Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Cafeteria Tips / Tricks

Cafeteria. Dining Hall. Mess Hall. School lunch.

All of these probably induce specific words in people's minds. In mine, it's food, and awkward situations. A lot of people when challenged with a huge and bustling room full of people sitting together and seemingly all getting along, freeze up. They feel like they're the outcast that has no idea what is going on.  Well, have no fear! I will give some tips on what to do in a cafeteria (like Viking Union) that will make it less awkward for some. Or maybe just helpful tips to people in general; not sure yet.

I think for the "less-awkward" thing, the main point is: Being comfortable (and thus not awkward) is all about familiarity. From my experience, when you know what you're doing, you are less likely to think other people are judging you--it's all in your head.

At WWU, there are three main dining halls around campus, the most popular being Viking Union. It is open five times a day, for four days: Breakfast, Lunch, Light Lunch, Dinner, and Late Night Dinner. I won't jump into times/$$ and weekend schedules. You can see that here.

Standing in Line
Around noon and for dinner is when it is busiest and you are more likely to have to stand in line for a little while. If you are walking down the line and see a group of people you know pretty well, jump in line with them. Everyone does it anyway, and its better than sitting in line with no one else to talk to. If you see someone you have one class with and you talk awkwardly to them once a week, probably not the best choice for line-partner. Or you can plan to go with a group of people in the first place.

Usually outside of the doors are people sitting or standing and asking students if they have any guest meals. These people are usually upper classmen who no longer have a meals pass, someone who is down on their cash/luck, or just want a freebie. If you have extra guest meals, its to your discretion if you want to give them to people--when you say you don't have any, there's no way for them to know, anyway. At the end each quarter, there is a program that encourages students to "guest in" homeless/needy people of the area if they have any extra guest passes by then--since they don't roll over each quarter, you might as well do something good with them.

Seating Protocol
Once you're inside, you get your ID card swiped (or pay in cash), and then you're presented with a conundrum: Go pick out a seat and have to wait for food, or get food and get stuck with (possibly) bad seating. You basically have to gauge what to do by what everyone else is doing and how many tables are "open." If you're with a group, one or two people could go save a table in a few ways:
  • Simply sitting down and waiting
  • Putting a jacket/coat on the back of a chair and going for food
  • Putting out napkins for the other "saved" seats
Most people try to find their own table for their group since they don't want to intrude on someone else's group just as much as you don't. So unless it is a packed room (or there's rude people), a saved table should stay saved. If you're alone and the place is crowded, you can look for people you know in the sea of faces. It's good if you have friends that wear the same jacket or hat all the time, or have their own unique style. 

[See, a lot less sweaty when you see something familiar]

If all else fails, you have to try and find a table with a few empty chairs that wouldn't mind an extra person. Sorry, but sometimes you gotta face feeling awkward. Who knows, you might meet some new friends this way.

Getting Food
The on campus dining halls are buffet-style, so you basically have to serve yourself after waiting in another line. If you don't know what you want, don't stand in anyone's way or in any line; simple as that. Some people get their drinks first, then utensils, and food, or different combos. Sometimes they result in spills an/or a lot of trips, so I have my own way: I usually go from food, to utensils, to drinks because it's what works for me. Also, I don't put utensils on the plate, because they can slide and fall off; I instead hold them beneath the plate so I have a free hand for my drink.

[My carrying technique, as seen from below]

Also, most of the beverage machines can be operated single-handedly--if you know what to do. The one that seems to get newer/inexperienced people is the milk machines. So if you wanna look like a pro, here's how you do it. Grip the cup near the top, arching the back of your hand/wrist, and using that to push the lever up. This allows you to hold onto your plate and keeps things flowing.

[+5 Dining Hall points for being a badass and not slowing people down]

More Tips

Find what works (and what doesn't)
Mix and match foods, try new styles and tastes. That's one of the cool things about the cafeteria is there is a variety you can choose from, and most days you can find something you want to eat--even if it is ice cream or pizza. One thing I've learned from eating in the cafeteria is stay away from the chicken. And this isn't just at WWU, I know people at other schools in WA (and other states) that agree that whoever cooks back there can't make chicken all that well. Occasionally I'll have it just to see if it's any better; but it usually isn't. A few common complaints include it being soggy, too bone-y, and too much fat.

Think outside of the box to come up with simple solutions and/or new recipes for things.
One of my favorites [that I can't take credit for] is making a root beer float. Instead of grabbing a bowl at the ice cream bar, grab a drinking cup and fill with vanilla ice cream. Go to the soda machine and add root beer. Voila!

I've seen people make salads at the salad bar and bring back their bowls to the table, only to have a lot of it spill out while trying to mix it all together. An ingenious and simple fix is to grab two bowls while up at the line, and at the table clamp one over the other, hold firmly and shake. It's one extra dish, and little chance of being messy, if done correctly.

[Of course, shaking can be any direction]

If you have some of your own tips and tricks for cafeteria eating, go ahead and comment below!

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