The Importance of menu diversity in Higher Education Catering

Speak to any university or college and they will tell you that a large proportion of their funding comes from international students. Although domestic fees at university level can feel overwhelming, international students face tuition fees of £18,000 and above per year. With the high standards of education provided by UK and Irish universities and the combined opportunity to learn a second language, they remain a popular choice despite the cost. As a result, universities host large numbers of people from all over the world and a diverse range of backgrounds, cultures and religion.

Food forms a central part in many cultures, and it is important for students both international and domestic, to feel welcomed and accepted. The challenge for caterers is not only to create a menu that is as diverse as the student body, but to access the various skill sets required to serve such a wide variety of food. Staff must be well versed in how to handle kosher and halal food, support students celebrating religious festivals and be able to prepare and deliver authentic dishes such as sushi while observing allergen regulations.

Accommodating such a diverse student population must be carefully considered by caterers and extends way beyond what’s on a written menu. Everything from the dishes selected to how food is stored, prepared and presented must be thought through to ensure every student has the access to the nutrition they need. Most higher education campuses have several catering outlets and are increasingly offering additional delivery services and event catering, making menu development as fun and creative as it is complex and challenging. Bearing the following four broad considerations in mind when determining the menu for the new term may help to double check you have all options covered.

Place sustainability front and centre

Reducing your carbon footprint and supporting an overarching sustainable pledge is important not just for the educational organisation, but to the students too. Reducing meat in dishes, providing plenty of recycling points, making sustainable packaging choices, running workshops to teach students how to eat sustainably and engaging with them to develop long-term environmentally friendly habits will all help to meet the expectations of both international and domestic students.

Caterers at the University of Sussex have taken sustainability to new highs as a result of connecting with students and listening to their ideas. By supporting local suppliers, introducing a coffee cup recycling scheme, a Mug for Life incentive within on-site cafés and installing a bio-processor to convert organic matter into fertiliser, they have championed the University’s goals across all outlets on campus.

Understand current food trends

Veganism is booming in the younger generation, so sourcing alternative plant-based proteins is key and can also cater for students with religious dietary requirements or allergies. From Peruvian-inspired dishes to Pan-Asian menus and Middle Eastern flavours, going above and beyond to explore the latest food trends in world cuisine, translating that into your menus across campus outlets will give students variety and encourage them to dine on campus more regularly.

Ensure dishes are authentic

Extend your network of contacts to the families of international students, local religious communities and the National Union of Students to seek advice on how to prepare and cook specific dishes, the meals eaten during religious ceremonies and the type of food they want to eat. Extending Indian food beyond the korma, and Chinese menus beyond sweet and sour chicken to deliver authentic dishes that not only excite students, but give international students a taste of home will go a long way. Try dishes such as Papas a la Huancaina (potato in a spicy cheese sauce) from Peru, Jollof rice for an African dish or Feijoada (black bean and pork stew) from Brazil to add diversity.

Fulfil the spectrum of dietary preferences and requirements from choice to necessity A higher education institution could have upwards of 23,000 students attending courses each week. It is therefore likely that caterers will need to accommodate for a broad range of allergies as well as dietary preferences, from the health conscious to those wanting a little indulgence. Storing ingredients that contain allergens separately will prevent cross contamination, and if you operate a central kitchen that serves multiple outlets, defining preparation space and equipment will also help.

“It can be a daunting task to cater for students with varying dietary requirements whilst also tapping into current food trends, hence why it is so crucial to source free-from foodservice products and ingredients from trusted brands. This provides university caterers with complete reassurance that the products are not only suitable for students with varying requirements, but also taste amazing and can be prepared easily,” recommends Alison Smith, Global Product Developer, Mars Food. “The entire Dolmio Professional® and Ben’s Original Professional® foodservice sauce range not only offer caterers with a ready-to-use range of classic and on-trend sauces, but each jar also clearly details key nutritional and allergen information on the each of each jar.”

On-campus catering has undoubtedly come a long way since its inception. Challenging your team to expand catering services to actively welcome and serve the diverse student population studying at your campus every year not only fosters understanding between staff and students, but encourages community cohesion. Food can play a pivotal role in making people feel at home and welcomed, but also considered and heard as individuals. Helping each student feel more comfortable socialising with each other in an inclusive environment enhances the educational experience as well as the broader commercial opportunities for higher education providers.

Pull outs:

“University caterers can up their game and make the most of a big global food trend by turning the everyday wrap into a nutrition-boosting burrito. Pure Basmati Rice pairs nicely with prawn and chive cocktail; nutty and wholesome Wholegrain Basmati that’s perfect with harissa and hummus. Spicy Peri Peri Basmati which is delicious with chicken and sour cream, or tap into the plant-based demand with a Coconut Basmati Rice and avocado roll!”
– Annette Coggings, Head of Foodservice, Tilda UK

“Caterers can appeal to more health-conscious students by stocking healthier snacking options. Nuts in particular are perfect for those looking for a healthier snack with natural and functional benefits,” recommends Matt Collins, Trading Director, KP Snacks. “KP Snacks’ flagship ‘Better for You’ brand,
popchips, is another must-stock to drive sales in the Healthier Snacking category. Worth £39.1m in retail sales value and growing in value at +27.3%1. popchips offers a more permissible snack without compromising on great taste.”

1 Nielsen Scantrack 01.01.22