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What Is American Food and Cuisine?

campus life
culture shock
By Shorelight Team
Last updated on August 16, 2022

Want to know more about American food culture? This guide for international students covers the USA’s diverse food culture and cuisines, affordable eating options, fast food myth-busting, and how to maintain a healthy diet while you study.

Two women eating burgers, sitting at a table, with one covering her mouth as she laughs.

As an international student, you may be used to eating meals at home, but now that you have arrived to study in the USA, you will most likely eat your meals in the college dining hall where traditional American cuisine is served. So, you may be wondering, what will you eat every day – and just what is American food and cuisine? 

This guide to American dishes will help you feel more comfortable using your college meal plan and choosing foods you will enjoy.

What Is American Food and Cuisine?

What is American food? The term “American cuisine” may bring to mind hamburgers and fries, but in reality, American food culture is as varied as its diverse population, with nearly every ethnicity represented in restaurants, supermarkets, and specialty grocers.

Diversity in American Food

American food culture derives from cuisines from around the world – and continues to evolve. As technology advances and populations change, food culture in America has adapted as well.

With this wide variety of cuisines, American food culture often combines food from different countries, regions, and ethnicities to create entirely new dishes that are unique to the US. Food culture in America uses all the great flavors you find in different parts of the world, including influences and ingredients from the Caribbean, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Thailand, Vietnam, and many more!

Most cultural foods in American food culture are adapted to appeal to local tastes and available regional ingredients, but this varies by location. There are many establishments that have food prepared with authentic ethnic ingredients and techniques, especially in cities. (If you ever feel homesick, eating a meal that reminds you of home can help you feel more comfortable.)

The best part of American cuisine is that, through food, you can always find some reminder of home. What sets American cuisine and the food culture in America apart is its ability to merge flavors, textures, and cooking techniques from different continents to create unique, delicious dishes. 

If you are craving authentic culinary experiences while studying in the US, consider states known for amazing cuisine and cultural diversity. States like California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas are known to be the most diverse food states in the US

No matter where you study, you will find a wide array of ethnic and American cuisine to choose from, both off campus and on the menu in your campus dining hall.

As you become more comfortable in the US, you may find yourself exploring the area around campus or wider region, finding and trying different restaurants as you discover your personal favorites!

Meal Examples

On campus, you can look forward to a wide variety of meal options. To understand the choices available to you, let’s take a look at some dishes that are favorites in the US and are a staple of many diets.

(Keep in mind that this list does not include dining options off campus, which will likely offer diverse dining experiences and fusion foods widely considered part of American food culture.)

Here are some common American dishes you may find in your campus dining hall. We have listed them by the meal when you are most likely to eat them, but you might see many of these foods at any time of day.

Breakfast  

  • Cold cereal – Most dining halls have a cereal bar where you can choose from several grain-based cereals. Usually these are eaten with milk. (Some are high in sugar, so choose wisely!)

  • Oatmeal – Warm oats, sometimes served with fruit, brown sugar, or honey, make a warming meal for winter days.

  • Scrambled eggs and bacon – Dining hall staff will cook chicken eggs in a pan with butter or milk to make them fluffy. They are good to eat with a few strips of bacon.

  • Waffles – Waffles are often served with butter and maple syrup (or maple-flavored syrup). You could also use chocolate chips, jam, or fruit toppings.

  • Pancakes – These flat cakes are cooked in a skillet and served with butter and maple syrup. You can also add fruit or other sweet toppings.

  • Bagels – This round ring of bread is often cut in half and served with butter, peanut butter, or cream cheese. In some cases, they may come with salmon (fresh or smoked), capers, onions, and cucumber. Bagels are usually available in many flavors including onion, cinnamon raisin, and sesame.

  • Toast – For a quick and simple meal, you can use the toaster in your dining hall to make a slice of bread browned and crisp. Then top it with butter, peanut butter, or jam.

Lunch

  • Burgers – This famous American sandwich features a grilled beef patty between a sandwich bun, and is usually served with lettuce, tomato, and onion. You can add ketchup, mustard, or both. You can get a plain hamburger or request melted cheese — like cheddar or American — on top to order a cheeseburger.

  • Sliders – These hamburgers are smaller than standard, typically about one-third of the size of a regular burger, so you can eat one or several depending on how hungry you are.

  • Buffalo wings – Despite the name, these are not made from a buffalo. This popular American dish is chicken wings covered with buffalo sauce, a type of creamy hot sauce that is bright orange in color. This sauce can range from mild to very spicy.

