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How colleges are customizing meatless dishes

The choose-your-toppings Chipotle model of menu customization has become, as the kids say, so basic. And while the “V” words—vegetarian and vegan—are shunned by some omnivorous diners, these preferences aren’t being shoved in the corner of the dining hall anymore. With a movement toward plant-based dishes, which fit easily into the personalization model, diners don’t have to settle for the designated vegetarian option or cobble together a meal from side dishes.

All kinds of students are looking to personalize their meals, not just those with restricted diets or allergies, says Julie Lee, campus dietitian for Binghamton University Dining Services in Binghamton, N.Y.

 “[Students] don’t want just one place where they get ‘healthy food.’ They want to have vegan or vegetarian options available everywhere, even when they’re not vegan and vegetarian,” Lee says. “Sometimes, some of them like to follow a grain-free or gluten-free diet out of preference or experimentation. In my contact with students, [personalization] is a priority and something they always like.”

Binghamton now ensures every retail location has vegetarian and vegan options in the mix. “If you were to go to our marketplace where we have 11 outlets, we try to establish a vegetarian or vegan or gluten-free option at every one of the outlets,” says Tom LaSarso, director of retail operations. “They’re not just pigeonholed into the salad bar.”

The school is also experimenting with options that go beyond the build-your-own-bowl model or deli sandwiches made to order. “We have an all-breakfast outlet called Cakes & Eggs, our own in-house concept, where you can customize what’s in your omelet; we have vegan pancakes or regular pancakes,” Lee says.

As customization continues to evolve, operators see diners’ backgrounds coming into play even more. “I feel that the background, culture or heritage has a big role in making a personal connection to food,” Anthony Dedek, food service director at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., says. “If a student can find a dining option that relates to any of these, it makes a huge impact on the student.”

Diners’ interest (or lack thereof) in organics may also provide some opportunity when it comes to customization, though having that option isn’t important to all. At Benchmark, “organic ingredients may appeal to an adult child who is helping mom and dad select a [senior living] community, but we find it’s not as important of an issue to our residents,” Hemond says.

“We try to offer as much organic items as we can, but as far as it being a factor in personalization or customizing of their dish, it only helps,” Dedek says. “People want to be educated on where their food is coming from or how it is grown.”

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