The days of meatloaf and mashed potatoes swimming in brown gravy are slowly coming to an end. Dining at college campuses across the country has geared up in recent years and now offers more healthy, ethnic, and vegetarian choices.

“In the 1980s, there was a whole shift toward health,” says Richard Berlin, MIT’s director of the Office of Campus Dining. “Now exercise and good eating habits are much more part of our culture.”

Campus food is now lower in fat and lower in calories. The vegetables are steamed, and chefs broil and bake fresh fish at every meal every day. Healthier options include: garden salad and Greek salad, fruit bowls, yogurt, and bottled water. Traditional sandwiches like grilled cheese and BLTs are slowly being replaced with tofu wraps, vegetarian roll-ups, and roasted vegetables in pita bread. And all the soups are made from scratch, including turkey vegetable, lentil, and vegetarian chili.

“MIT students are smart, and smart people usually make smart choices,” Berlin says. Some say healthier choices can help you lose weight, lower blood pressure, and can cut the risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, and some forms of cancer.

Necessary Education

Being exposed to a variety of foods is a necessary part of an education, Berlin says.

Grad student Laura Dilley, a native of Independence, Missouri, says she never ate ethnic food until she came to MIT. “I grew up with a traditional diet. The only ethnic food I ever tried was Chinese food,” she says, adding that she now has sampled Indian, Mexican, Ethiopian, Japanese, and Korean cuisine.

Beth Emery, general manager of Aramark, an international, Philadelphia-based company that runs the food programs at MIT and at 400 colleges across the United States, says: “We try to encompass food from many countries. The thinking is it’s going to appeal to the ethnic mix of the community. College food now spans the globe. We offer food from Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America.”

“Coming to Boston was a whole education in itself,” Dilley says. “The food totally reflects the ethnicity of the people.”

Years back, students never ate hummus or couscous, and vegetarians were considered oddballs, who wouldn’t eat regular food. Now, to cater to vegetarians, MIT recently added a baked potato bar with toppings of steamed broccoli, fresh tomatoes, cheese or sour cream. MIT offers vegetarian choices at every meal. And many of the dishes are made to order.

MIT recently added campus chefs stir-frying vegetables right in front of you. “You actually see the ingredients so you know that they’re fresh,” Emery says.

Years ago, she adds, some students referred to college food as “mystery meat.” “But since the food is now out in the open, the mystery is gone. And if you have a food allergy, or you just don’t like garlic, you can just tell the chef to customize it for you.”

Dilley, president of the MIT Vegetarian Group, says: “The MIT food service is great, not just for vegetarians but for health-conscious students and faculty as well. The food offers plenty of low-fat choices, with less red meat and lower cholesterol.

“Believe it or not,” she says, “I’ve noticed a real turnaround in the receptiveness of people to vegetarianism since I’ve been at MIT. It used to be the first question people would ask was, “What does a vegetarian eat? Now, more often you hear, “You’re a vegetarian? So am I.”

Food, a factor

For some students, food is a factor in choosing a school. Both Emery and Dilley have received dozens of queries from prospective students asking if the MIT food service is a healthy one. And last year, 220 parents of incoming freshmen asked Emery for a tour of the kitchen.

At MIT there are 250 full and part-time employees who have access to a library of 100,000 recipes.The food service offers thousands of choices a day at 14 locations and serves 10,000 meals every day. Last year, MIT’s food service totalled $20 million in sales.

“Bagels are the number one thing people are looking for these days,” Emery says, adding that they are the most popular breakfast food at MIT. The institute sells 52 dozen a day. And the most popular drink on campus is Snapple iced tea with Coke and Pepsi not far behind.

Emery says still among the most popular foods on campus are hamburgers, grilled chicken, pizza, pasta, and french fries. People may be losing a taste for junk food, Berlin adds, but no matter how health-conscious a population becomes, there still is a call for comfort food. “You’re always going to have people who want french fries and cheeseburgers. They just taste good,” he says.

Berlin, who is new to MIT, says one of his goals for the future is to create a greater sense of community in the dining halls on campus. “Eating a meal is one of the simplest and most satisfying ways to get people together. Since you have to eat, you might as well eat with friends and bond with them.”

His plan, he says, is to create a varied menu, added convenience, and pleasing facilities that will draw people out to be together. “Eating can be interesting and a lot of fun,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be just fuel.”