Student Food From Around the World
Student food around the world can be as varied as the students and universities themselves.
On one level, all university food follows the same basic pattern. Students need something filling and inexpensive that they can grab on the go between lectures and library time, and most of the food on this list fits the bill. Canteens and cafeterias are a running theme of university food offerings, as are subsidies of varying generosity. In some cases, food is provided by the university or college itself; in others, by external caterers; in others still, by the student union or other national or region organisations dedicated to student wellbeing.
From a different perspective, the food on offer varies hugely. It varies in price – upwards from the universities that feed their students for free – and in style, as some students get quick takeaway food and others get sit-down meals with multiple courses. And of course, the food varies hugely based on local and national cuisine as well.
This article aims to give a true flavour of student food around the world, so as well as including the prices of each dish or set menu in the local currency and in sterling at the current exchange rate, we’ve also included the price of a Big Mac according to the Economist’s Big Mac Index where available, for easier comparison between countries.
A Big Mac: £3.19
A standard dinner: around £3 (0.9 Big Macs)
The luxury option: £14.50 (4.5 Big Macs)
In Balliol College, Oxford, meals are provided by the college at a significant subsidy. A standard three-course meal, served in the beautiful college dining hall, costs around £3 per head. It’s the kind of fare you’d find in many British restaurants and hotels: the main courses come from all over the world (bolognese, mild curries, and British-style pancakes with French crepe fillings) while the desserts are traditionally British, such as sponge cake, sticky toffee pudding, and rhubarb crumble.
But Oxford colleges also have the traditional of formal Hall, which is held on Tuesdays in Balliol. It’s a three-course sit-down meal with waiter service, which in some colleges is of near-Michelin star quality. Costs for this range from £5 in the colleges where it’s most heavily subsidised, to £25 where it’s not, though some colleges also make more of an event of it than others. Food typically resembles traditional British fine dining with French influences, such as guinea fowl, salmon and confit duck.
A Big Mac: ¥18.90
A filling snack: ¥2 (0.1 Big Macs)
A proper dinner: ¥15 (0.8 Big Macs)
Peking University is much bigger than most universities in the UK, with nearly 33,000 enrolled students. It’s also the norm for Chinese students to eat all their menus in university cafeterias; their dormitories don’t usually have cooking facilities. As a result, Peking University, like most Chinese universities, has an impressive range of different cafeterias specialising in different cuisines to choose from – including a dedicated Muslim cafeteria and one that specialises in foreign food.
Cafeteria food is subsidised by the university and by the government to make it affordable for the student population, and as Chinese student schedules tend to be packed full, they serve up good food fast. For very little money you can get filling takeaway food like a baozi for just ¥2, or a proper dish like malatang for ¥10 to ¥15.
A Big Mac: €3.91
The set menu: €3.25 (0.8 Big Macs)
Something a little nicer: €4.90 (1.25 Big Macs)
It’s unsurprising that French student food is so good; after all, their school students also enjoy three-course lunches with real plates and cutlery – no plastic in sight. The food available to students at Cité Universitaire Internationale de Paris (itself not a university, but a campus for students) is offered at a discount relative to the costs for the general public. You can get their set menu for just €3.25 (€6.90 to anyone without a student card); recent offerings include grilled steak with rice and aubergine gratin, or braised hake with bulgur wheat and grilled courgettes.
If that’s not good enough (and it sounds delicious), for €4.90 there’s the option of something from the grill – such as beef carpaccio or chicken escalope – accompanied by chips and salad.
A Big Mac: $5.30
A standard dinner: approximately $12 (2.3 Big Macs)
At Yale, like many US universities, you don’t pay for each meal that you eat, but instead sign up to an annual meal plan that lets you eat in almost any of the residential dining rooms in any of the university’s constituent colleges. Community spirit is particularly prized at universities such as Yale, and this system requires students to each communally on a regular basis. As a result, the cost of a standard dinner has been estimated from the total cost of a meal plan, working out as [the most expensive option on our list].
While Yale students might pay more, they get a huge amount of choice for their money, as the Yale menu selector demonstrates. Burgers, salads and the deli bar are clearly top picks, but across the different dining rooms, there are no shortage of options for each student’s tastes.
A Big Mac: €3.91
A standard dinner: €2.20 – €7.70 (0.56 – 2 Big Macs)
In Regione Lazio, which includes Rome, the same organisation that provides regional scholarships also runs student cafeterias. Available to all registered students, their prices are steeply tiered, from a free meal a day to scholarship students, up to €5.90 for enrolled students with a household income of over € 60,208.28 (approximately 15,400 Big Macs) and €7.70 for students who have not been means-tested.
Menus both for lunch and dinner follow a traditional Italian pattern of a first course of pasta or soup, a second course of something with more protein, and sides of vegetables. That might be a first course of pasta alla boscaiola (Woodman’s pasta), followed by veal shoulder, with a side of buttered carrots, or an orzo salad followed by lemon scallops and a side of green beans.
A Big Mac: €3.91
A standard dinner: free (0 Big Macs)
All enrolled students at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki who don’t already have a degree enjoy free food in the university canteen. Nor are these costs then borne in the form of high tuition fees; all Greek citizens have a constitutional right to a free education, and that includes university tuition, though that doesn’t extend to free meals in every university.
