Creative caf hacks to spice up your mealtimes

Photo courtesy of Michaela Esau

In my time at William Jewell College, I have noticed a common sentiment amongst many of the students: many people think the cafeteria food is bad. 

This is a sentiment that I simply do not agree with. The food in the caf is not bad. Mashed potatoes, pasta, roasted vegetables, curry, breadsticks, fruit – these are just a few of the many foods that our cafeteria prepares well and frequently features. I, for one, have no problem with these foods. 

The problem with college cafeterias is monotony. Students get tired of eating the same things over and over again. Another limitation of the caf is that students lose the option to cook for themselves. I personally hate doing the dishes after cooking but will agree that at times I miss the creativity that comes with cooking and the satisfaction of eating something that you personally made. 

So how do you avoid monotony and create your own meals without wasting those caf swipes that you pay for each semester? The key is to get creative with the options in the cafeteria. I have compiled a list of my favorite cafeteria hacks to inspire you to spice up your college dining experience.

1. Paninis

The two panini makers that have made an appearance in the caf have been a real game changer for me. For a basic grilled cheese, simply butter two slices of bread, place two of your preferred cheese slices on the non-buttered side and pop that cold sandwich into the panini maker. In about two minutes you have a golden, gooey grilled cheese – complete with those picture-perfect grill marks. Here are some other panini options:

Pizza Panini (for days pasta bar is available): bread + cheese + halved meatballs or italian sausage + thin layer of marinara + extra marinara for dipping

PB&B Panini: bread + peanut butter + banana slices

Turkey Apple Panini: sliced apple + provolone + cheddar + turkey 

2. Fancy Toast

I love to toast a piece of multigrain bread and add peanut butter, sliced banana and cinnamon granola. For a dessert option, I like to toast white bread or an english muffin and add cream cheese, cinnamon sugar and honey. 

3. Parfait Bowl

We’ve all seen those picture-perfect smoothie bowls on Instagram that you assume a Hawaiian surfer eats for every meal. I like to imitate those fancy smoothie bowls by adding yogurt and any fruits that look appealing off of the salad bar to a salad bowl. Then I cut up a banana and add some peanut butter. I finish the bowl off with a sprinkle of granola. 

4. Super Salad

Nobody wants to eat that sad pile of blandly-dressed iceberg that some people call a salad. Step up your salad game by adding some of the dips and noodle dishes found in the Fresh Fusion annex, sliced chicken tenders and plain cavatappi noodles. Sliced apple or grapes can add crunch and sweetness. 

5. Sunrise Lemonade

Add a shot of strawberry or cherry syrup to lemonade for a refreshment that’s almost too pretty to drink. You can even make this ombré treat sparkling with a splash of Sprite. 

6. Warm Brownie Sundae

Take the caf desserts to the next level by microwaving your brownies or cookies and adding vanilla soft serve. For the peanut butter lovers out there, add peanut butter to the bowl before microwaving. 

7. Chick-Fil-A Frosted Lemonade

This simple dessert is always a win in my book. Simply fill half of a cup with soft serve vanilla ice cream, add lemonade and stir vigorously. Taste test and add more ice cream or lemonade until you reach your desired consistency.

8. Peanut Sauce

The caf occasionally offers spicy sauces with their Thai or Chinese cuisine. This sauce is frequently too hot for me, so I like to add peanut butter to sweeten the flavor. It’s delicious on top of noodles or rice. 

9. Balsamic Vinaigrette 

The most underrated of salad dressings, balsamic vinaigrette can dress many non-lettuce foods.

I like to trick myself into believing I am dining at a fancy Italian restaurant by pouring balsamic vinaigrette, salt and pepper onto a plate and dipping my breadsticks or rolls into the mixture. 

You can also add balsamic vinaigrette to plain cavatappi to make your own pasta salad or enjoy a little bit on your pizza to sophisticate the flavor experience. 

10. Salad Bar Taco Toppings

Mexican food is a frequent option in the caf. Whether it’s tostadas, nachos or tacos, I can’t enjoy my mexican food without some black beans. The salad bar frequently has this legume I can’t live without, along with shredded cheddar cheese and lettuce that make great additions to any bland enchilada. 

When dining in any cafeteria, it’s easy to get sick of your limited options as your culinary creativity is stifled by pre-prepped food. However, if you make use of all of your options, you can get rid of that college caf monotony. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. 

Or, in our case, when life gives you a panini press and a salad bar, make dinner fun.

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