Catered university halls really do go supersize on the carbs front at meal times…curly fries, wedges, chips, new potatoes, potato smileys, mash, boiled potatoes, baked potatoes and that’s just what’s on offer for breakfast. It seems that Jamie Oliver’s health crusade against the chip on his TV show ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’ never quite made it to higher education. Indeed, the first term of catered life at university leaves you so bloated by potato-based goods that it is almost enough to make you want to embrace the Atkins diet come the Christmas holidays.
Above: Me after my first term at Uni
But it is not just the oversupply of undercooked potatoes that gets my goat, it’s the meagre meat portions on offer. In fact, maybe the caterers should start bulk buying goat so we would at least receive a good sized helping of meat to accompany our two veg rather than, as is currently the case, having to chow down on microscopic mystery meat and 8 veg (all of which are varieties of potato). Carnivorous Freshers must have been the only group in society during the horsemeat scandal salivating about the prospect of the contents of the infamous Findus Lasagne.
Above: Hungry as a horse for horse
Here are our tips on the ways to survive first year in catered accommodation:
The importance of a sense of humour
A sense of humour is a must when faced with the tragic and frequent mishaps that occur in catered halls. It seems that the food menus pinned up on the walls by the meal queue are written by masters of illusion, as they bear little resemblance to the reality on the plate. So, it really is worth reading the descriptions with a pinch of salt (this will probably be the best part of your meal…) and a wry smile. I can remember the excitement when I read that we would be treated to a minute steak for dinner. As an innocent Fresher, I was expecting a sumptuous beefsteak that had been quickly sautéed on each side. But no, the master of illusion on the catering team literally meant that the steak was miniscule when he had described it as a ‘minute steak’ and with one bite it was gone. Another evening meal which sticks in the mind was when we were treated to a main course of tomato sauce. We were informed that the ‘sandwich short of a picnic’ in charge of food ordering had forgotten to order pasta which left us ‘pasta short of a pasta dish.’ But still the menu writer stood firm and boldly described the dish as penne arrabiata. I was very close to complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority that day.
Get a packed lunch
If your halls offer the possibility of a packed lunch instead of the hot alternative, take it. Even the caterers struggle to make a mess of a cheese sandwich and a bag of crisps. Hot lunchtime meals are worse than the evening meal as it usually constitutes some sort of half-baked rehash of last night’s dinner. So there is a need to be even more skeptical at lunchtime. My halls were particularly keen on the approach of offering Spaghetti Carbonara most lunch times. Generously, spaghetti did form part of this dish but the Carbonara element would generally be the grey innards of the previous night’s pie. This rather liberal approach to Carbonara does not make for enjoyable eating. Soup is arguably your best warm option at lunch where you might get a choice between red flavour and yellow flavour if you’re lucky. Stay clear of sweaty paninis and ‘dog’ burgers at all costs though.
"Can't get enough of that soup"
Set yourself fun challenges
Meal related challenges are a sure fire way of distracting yourself from the less than haute cuisine. Most halls seem to employ a member of staff whose only role is to ensure that all the arbitrary rules on quantities and food combinations are strictly adhered to. It can be great fun trying to evade this Stalinist hardliner’s strict policy on no more than 2 sachets of ketchup being permissible per student by smuggling 20 sachets out of a sheer frustration at the rule. As a result of this ketchup crime against humanity, a friend of mine caught in the act had his meal card confiscated which took the fun to a whole new level as he attempted to get away with a crudely forged meal card for the rest of the term.
"It is not possible to have both fruit and yoghurt in the same meal!”
Also, if the meal is particularly bad, an effective way of leaving constructive criticism can be to spell out your feedback with the remains of the meal:
It is important to have alternative options available for dinner if the kitchen staff have gone particularly experimental and come up with ‘Rogue-an Josh’ or what looks like ‘turd in the hole’. So, it is well worth having the odd frozen ready meal tucked away in the corridor kitchen for emergency situations. At the weekend, it may also be worth ordering a takeaway or going out for a meal as the catering standard seems to drop further. This is because the head ‘chef’ holding the whole operation vaguely together tends to have weekends off. Be sure to check out our offers page to get discounts on eating out which should enable you to escape catered food more frequently. It seems that the only thing worse than catered uni food is the prospect of cooking for yourself and the inevitable rows about washing up that you’ll encounter in second year. This time next year you’ll be begging for that minute steak!