Juggling plates of fries and stacks of books, UC Davis students navigated a crowded dining hall Wednesday night, pausing briefly to watch as two of their own prepared gourmet meals against the clock.
Freshman Ryan Abusaa and junior Cameron Vinoskey faced off in the inaugural Favorites from Home Cooking Challenge, a “Top Chef” style competition in which contestants prepare a meal from scratch in less than an hour with the prize of getting it on the dining hall menu. The event is part of a wider UC Davis Dining Services initiative promoting cooking skills and healthy food choices for students.
Decked in aprons and sky-high chef’s hats, Abusaa and Vinoskey manned their stations, practicing kitchen safety while following original recipes they’d pitched for the competition. Abusaa’s spaghetti squash alfredo was an old favorite in his Mississippi home, where the viticulture and oenology major said he learned to cook with family at a young age.
Vinoskey, a neurobiology, physiology and behavior major, assembled a vegan sandwich with marinated tofu and pickled vegetables, which she said was inspired by Thai and Vietnamese restaurants in her hometown of San Diego.
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Setting aside time to cook is uncommon for most college students, whose busy schedules force them to eat for convenience, rather than health, said dining services dietitian Linda Adams. With a red carpet, a master of ceremonies and a party pop play list, Wednesday’s event aimed to get students excited about cooking before they move off campus and have to feed themselves, some for the first time.
“They come home starving, haven’t done any preparation, what’s gonna happen? They’re gonna order pizza,” said Adams, director of the Sustainability and Nutrition Office within dining services. “When I first got here, I focused a lot on how to eat healthy in the dining room. We’ve recently started focusing on what happens when you move out.”
All first-year students living in residence halls, about 5,000, are required to purchase meal plans for use at one of three dining commons on campus. The meal plans are optional for older students living off campus or in student housing apartments, most of which have kitchens.
Abusaa, who was used to preparing his own food back home, said living in a dormitory with only a communal kitchen has been an adjustment. He looks forward to moving away from campus and being able to cook again.
“Being back at home I always had the luxury – if I wanted to make my own granola bars, that was nice,” he said. “There’s something about being in college where it’s difficult to get up at 6:30 a.m. and prep myself for the day ... usually when I’m in a rush I try to grab a salad or something decently healthy from a convenience store on campus.”
Bouncing between social and academic pressures can take an emotional toll on students that causes them to over- or undereat, said Jennifer Lombardi, executive director of the Eating Recovery Center of California, a Sacramento-based eating disorder treatment organization.
“They tend to get disregulated emotionally and their relationship with food becomes an extension of that,” she said. “One of the things is to really help them find a place to do self-care and not get caught up in the rat race of college.”
Nearly 58 percent of college students report eating one-two servings of fruits and vegetables per day, with 30 percent eating three-four servings, according to the American College Health Association’s 2014 survey of 80,000 students. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends five-nine servings per day for adults.
Choosing the right foods is one of the most difficult challenges students face when they enter college, especially with unlimited quantities of unhealthy foods available at every dining hall meal, Adams said.
Quan Dao, a fourth-year student who had a tower of empty plates after several trips to dining hall stations Wednesday, said he gained weight his freshman year from gorging on whatever food looked good. The economics major lives in an apartment now but still prefers the convenience of “the D.C.,” as students call the dining commons, to cooking at home. Digging into a buffalo chicken wrap, Dao explained that he bought meal credits from a freshman so he could come get dinner and dessert.
“Whatever I can consume I will eat,” he said. “I am concerned about healthy foods, just not at the D.C. At the D.C. there’s just too much variety.”
To help students find healthier options, Adams has labeled all of the dining hall choices with calorie counts and flagged dishes for specific diets. Meals are ranked with one to four apples to represent their nutrient value, and special signage encourages students to customize their meals by requesting a half portion or skipping the bun.
At the Segundo Dining Common, where Wednesday’s event took place, students have access to a sizable salad bar, stocked sustainably with greens from the on-campus student farm and local growers. The “blue onion” station offers vegan dishes, which Adams said serves about 300 of the 1,200-1,500 meals eaten in the hall each night. Fruit-infused water stations provide an alternative to soda fountains.
The signature college cuisine is still there – vats of french fries, self-serve ice cream machines – but the goal is to get students not to load up on it, said Adams. Students who learn to eat healthily on campus ideally will carry that knowledge with them when they move off and start preparing their own meals.
“It’s not for me to tell them they can’t have french fries,” she said. “It’s for me to educate them so they, hopefully, don’t make that choice.”
At Davis, students interested in learning to cook can take classes with Student Health and Counseling Services, through the student-run cooking group “Let’s Dish,” or off campus at the Davis Food Co-op. Similar efforts are taking hold across the UC system, which hosted Food Day on Oct. 24 to encourage healthy and sustainable eating on every campus.
Still, good habits are a hard sell with students, Adams said. Abusaa and Vinoskey were two of just three students to enter a recipe for Wednesday’s competition, and the third couldn’t make it due to a time conflict. Once their dishes were plated, the pair of contestants waited tensely as a student panel judged the meals on taste, texture, smell, appearance and nutritional value.
Vinoskey’s vegan Thai sandwich trumped Abusaa’s alfredo by a slim margin and will now be offered in all three campus dining halls, adding to the already long list of meatless options available.
UC Davis placed in the top 10 most vegan-friendly large American universities in 2010, as ranked by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It ranked 17th, just one spot behind UC Berkeley, in The Daily Meal’s 60 Best Colleges for Food in 2013.
Vinoskey, a former vegan who transferred from the University of California, Riverside, said the menu at Davis is notably healthier.
“I really like their vegan options, so I thought it’d be neat to add to those,” she said. “Even though I don’t restrict my diet as much anymore, I appreciate those options being available.”
Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.