Effect of Time Spent in All-You-Care-to-Eat University Dining Hall on Weekday Lunch Nutrition Quality



Olson, Audrey

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Background: College students’ eating patterns have known nutritional shortfalls, particularly in consumption levels of fruit and vegetables, lean protein, low or nonfat dairy, and whole grains. In addition, excess calories and saturated fat are a concern, in light of their food environment and socioeconomic context. Research had indicated a possibility of meal-related timeframes impacting dietary choice. Students’ lunchtime dining hall dietary choices may therefore be influenced by duration of lunchtime meals. Objectives: To examine weekday lunchtime dietary choices in all-you-care-to-eat university dining halls, assess meal nutritional quality (MNQ), and explore differences in MNQ among students who report staying in the dining hall on this occasion for different durations of time. Design: As part of the Mason Undergraduate for Campus Health (MUNCH) research study, surveys were used to collect information about undergraduate university dining hall food selections, basic demographic data, attitudes about diet, and the dining hall experience. To assess MNQ, food selection data was subjected to a 7 item rubric including both nutrient (calorie, saturated fat, sodium) and food group (whole grain, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and fruit/vegetable) standards, based on the Partnership for a Healthier America’s Healthier Campus Initiative definition of a Wellness Meal and a custom-generated nutrient and food group database. Possible scores ranged as integers from 0-7, where a score of 7 indicated a student’s meal having the best MNQ. Rubric outcome scores were used to then examine food intake patterns for students overall, and descriptive statistics were used to contextualize results. Linear and logistic regression analyses were then used to determine if time spent in the dining hall on this single eating occasion (<15 minutes, 15-60 minutes, or >60 minutes) was associated with different food patterns, energy intake, and overall rubric fulfillment. Results: The nutritional quality of students’ food selections, as measured by overall MNQ rubric fulfillment, showed several deficits in terms of food group, calorie, saturated fat, and sodium consumption (n=468). Out of a possible 7 points, no students’ meals scored 6 or 7 points, and only 6 student meals received a score of 5. Meanwhile, 46 student meals were scored as a rubric value of zero. Of those with scores from 1-5, student meals were most successful in achieving the rubric component requiring less than 10% of calories from saturated fat, which was achieved by 60% of students. Approximately one out of three students meeting criteria for lean protein, fruit and vegetable, calorie, and sodium intake. Fulfillment of low/nonfat dairy and whole grain rubric criteria was low, at 4% and 8%, respectively. Additionally, further breakdown of food choices reflected a possible lack of selection diversity across student choices made for foods containing whole grains or low or nonfat dairy. Linear and logistic regression analysis detected no major differences in MNQ of students spending different lengths of time at the dining hall on this single eating occasion, with one exception; students who stayed in the dining hall for less than 15 minutes had lower odds of meeting the lean protein rubric criteria than groups with longer time durations. Discussion: The comparatively high level of rubric component fulfillment of saturated fat may be related to overall dining hall offerings being lower in saturated fat. Results from this study highlight areas for improvement in the nutritional quality of undergraduate students’ lunch food choices in an all-you-care-to-eat university dining hall, regardless of the length of time they spend during that eating occasion.



Undergraduate, Dietary assessment, Dining hall, Nutrition assessment rubric, Dietary index, Dietary rubric