1 month into Neilson Dining Hall revamp, healthy takeout options remain popular
A millennial-driven call for change has swept through Neilson Dining Hall, taking with it the refrigerated chicken breasts and greasy french fries.
Dave Donlon, the general manager of Neilson Dining Hall, said as of April 3 the school’s dining service has undergone a complete overhaul of its takeout menu, promising to deliver on the students' demand for healthier alternatives as effectively as possible.
He said that in closing out the semester, dining services found the remaining five weeks to be pivotal in receiving ample feedback from students as to what changes they wish to see implemented across the board.
The menu, curated by Rutgers Dining Services chef manager Ian Keith, looks to touch upon a wide variety of diverse foods that reach out to any and all tastes, Donlon said. The plant-forward concept hits heavily on a number of vegan and vegetarian dishes but does not shy away from meat-based products, looking to integrate them in smaller portions.
“Our numbers are up significantly, in the first two weeks (they) were up 20 percent in our takeout business without taking away from our through-the-line dinner service. It’s not like folks have left the dining hall to come here, it looks like we’ve got new customers coming from other parts of campus as well,” he said.
The department is aware that their rise in numbers is due in part to a looming curiosity among students to try the new items, Donlon said. But the feedback they have received has been almost entirely positive and sheds hopeful light on future menu changes.
Students unsatisfied with the new changes are prompted to dine at one of the many on-campus food chains or independent restaurants that do not follow the healthy initiative, but are encouraged to try the new menu first, Donlon said.
“I think you should try it first before making an assumption that you don’t like it because it is very flavorful and well thought out,” he said.
Keith said the initiative to bring healthier plant-based options to the school’s menu was first introduced as a research collaborative with the Culinary Institute of America, in conjunction with Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale, to have nutrition at the forefront of student dining.
Differences among cooking techniques have been especially appealing to students, Keith said. Steaming and poaching, in addition to a 50 percent increase in leafy green vegetables, have been some of the more notable changes to the menu.
Some issues addressed by students, such as portion size and lack of chicken nuggets, have been noted by the department and taken into extra consideration, Keith said. Students should recognize that many of the items are being revamped as opposed to being eliminated altogether.
“When you see burger night, you’re no longer seeing two frozen hockey pucks in between white bread that is nutritionally devoid. You have whole grain Kaiser rolls now, you have beef burgers blended with mushrooms, its nutritional standpoint is much better for you,” he said.
Those skeptical about trying the new items are encouraged to start small. Stopping by takeout on "wing night" promises baked chicken wings twice the size of their predecessors and the option of cauliflower wings seasoned with an Indian tandoori marinade, Keith said.
Maria Siddiqui, a School of Arts and Sciences senior and Harvest Cafe employee, said the first week brought a wave of confusion among students that were not expecting the new changes. Once the dust settled many students found themselves returning multiple times throughout the week after having tried the new items.
The napkin boards located at every dining hall serve as a means of communication between students and dining services staff. Within the first year of opening Harvest Cafe, many students were voicing their want to incorporate meal swipes as a method of payment, Siddiqui said.
This push for healthier alternatives has allowed foods available at Harvest Cafe to slowly make their way onto the takeout menu, giving students the ability to eat there without having to pay additionally, she said. Open faced Tartines are a crowd favorite previously served at Harvest and has now made its way to the menu.
“Try anything once, the description of it might throw you off but it doesn’t taste the way you think. It tastes like actual gourmet food, not what you would think of as dining hall food,” Siddiqui said. “And if you don’t like it write on the napkin board, they take feedback very seriously.”
Christian Zapata is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.