The Freshman Guide: Eating on Campus
College means independence, and independence means deciding what you’re going to eat everyday. Your parents won’t be there to plan and make your meals for you; it’s all in your hands now. Now that you’re living on campus, someone will still (generally) be making your food for you, but you will have a much wider range in choice of what to eat. With all of the food choices available to you at Penn State, it’s important to be aware of all your options so you can make the best decisions based on your location, your wallet, and your diet.
Each of the five residential areas on campus has its own food options. Usually, this consists of all-you-care-to-eat dining commons, a la carte options, a coffee bar, and a convenience store. All-you-care-to-eat is the cheapest option to get the most food; with meal points, it’s $2.10 for breakfast (only offered at some locations), $3.85 for lunch, and $5.00 for dinner. You can see what they’ll be serving through Housing and Food Services’s website (if you download the app you can track your meals and find out when they’re serving your favorite foods). If you don’t like what they’re serving or aren’t very hungry to begin with, opt for a la carte. Some residential areas have better a la carte options than others, where you can get food from sandwiches to soup to sushi.
For me, the best dining commons are at Pollock, and the best a la carte options are at South. Pollock has a wider range of food options with lots of space to move around and plenty of seating options. South Food District has a much smaller all-you-care-to-eat commons, but they have more a la carte options. Both locations are located near central campus, so they are also a convenient option during the day between classes. If you are one of the many freshmen that live in East, you’ll be close to the newly renovated Findlay Commons and its plethora of food choices, including kosher options to be introduced this fall. West and North are smaller, but they still serve much of the same food that is served at other commons. West Food District in particular is known for its cookies, and North Food District features halal options four days a week.
If you’re too far away from a residential dining location, or just want something different to eat, plenty other options exist throughout campus.
The HUB has numerous food options on the ground floor from national franchises such as Starbucks (one centrally located and one in the bookstore), Burger King, and Panda Express. I recommend grabbing a poke bowl from Hibachi-San and cookies from the food court area. However, keep in mind that these options are a lot pricier and do not afford you the same discounts you would have with residential dining. Also, depending on what time you get there, the lines can be particularly long.
More food options are sprinkled throughout the rest of campus. You can grab Au Bon Pain in Kern, IST, Visual Arts, or Katz; Blue Chip Bistro in the Business Building; and more. Several other dining options will give you a 10% discount on prepared items since they are not nationally branded. If you’re studying at the library, Mackinnon’s Cafe in the basement of West Pattee has lots of options and is kept open late for finals. Cafe Laura is a student-run cafe in Mateer. And, of course, the Berkey Creamery has many options to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Meal Points vs. Lioncash
Meal points are what you purchase through your meal plan. Part of your meal plan goes toward the base cost of the food preparation, and the rest you can use to buy food. Because you’re paying for the base cost, you’ll get a considerable discount on your food — namely 65% off food at all-you-care-to-eat and a la carte facilities, as well as a 10% discount at some other dining locations on campus. You have three different meal plan levels to choose from.
You can use Lioncash to pay for food, too, but you’ll only get a 10% discount on food at residential and retail dining. However, Lioncash comes in handy if you’re running low on meal points. Towards the end of the semester, if you run out of meal points, you’ll automatically be charged with your Lioncash for the price of your food with meal points. You can add more Lioncash to your account through the Penn State ID Card website.
Some Final Tips
If you’re buying food at the dining commons, it’s more optimal (and the default) to use meal points; otherwise your meals would be very expensive. If you can, try to save your meal points for places that will afford you discounts, and use Lioncash or some other form of payment if you’re at the HUB. Of course, it isn’t always an option to do that if you’re low on cash, which is why your meal plan is there in the first place. Do what you can with what you have to make your meal points stretch throughout the semester.
If you’re shopping at a location like Louie’s or West Wing, be aware of the price difference between made-to-order food/food prepared by Penn State and nationally branded food items (Ben & Jerry’s, Kleenex, etc). You will get the 65% discount on the former but pay full price for the latter. If you can, go somewhere like Target or McLanahan’s for your ice cream and tissues so you don’t have to pay extra on campus.
You’re generally going to have the longest wait for food when you try to get it between classes. After you’ve been at Penn State a bit you’ll get adjusted to the schedule so you can best figure out when to get food. For instance, if you want lunch on Monday, Wednesdays, or Fridays, know that the dining commons generally open at 11 AM and classes generally let out at 11 AM, 12:05 PM, and 1:25 PM. If it’s unavoidable to go at one of these times and you’re in a hurry, grab something premade like a sandwich or salad to move through faster.
You’ll learn many more tips and tricks while you’re at Penn State, but this introduction will help you be prepared to make the best food choices when you arrive at Penn State in August.