Iowa’s Best Colleges, According To Their Food Options

Iowa’s Best Colleges, According To Their Food Options

Photo courtesy of Clarke University

By Katie Giorgio

July 4, 2024

School has started back up for the spring semester and, all across the state of Iowa, students are returning to their daily routines—which often involve their favorite dining halls.

Everyone jokes about the freshman 15, but it can be especially hard to avoid putting on a few pounds when your college or university is known for great on-campus dining options. 

Whether it’s an eclectic buffet with a variety of cuisines or a convenient and tasty grab-and-go cafe, institutions of higher education across Iowa are today more focused on giving students access to healthy, quality foods to serve a variety of dietary needs and preferences. Check out this list of some of Iowa’s colleges and universities offering up top-notch dining on campus (in no particular order).

University of Northern Iowa

UNI has actually been rated as having the best food for any college in Iowa since 2016—quite impressive for a school that serves more than 6,000 meals per day. UNI sources what they can from local producers for their food service program. There are two main dining centers along with several coffee shops (including Starbucks) and convenience stores scattered around campus. The food court in the students union offers fresh sushi, Godfather’s Pizza, TexMex creations, sandwiches, salads, wraps, and other grab-and-go items. Colossal cookies are served a few times a year and are very popular with students when they need a study break. 

Iowa State University

Iowa’s best colleges, according to their food options

Photo courtesy of Iowa State University

Fun fact: One of the women who came up with the recipe for Rice Krispie treats is an Iowa State alum. Today, the university carries on the tradition of serving those sticky, tasty treats in their dining halls and at university events. They also are committed to serving up other fresh-baked bakery items made right on campus daily. Smoothies at Whirlybirds in the student fitness center are popular as well. Themed meals in the dining centers throughout the year offer some variety for students. Being one of the largest universities in the state with more than 25,000 undergraduate students, having several dining hall options as well as multiple grab-and-go cafes and convenience stores make dining services work at ISU. 

University of Iowa

Iowa’s best colleges, according to their food options

Photo courtesy of University of Iowa

As one of the largest universities in the state, it’s no surprise there are plenty of on-campus dining options for students to choose from at the University of Iowa. Hawkeyes can grab a meal in one of six dining halls—called marketplaces—to choose from on campus. There’s also the Street Hawk food truck, which rotates locations around campus during the week serving up BBQ bacon burgers, fried chicken sandwiches, tacos, classic Iowa tenderloins, homemade falafel sandwiches, and freshly made potato chips. If students are in the mood for a sweet treat they can stop by Old Gold Creamery in the Iowa Memorial Union, where they can pick up a scoop of locally beloved Heyn’s Premium Ice Cream. The dining halls host themed dinners and pop-up events throughout the year to keep things interesting for students. The University of Iowa’s dining services team includes nine full-time chefs, each assigned to one of the campus marketplaces, with more than 50 years culinary experience between them. 

Clarke University

This smaller university in Dubuque boasts a dining services experience on par with larger schools. At Clarke University, students can enjoy a home-cooked meal for brunch, lunch, or dinner in the campus dining hall each day. Some campus favorites include burgers, chicken Parmesan, and their top-notch ice cream bar. Beside the main dining hall, Clarke is also home to Cafe 1843—part convenience store, part grill, part salad bar. The eatery offers made-to-order subs, wraps, pizza, pasta, and burgers. Students also recommend the mac-and-cheese bites and the ever-popular cheese curds. Would you expect anything less from a Midwest college dining experience? The menus change seasonally to keep student appetites pleased. A fun feature at Clarke invites students suffering from homesickness to submit favorite recipes from home through the dining services website. And of course, any good college needs a popular coffee shop. At Clarke, it’s called Brew & Gold Coffee Corner featuring hot and iced coffee drinks, Lotus energy drinks, and other specialty beverages. 

Northwestern College

Iowa’s best colleges, according to their food options

Photo courtesy of Northwestern College in Iowa

Located in Orange City, Northwestern College (not to be confused with the university located in Illinois) serves student meals from a couple on-campus options. There’s the traditional cafeteria where students can enjoy all they care to eat in the buffet-style setting. Their dining team prioritizes offering homestyle favorites along some international dishes to help students expand their palates. There’s also the Hub, as it’s known to students, which offers both grab-and-go options as well as a dine-in experience if students are hungry for items from the grill, handcrafted pizzas, custom-built sandwiches, and health-conscious salads. The campus coffee shop, Common Grounds, is a popular spot for hot and iced caffeinated beverages. 