  • Grilled cheese – This sandwich is made by melting provolone, mozzarella, or another kind of cheese between two pieces of bread. It is often served with tomato soup.

  • Macaroni and cheese – Macaroni pasta is covered in several different cheeses and then baked. Some recipes mix in meat or vegetables, too.

Dinner

  • Bacon cheeseburger – Some dining halls improve the classic hamburger on a bun by topping it with not just cheese, but also bacon.

  • Barbecue ribs – These pork or beef ribs are served in a smoky sauce. You can pick them up and eat them with your hands — no need to dirty a fork and knife!

  • Chicken noodle soup – A soup made with chicken broth, pieces of chicken, noodles, and chopped vegetables that Americans often like to eat when they are sick. It also just tastes good, especially on a cold day.

  • Chili – Served in a bowl, chili is often made with ground meat and chili peppers simmered with vegetables, beans, and savory spices. Every region of the country and even individual families may have a favorite way of making chili. It could be more like a stew or soup, depending on where you get it.

  • Clam chowder – A clam-based seafood soup. Depending on which part of the country you are in, you may see it served New England style with a thick white creamy broth, or Manhattan style with a tomato-based broth.

  • Fried chicken – With this meal, you will get breaded pieces of chicken, fried in oil, so the skin gets crispy and salty.

  • Pizza – This might be the most commonly eaten food on American college campuses: a flat round dough topped with tomato sauce, cheese, and your choice of meats and vegetables.

  • Reuben sandwich – This grilled sandwich is made with salt-cured beef, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing, and German sauerkraut, served on rye bread.

  • Tacos – Americans love this Mexican favorite. Tacos are built on a hard or soft corn-based tortilla filled with meat. Popular toppings include tomato, cheese, lettuce, and sour cream, but you may find many other options to add in.

Snacks 

  • Candy – Americans enjoy many varieties of sweet treats, chocolates, and other candies. You can often find small bags of candy at vending machines or near the checkout line in stores.

  • Chips and salsa – Corn tortilla chips are served with chopped peppers, tomatoes, and spices all mixed up into a tasty sauce.

  • Corn dog – Usually served on a stick, a corn dog is a hot dog covered in corn batter and deep fried. You may find them at carnivals or sporting events.

  • Trail mix – A mixture of nuts, berries, small pieces of chocolate, and other portable treats that is usually eaten when you do not have time for a full meal.

Fast Food Culture in America: Myth or Fact?

It’s a fact: Fast food is a popular part of food culture in America and is a regular routine for many Americans. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2018 that 36.6% of adults consumed fast food on any given day! 

With fast food being so prevalent in American food culture, you may find that your new American friends have strong preferences for “the best” establishments. Many Americans have strong brand loyalty for McDonald’s over Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts over Starbucks, or Chipotle over Taco Bell (or vice versa). Many people get passionate about fast food culture in America and it is not uncommon to get into a lighthearted debate on which of these restaurants is the best! 

For international students, convenience and value are usually the two main reasons to purchase food from fast-food chains. At press time, a Big Mac meal from McDonald’s cost only $5.99 for a burger, fries, and a drink. For students on a limited budget, fast-food meals can be very affordable.

Fast food also offers a standard experience, no matter where you go, taking the guesswork out of dining. You can expect that a Domino’s plain cheese pizza in St. Louis, Missouri, for example, will taste nearly identical to a Domino’s plain cheese pizza in Denver, Colorado. Fast food culture in America is as much about familiarity and comfort as convenience and price.

While fast food is certainly popular in the US, it is far from the only food culture in America you will come across. There are many foodie communities all over the US dedicated to supporting unique dining establishments and ethnic cuisine. Many restaurants also offer dining choices for pescatarians, vegetarians, and vegans.

Fast Food vs Fast Casual  

In the past, food culture in America, especially at restaurants, tended to fall into two categories: fast food and sit-down dining. Today, though, there is a third category: fast casual, which covers restaurants that tend to be self service like fast food, but use fresh ingredients with made-to-order options like a finer dining establishment. 

Let’s go over some key details to differentiate fast food and fast casual restaurants.

Fast Casual

In general, fast casual restaurants offer a wider range of service types and more customizable menus. They offer the convenience of fast food, but usually with better quality ingredients and may even have table delivery. Many fast casual restaurants also provide healthy options and alternatives for people with selective diets.

