Dining on campus: the elusive home-cooked meal

A DDS policy bars students from cooking in communal kitchens with ingredients from the Class of 1953 Commons.

by Mei Xu | 1/27/22 2:00am

by Zooriel Tan / The Dartmouth

Given COVID-19 dining changes and closures, a lack of options for students with dietary restrictions and cravings for home-cooked meals, many students are finding ways to adapt to the challenges of college dining. 

Hsu Hay Htwe ’25 is from Myanmar. Before coming to Dartmouth, Htwe was always surrounded by authentic Burmese food. During her gap year before college, she learned to cook so she would have a future alternative to campus dining. 

“I was really scared of the food here,” Htwe said. “I’m not used to American food… I started cooking in my gap year and I was like ‘I need to learn how to cook so that I won’t starve.’”

However, she has struggled to cook more intricate Asian dishes due to a lack of ingredients. 

“There’s one [Asian grocery store] in West Lebanon, but there are none in Hanover, so it’s really hard to just go out and get food,” said Htwe.  

To overcome this challenge, she often goes to Boston to eat out and buys ingredients there to bring back to campus. These days, Htwe cooks for herself and her friends at least once a week. She often cooks simple, authentic recipes in the communal dorm kitchen or in her own room. 

“Hot pot and ramen… they’re so easy to make,” Htwe said. “For hot pot, you just get boiling water and put a hot pot sauce packet and then you buy thinly sliced meat and cook that… it’s very stress-free.” 

Claire Xu ’25 is a friend of Htwe and has noticed a lack of Chinese food options at Dartmouth Dining Services locations. 

“I’m much more used to home-cooking compared to what’s at Foco, so I wish I could copy that in the dorm to have a nice hearty meal,” Xu said.

Though Xu doesn’t often cook for herself because, she says, it’s too time-consuming to locate and prepare ingredients, she is fond of the way it brings people together. 

“I think food is very important for connecting people,” Xu said. “Being able to have your friends cooking, sitting around and watching, talking and observing and having that sizzling sound in the background … I think that definitely brings us together.” 

While some students have transportation methods to access food from grocery stores, others find sourcing ingredients from outside Hanover to be challenging and time-consuming. This has led some students to gather ingredients from more accessible locations — such as the Class of 1953 Commons. 

DDS director Jon Plodzik said that, according to DDS policy, students cannot take food from Foco to cook in their dorms. 

“Dining programs and the accompanying meal plans are simply not designed for bulk food ‘purchases,’” Plodzik wrote in an emailed statement. “We are not a grocery store. Our program, like all others in the country, was created to ensure that all students have access to nourishing food options that were prepared in a safe manner. We offer food that is in proper edible form and control all aspects of the production process.”

He added that, in his opinion, College residence halls “are simply not equipped to have students cooking meals inside them while maintaining food safety and building life safety.”

Despite this policy, some students, displeased with the lack of diverse food options and accommodations for those with dietary restrictions, still collect ingredients from Foco.

One member of the Class of 2025, who asked to remain anonymous because of DDS’s policy, said that she grew up surrounded by culturally authentic food in a Mexican household and was uncertain about how she would adapt to dining hall food. 

“I did struggle a bit eating … At first, I’d have to kind of just force myself because I knew I had to eat, but nothing really seemed appealing,” she said.

One day, she said, observed other students on her dorm floor cooking in the communal kitchen and was inspired to do the same.

“I started going into Foco and doing what I saw some other people on my floor do, which is to go to the vegetable station at the salad bar and then come [back to my dorm] to stir fry it or use those ingredients to make other foods,” she said. 

This student disagrees with the DDS policy.

“I think since there’s a lot of students, [DDS] is mass-producing so much food that it’s not as healthy as I would like it … I’m also vegan and there aren’t many options besides tofu for me,” she said. “I’d rather spend my time in the kitchen cooking than waiting in the long [Foco] line”

Another member of the Class of 2025, who also wished to remain anonymous given the DDS policy, is concerned about dining options. On multiple occasions, she has been reprimanded by DDS workers for getting extra containers and filling them with fresh ingredients. 

“With two containers, there’s not really enough space for all the food that I want,” she said. “And a couple of times, I’ve tried to put chickpeas in a cup and have gotten in trouble for that … My containers are just full of arugula and broccoli — like, I can’t just live off of that.” 

“Our take-out program (Green2Go) allows for a single meal only to be taken from the dining hall,” Plodzik wrote in an emailed statement. 

For this student, however, cooking is essential to her identity and well-being. 

“When I’m at home, I cook all my family’s meals,” she said. “It’s something that’s really fun for me. Not having the ability to cook … I didn't realize how it would impact my mental health.”

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