are the weather, mountains and tater tots.

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