Dordt University

Iowa’s best colleges, according to their food options

Photo courtesy of Dordt Dining Services via Facebook

Dordt University is located in Sioux Center, with a dining services department whose goal is to offer food as exciting to students’ palates as it is good for your body. The Commons dining hall serves all students—adventurous and selective eaters alike. A big hit with students each year is the Star Wars-themed meal on May 4, (“May the 4th be with you”), during which students can fill their bellies with Obi-Wan Kannolis, Light Sabers (chocolate-dipped pretzels), Vader Aid, Yoda Soda, and other fun menu items. They also have the Defender Grille for grab-and-go items—from made-to-order sandwiches to parfaits and other sweet and salty snacks. Dordt also keeps sustainability in mind, offering an Eco To-Go container program that provides students with a reusable container to fill with to-go items at campus dining establishments instead of single-use containers. They also prioritize using compostable packaging when possible. And they partner with Cornucopia Farms, located near campus, to bring locally grown products to the student dining menu. 

Loras College

High on a hilltop in Dubuque is Loras College. On-campus dining here may not feature as many choices as a larger university, but students get their fill regardless. There’s an all-you-can-eat dining hall that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. Serving as a social hub on campus, it features international entrees, a grill, a deli, a salad bar, and more to cater to the 1,500 students enrolled at Loras. There is also an Einstein Bros. Bagels shop on campus, a popular breakfast and lunch stop for students. There’s also a campus pub called The Pub with a sports bar atmosphere. There are plenty of TVs airing various sporting events, perfect for cheering on your favorite team. They serve the widely popular Dewey burger along with boneless wings, chicken wraps, and more pub fare—including alcohol for students who are old enough. And, of course, like so many other colleges across the state, Loras has a grab-and-go market where students can grab their favorite Starbucks beverage. 

Cornell College

Iowa’s best colleges, according to their food options

Photo courtesy of Cornell College

Cornell College in Mount Vernon has turned into a national model for on-campus dining options. Run by Bon Appetit, the college offers options for students looking to enjoy a sit-down meal or something to eat on the go. The program focuses on fresh, nutritious ingredients with a made-from-scratch approach. They purchase as much of their food for local producers as possible. They also serve all-day breakfast in the Zamora Cafe where students can build their own breakfast sandwich or breakfast wrap. All the popular coffee house beverages are served here as well. Cornell is an eclectic campus, so their food service reflects the diversity of their student population. Foods from different cultures are regularly featured and celebrated. Students also enjoy the wood-fired pizza served in the Hilltop Cafe. Dining services hosts events throughout the year and does a nice job of helping students learn about creating a healthy relationship with food—including learning the importance of a well-balanced breakfast to start the day—through presentations and social media engagement. 

University of Dubuque

The University of Dubuque is another small school that offers a nice variety of dining options for students. There are three on-campus locations to grab food, including the dining hall and two grab-and-go spots. Menus are created to please all palates, including vegans, vegetarians, and meat lovers. Among all colleges and universities listed, they have perhaps the most comprehensive search options on their website for students to review daily and weekly menu offerings on campus for their own dietary preferences. While the dining hall is always busy, the Cybercafe is a particularly lovely spot on campus to grab something to eat. It is a spacious, light-filled dining spot enjoyed during the day, or the perfect late-night spot to stop by after fine arts performances on campus. There is an outdoor patio here as well that students flock to during warmer weather months.

Wartburg College

Though a small school of about 1,500 students, Wartburg draws learners from 38 states and 55 countries, so the dining services department prioritizes international flavors. One of the most innovative and inclusive ways they have found to do this is by offering an international flavor station in the main campus dining hall with an impressive variety of international sauces and seasonings. Students can sample sauces like zesty chimichurri from Argentina, savory ssamjang from South Korea, or spicy Middle Eastern shatta. The station allows students learning far from home to feel more comfortable and encourages others to sample new flavors. Their campus fast-food stop features a soup of the day and full salad bar for students looking to grab a quick meal. There’s also a German-inspired coffee shop that serves Starbucks drinks. Inside the fitness center there’s a small bakery that offers grab-and-go lunch options as well. Homemade sweet bread, giant cookies and cinnamon rolls are popular with Wartburg students. 

  • Katie Giorgio

    Katie Mills Giorgio is a freelance writer, editor, and nonprofit professional living and working in her hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She’s written for a wide variety of publications, including WashingtonPost.com, BHG.com, and U.S. News & World Report. 100 Things to Do in Cedar Rapids Before You Die, her first book came out in October 2022. Learn more at katiemillsgiorgio.com or follow her on Instagram at @ktmgiorgio.

CATEGORIES: HIGHER EDUCATION
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