Where college dining is headed in 2024 and beyond

Robert Nelson, President and CEO of NACUFS, delves into the data to make some research-based predictions.
college dining
Flexibility is going to drive college dining in the years ahead, in everything from design to menu and staffing. | Photo: Shutterstock

Robert Nelson, President and CEO of the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS) headed an extensive research project to position campus dining for success in the years ahead. His conclusion: “There’s been a paradigm shift and we’re looking to harmonize the evolving values and expectations of students with the challenges of higher education,” he said during an interview with FoodService Director.

“Flexibility” is the key to successful programs, Nelson believes. And that flexibility applies to everything from dining hall design to staff scheduling and health goals.

“There’s a demand for flexibility in building design, both in the front- and back-of-house,” said Nelson. He’s a proponent of plug-and-play kitchens that can adapt to different meal parts by reconfiguring the equipment. Modular pieces and technology can make this possible.

Reconfiguring dining hall seating and table arrangements should also be part of flexible design.

“We need to accommodate how students want to sit at different times of the day,” he said. “Solo dining may be more popular at breakfast and lunch, so students can eat while working on their laptops, but at dinner, there’s more socialization and the need for larger tables for groups.” Soft seating and tables that can convert into cooking/chef demo stations are also must-haves in the “dining hall of the future.”

Students are demanding more tech, but there’s also a need to balance technology with socialization, the NACUFS research shows. “Tech used for delivery and vending is okay, but they don’t want robots making their food,” said Nelson. “In the dining hall, they like to talk to the person checking them out and fellow students.”

The labor shortage will continue into 2024 and beyond—another challenge where flexibility is an opportunity. Flexible scheduling to accommodate part-time workers, mothers and student employees is essential going forward. And it’s another area where tech can be a help rather than a turnoff. Several apps exist and are improving to promote flexible schedules.

Healthy options have long been a goal of college dining directors, but they have to become more targeted. Aside from allergen and vegan stations, “religious preferences and physical and mental health need to be considerations,” said Nelson. “Functional nutrition” is the buzzword of the future.

Which segues into storytelling—another important element of campus dining going forward, Nelson believes. “We have to be more sophisticated with language in showing students how food will benefit them and enhance their performance,” he said.

More in-depth storytelling can also support the conversation around authenticity. That conversation has gotten louder and more contentious as more international students and menu items come to campus.

“As international dishes and cuisines are introduced, the dining program can tell the story of that culture, even using tech to educate diners at the point of service,” said Nelson. QR codes and text alerts as students go through the line, as well as more in depth education on the website and through social media, are all useful storytelling tools. “Everybody needs to feel they belong,” he added.