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What Is American Food and Cuisine?

When you have your first meals as an international student, you may find big portions with unfamiliar foods. This guide answers all your questions about American cuisine, from the types of foods you will find in the campus dining hall to how college meal plans work.

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?

Here are some common American dishes you might 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.

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 are some sample meal plans from two different universities:

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.

Mercer University: Students who live on campus are assigned a meal membership based on their credit hours for the semester. The unlimited Plus membership lets you eat as many meals as you want in the dining halls or at two other locations on campus. You also get 250 dining dollars to spend at any participating restaurant, plus two guest passes so friends without a dining plan can share a meal with you.

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 > 

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