The menu available offers a generous three courses for lunch and dinner, though there are only two choices for each, and a vegetarian option is not always available. But the food is generous and often hearty: one lunch option is mushroom pie, followed by roast lamb with mashed potatoes, a choice of salad or fruit, and a dessert to finish.
A Big Mac: A$5.90
A standard dinner: A$5 (0.85 Big Macs)
Something a little nicer: A$10 (1.7 Big Macs)
Melbourne University’s Student Union House hosts a variety of different places to eat, from Egg Sake Japanese bistro, to their members-owned and volunteer-supported vegetarian and vegan Food Coop, to Hoho’s Canteen offering American and Italian-inspired breakfast and lunch. Most eateries in Union House open for a late breakfast and close by 4.30. Three meals a day can be bought in residential colleges instead, which don’t allow self-catering – so Union House fills a gap if students want more variety on a budget.
At the Food Coop, a filling hot meal will cost A$5, and could be a vegetarian pie, dahl or Moroccan chickpea stew. A Bento box at Egg Sake is A$8, while Hoho’s Canteen’s falafefl zacaccia (their own twist on focaccia) is A$10.
A Big Mac: L£14,186
A standard dinner: L£4,500
The luxury option: L£14,000
The American University of Beirut’s cafeteria, located in the Medical Centre, offers breakfast, salads, sandwiches, pizzas, food from the wok, Lebanese barbecue and more. There’s a combination of traditional Lebanese food, such as kafta aarayes or shish taouk from the barbecue, and international options like burgers, quesadillas, Greek salads, Gouda sandwiches and Americanised Italian food such as chicken fettuccine alfredo.
A standard meal, from a panini to a bowl of fried rice, costs around L£4,500 to L£6,000, while the most expensive item on the menu is the mixed grill from the Lebanese barbecue, at L£14,000.
A Big Mac: ¥380
A standard dinner: ¥410 (1.1 Big Macs)
The luxury option: ¥800 (2.1 Big Macs)
Set meals at the University of Tokyo’s Chuo Refectory, served cafeteria-style, start at ¥410, though for ¥400 you can get a bowl of their signature Akamon ramen, which comes in a thick, spicy sauce with ground pork, mushroom and bean sprouts. It’s popular enough that it’s sold in the souvenir section of the university co-op.
Other than the ramen, meals range from foreign foods cooked Japanese-style, such as pasta carbonara, up to the most expensive set menu, Wa-Tei, which is more traditionally Japanese. The selection of set menus includes several different options, each served with a side and miso soup.
A Big Mac: €3.91
A standard dinner: €2.50 (0.64 Big Macs)
The luxury option: €7.90 (2 Big Macs)
At Pompeu Fabra University, in Barcelona, there’s a choice of three cafeterias, one on each of the university’s three campuses. During the week in term-time, they’re open 8am to 8pm, and there are always two- and three-course set menus available, with a choice of three options for each course. A basic cheese, ham or sausage sandwich costs €1.30, a hamburger is €2.50, while a two-course set menu is €5.15 or €5.75 depending on the courses chosen, and three courses cost €7.90 – including a drink and a portion of bread.
The menu has a strong emphasis on local food, especially in promoting a traditional Mediterranean diet to the benefit of students’ long-term health.
A Big Mac: €3.91
A standard dinner: €2 (0.5 Big Macs)
German universities have a strong tradition of a ‘mensa’, which is a cafeteria where students can buy healthy, filling food at a subsidised rate. In the mensas of the different campuses of Heidelberg university, food is charged by weight and prices vary depending on whether you’re a student, staff or a guest. In a typical mensa, there are soups, “sweet delights”, a buffet of salad and cold meats, and a choice of two hot dishes, charged at 80c per 100g for students, 86c for staff, and €1.45 for guests.
The choice of hot dishes can be traditionally German, such as Nürnberger bratwurst or schnitzel, but just as often there’s an international flavour, such as Moroccan-style couscous with vegetables, tortellini, peppers stuffed with mince, or spaghetti bolognese.
A Big Mac: ₽137
A standard dinner: ₽75 (0.6 Big Macs)
The luxury option: ₽260 (1.9 Big Macs)
Moscow State University is built on an incredible scale. It looks more like a palace than a university, and it’s home to 37,000 students. Its dining hall combines grandeur with functionality; there are chandeliers hanging from the soaring ceiling, but there’s a buffet-style service system to make sure all the students get their meals on time. Food is traditionally Russian, and you can help yourself to slices of bread for pennies (one slice is approximately 2p, or 0.008 Big Macs).
You can choose from four or five different main meals, plus options like soup, pastries, salads and the very cheap bread. There are options such as pork chops, omelettes, spaghetti bolognese or fried fish, and given that Moscow is known for being one of the most expensive cities in the world, students are undoubtedly grateful to be able to fill up for less – though they also grumble that the subsidies on offer aren’t as generous as they used to be.
Images: baozi; chicken escalope; deli bar; lemon scallops on pasta; lamb with salad; chickpea and vegetable stew; shish taouk; tonkatsu set menu; chorizo and bean stew; german buffet; russian layer salad; student cafeteria; different dishes