Fast casual restaurants like Panera Bread or Sweetgreen offer a slightly different version of the typical quick-service customer experience by encouraging customers to dine in and enjoy their food. 

With their focus on a higher quality experience, fast casual restaurants typically have higher prices than fast food restaurants. For example, a poke bowl can range from $10-$14, compared to a fast food burger which is often $5 or less. Their service times are also limited to lunch and early dinner, similar to casual dining services.

Fast Food

While fast casual restaurants focus more on ambiance, varied menus, and made-to-order options, fast food restaurants are known for convenience, low prices, and grab-and-go items. 

At fast food restaurants, customers who are in a time crunch can easily get their meals quickly, without having to dine in. These restaurants also stay open late into the night, with some operating 24/7 as well.

As food must be prepared quickly, many restaurants use frozen ingredients and there is a limited amount of customizability, though many establishments can make changes to your order if you have dietary requirements. Meals at fast food restaurants are significantly cheaper, typically $10 or less.

While these two restaurant types have their differences, they do share a few common factors:

  1. They promise quick dining with relatively low costs compared to traditional restaurants.

  2. They use technology to ensure quicker service, such as automated ordering kiosks. 

  3. They offer loyalty programs with incentives for repeat customers.

Both options can be great for international students on a budget. Fast food restaurants are cheaper, but remember that you also need to stay healthy to get through university. Fast casual restaurants may be a better choice if you want to stay healthy and have a good meal at a low cost.

Eating at College

One of the biggest adjustments you make as an international student is figuring out American food culture. The food culture in America may be very different from what you are used to, and in your first few months, you may miss the taste of home. While you can always find familiar comfort food at restaurants in and around your city, it is important to consider the costs involved and how affordable dining out is in contrast to purchasing groceries and cooking for yourself.

It is important to eat well, focusing on nutrition and wellness in your diet, as a healthy body and mind are crucial to your success in class! To help make the process of eating at college easy, many universities offer international students a meal plan. This can be a great option if you want to maintain your health while enjoying a variety of cuisines at an affordable price.

How Will Your Meals Be Covered Under Your College Meal Plan?

If you are an international student who lives on campus, your college may require you to buy a college meal plan. Your meal plan will allow you to eat in the campus dining hall. Some meal plans may also let you purchase food at restaurants on and around campus.

At the dining hall, meals are most commonly served buffet style. You swipe your meal card on the way into the dining hall and then choose from the available food options for that day.

Here is a sample meal plan from Adelphi University: All residential students must choose a dining plan. The Platinum plan gives you 240 meals in the dining hall per semester, and you can eat as much or as little as you want at each meal. The plan also includes 200 credits that can be used at other campus locations outside the dining hall. With this plan, you could eat 15 meals per week on campus. That covers breakfast, lunch, and dinner Monday through Friday.

No matter where you choose to study in the USA, if you want some variety in your diet, you can look for other options on and around campus. Some local restaurants may accept points from your meal plan card, while others will require you to pay in cash or with your own credit card.

Many college students also use dining apps like DoorDash, GrubHub, or UberEats, which let you order food from local restaurants and have it delivered right to your dorm or study area.

How Can You Stay Healthy While Eating American Food?

Both international students and American students tend to eat more and make fewer healthy choices when they eat at college. As a result, many students complain about “the Freshman 15,” or the extra weight many students gain during their first year eating in the dining hall.

You might find that American food is greasier than the food you are used to eating. Processed and sugary snacks are often easier to find than food with fresh ingredients. Americans also tend to serve food in large portions. 

To stay healthy, avoid overeating. Stop when you are full. Drink plenty of water. Finally, choose fresh fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods whenever you can. 

To avoid homesickness, seek out familiar foods. You may find Americanized versions of your favorite foods in your college dining hall. If not, check out restaurants in the area. Americans enjoy foods from all over the world, so you may be able to find a restaurant specializing in cuisine from your home country.

Getting involved in student clubs like the International Student Club or other social groups can also help you discover new foods and find familiar dishes. You might even make some friends at the same time. 

If you cannot find the foods you want, speak to the dining staff at your college to find out if they can fill special requests. If you have dietary restrictions for health or religious reasons, contact your Office of Learning Accommodation or Student Disability office.

Most importantly, when it comes to American cuisine, remember to try new things. Who knows —  you might discover your new favorite food! 

Have questions about American cuisine on campus or your college meal plan? Shorelight Campus Transition Services can help >