The dining commons always receive a vast mix of reviews. On one hand, I know of people who are really happy with the dining commons food and eat there day-to-day with sated appetites. On the other hand, I know of people who cannot stand the food there at all, mostly from people with specific food restrictions. My RA moved out and had to quit being an RA solely because there were not enough kosher options in the dining commons. Although I am content with dining commons food, I was curious to see how limiting the options are for students who choose to follow alternative diets, whether for health reasons or religious customs.
My roommate, Ria, and I decided to go on a vegan diet for a week as an experiment. Besides our diet, the other aspects of our lifestyle stayed the same. What worried both of us about this challenge was whether we would reach our daily calorie intake, especially since we work out five days a week for an hour and a half every morning. Our regular diet prior to this experiment cut out sugary desserts and anything else we regarded as unhealthy, so our options were even more limited. As part of the diet and workout health plan that I follow, I have to eat 2,000 calories and 100 grams of protein per day. With only 10 meal swipes, I typically eat two meals on heavy workout days and one meal on light workout days. However, I still went in with an optimistic mindset and had complete faith in the dining commons. My roommate, who followed a vegetarian diet prior to the experiment, was more cynical and thought that being vegan would be extremely difficult because she already had trouble eating a full meal in the dining commons as a vegetarian.
With that in mind, we attempted to do the following for a week:
- Cut out meat completely from our diet.
- No dairy consumption.
- Consume food only from the dining commons, with the exception of the vegan protein shake I drank every morning before my workout.
I had to shield my eyes as I was walking past the fettucine alfredo, french toast and chicken noodle soup. I went around once in the dining commons, scoping out the vegan dishes that were available to me. Out of all the chef-prepared dishes, only three were vegan; one of which was simply another pasta. The other two dishes were potato salad and shoestring fries. Technically, there were only two options because our health regimen restricted us from eating fries. The other vegan options came from the salad bar and from the group of foods that were served as meal bases such as baked potato and rice. I ended up eating the two vegan options and made myself a peanut butter jelly sandwich and ate a sad, plain ol’ baked potato and a spinach salad with no dressing. In order to meet my calorie intake, I had to eat multiple servings of the same thing, which would become a common occurrence throughout the week.
On our second day, we decided to go to DLG. Compared to Portola, the dining commons that we ate at the day before, there were a lot more vegan options (and a lot more options in general). My tummy was satisfied as it was filled up with three sweet potatoes — an essential food in the fitness world — some vegetable stir-fry, a Mediterranean couscous salad, a spinach salad and PB&J. Not only were there a lot of options, but the quality of each dish was also top-notch. The sweet potatoes were ripe and had a sheen of natural caramelization on top, and the Mediterranean salad was light and refreshing, but still flavorful.
Portola again. Because I had a heavy workout day today, I had both lunch and dinner instead of just one or the other. Although there was a variety of vegan dishes for both lunch and dinner, I noticed that most of the dishes served just involved some steamed vegetables with different seasoning. There was braised bok choy, carrots with thyme and daikon rolls. It is true that vegetables do make up the majority of the vegan diet, but I think the vegan options available reveal the common misconception that followers of a vegan diet just eat salad and other plants. Many of the actual prepared dishes could have easily been made into vegan versions such as the fettucini alfredo, which could have substituted the heavy cream for soy milk or soy cream cheese. I began to understand the frustration for a lot of vegans who have to clear up what a strict vegan diet actually is.
On Thursdays, Ria and I have yoga class in the evening, so we ate dinner at Ortega beforehand. This was probably the worst day out of the entire week. On the online menu, we read that there were vegan options for pasta. However, it turned out that only the noodles themselves were vegan. Both of the separate sauces contained meat or milk ingredients. Disappointed, Ria and I ended up trying to season the noodles by adding some olive oil, salt and pepper, which we later found out was the most unappetizing combination. While walking around the dining commons and surveying our vegan options, we discovered that NONE of the prepared dishes were vegan. Even the relatively unhealthy options and the dessert that we decided to eat as a last resort were not vegan either. All that was vegan was, again, the salad bar, the PB&J station and some whole wheat tortillas. The whole wheat wrap that I made with some cilantro, tomatoes, brown rice, lime and a LOT of Cholula hot sauce tasted pretty good, but it was not enough to fill me up. I made myself a PB&J and a salad to suppress my hunger. Although I was full, by then I was getting pretty sick of the same PB&J and spinach salad that I ate every meal. I was only on day four. I could not imagine what it would be like to maintain a diet with dietary restrictions for longer terms.
By then, I was really sick of eating PB&J and spinach salad, so I decided not to eat it . Instead I ate three baked potatoes and a bowl of hearty vegetable soup, and out of all the days, this was when I felt completely done with this experiment. Because I was discouraged from the meal I had the night before, paired with the subpar dining menu today, I only ate enough to where I was not full but also not hungry anymore. It was also the first day where I ate below my 2,000 calorie count. I only ate 1,400 calories and drank an additional vegan protein shake and some vegan protein bars to make up for the missing calories.
Saturday! Which means brunch! Personally, I think brunch is the best meal of the week. There were a lot of options, and I was full from all the fruit that I ate, which comprised of honeydew, cantaloupe, watermelon and grapefruit. I also ate heaps of diced russet potatoes, a warm flour tortilla and oatmeal with berries and brown sugar. I did not really keep track of the stuff I ate because I was so hungry. Brunch was excellent.
This was the last day. Although I was definitely healthier these past seven days, I was glad that this was the last day before I reverted back to my old diet. This was definitely harder than I originally expected, but I was glad that I followed through with it, even though there were times when I was tempted to eat a parfait or some tri-tip steak. Of course, I ate a salad and a PB&J (which I will not be eating anymore for a long time after this), a vegetable sushi roll and a New York Style Crumb Cake, which was a literal bittersweet way to celebrate the ending of my week-long journey.
All in all, this experience was eye-opening. It was hard having to maintain such a strict diet given the limited options. I do believe that one of the reasons why I felt that the options were limiting was because I needed to eat a lot of food per day due to my health regimen. People who are trying to follow the same diet but have smaller appetites or do not need to eat that much food may believe that the options are enough. Some college students already stress out about eating three meals a day; imagine them having to stress out about what they can and cannot eat even with all the prepared food. I think it is worth trying to diversify the options for different diets to ensure that each student gets the nourishment he or she needs. A solution would be to make some of the smaller dining commons cater towards people with special dietary needs, while the bigger dining commons such as DLG or Portola serve broader diets.