Theme dinners and special events designed to spice things up are a common occurrence at college dinning halls. What is not common is planning and executing one of these meals once a week. At Kansas State University, in Manhattan, the three dining halls on campus do just that, according to Malley Sisson, R.D., assistant unit director. Coined “change-ups,” these meals are a regular feature on campus.
“In our particular dining facility, and we are a mid-sized one, we feed about 1,200 for dinner with four different serving lines,” Sisson says. “Two of the lines have our hot meat and potato-type items, one offers pizza and that leaves the fourth one as one that changes each day of the week. Monday night we do pasta there, Tuesday night we alternate between breakfast for dinner or cold deli, and then Wednesdays alternate between Willie Wok, which is made-to-order Asian bowls, and Italian kitchen, which is made-to-order pastas with a variety of proteins. Thursday nights are when we have our change-ups.”
Sisson says the change-ups were designed to do precisely what the name says: change up the norm for the students eating in that dining hall. Each hall is in charge of planning its own change-ups, but the themes are repeated at other halls if the theme is successful, says Sisson. The themes for the nights vary wildly. Each dinner features special dishes, along with decorations and music that fits the theme.
“We’ve had a Cuban change-up where we served our pressed Cuban sandwiches,” Sisson says. “We did a State Fair Dinner with traditional fair foods, Appetizer Alley with all kinds of appetizers like chicken wings, poppers, etc. We did one called Streets of New York where we created items like a breaded chicken breast, Parmesan cheese and marinara sauce that is wrapped in foil and then heated. Another favorite of the students is our Baja burrito dinner, which we set up like Chipotle.”
Other themes for this semester include a Native American, Fabulous Fifties, Sizzling Salads and Just Chillin, where different kinds of chili was served. Themes for next semester include Udon Noodle Bowls, Kansas Day, Beer Can Chicken, Island Getaway, Calzone Crazy and Souper Hearty, which will serve a variety of winter soups. Sisson says when the department first started the change-ups coming up with all the different themes was tough.
“Over the years it’s gotten easier,” Sisson says. “There are some favorites for every year that the students would be disappointed if we didn’t do like the Fabulous Fifties, Baja Burritos or Streets of New York, but we are always working on developing new ones. [The ideas for the themes] come in different ways. For example, I had done a recipe for The Catfish Institute and the recipe turned out really good. So we had a dinner where we hand breaded catfish in a spicy fajita breading, pan fried it, and then served it on a bed of Asian rice and greens with a cilantro-soy sauce.”
Theme ideas can come from other universities or even just by the other dining units on campus. Some themes are offered at all units, others just at Sisson’s location. Though fun for the students, Sisson admits that planning and executing all these theme dinners is a lot of work.
“Some are more work than others, but the kids really like them,” Sisson says. “The whole key is in the prep. Fortunately, our work leader [at this location] is the queen of prep. She is very organized. Our weekends are slower so she preps as much as she can in advance. For example, let’s say there are spice mixes and spice rubs she could grind and toast, which can easily be done two weeks ahead. Or there might be a special barbecue sauce that could be made ahead of time and frozen. The key to it is the prep and then having someone that is interested in doing it and takes pride in it as opposed to someone who just sees it as a bunch of extra work.”
Sisson says, despite the extra work, the change-ups are worth it because of the joy they bring to the students.
“[Events like these] are worth it because the kids love it and, honestly, they help us keep our jobs,” Sisson says. “We want to keep our residence halls full. It keeps us on our toes. All these weird ingredients keep our produce person and our meat person on their toes. [Things like this] educate our staff and become a growing thing for all of us.”