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An important part of studying abroad anywhere is adapting to the local cuisine and eating habits. While the food might seem different at first to what you are used to, you will eventually discover your favourite American meals, drinks, grocery stores and restaurants near your university campus.
Most first year students living in on-campus dorms will be using a meal plan or meal points to purchase food from dining halls around campus. Meal plans may be unlimited, a set number of meals per week, a set number of meals per semester (budget carefully!) or pay-as-you-go—it depends on what the uni offers and what you select. Usually you pay when you enter the dining hall by swiping your student ID card. Meal plans can usually be purchased by students living off-campus who want to eat in between classes. For students living off-campus, dining halls also accept cash if you are not on a meal plan.
Some dining halls are buffet-style where you can eat as much as you like. Some are small café or sandwich shops and some are organised like large food courts. There are sure to be many options on your campus, including vegetarian or vegan foods.
Depending on the size of your university’s campus and the area in which it is located, there are most likely a lot of options for eating on or around the campus in non-university restaurants and shops. While you will probably find typical American foods, it is worth asking for recommendations on locally owned and operated restaurants. Some of the most delicious and inexpensive food can be found in small or off-the-path places, which Americans call "hole in the walls," not to be confused with cash point machines!
Also, while the US may have a reputation in the UK for its hamburgers and hotdogs, don't be fooled. The US is also known for its cultural diversity, which is well-represented in its restaurants. Most college towns have several international restaurants where you can find food from almost any country! It is not uncommon to find an area or street that has Indian, Thai, Italian and Mexican food right next to each other. Take advantage of the international nature of your university.
For students living in on-campus dormitories, cooking is rare but certainly possible. Most dorms are equipped with communal kitchens on each floor; however, pots and pans are usually not provided and will need to be purchased at a local store. Some dorm rooms will come equipped with a microwave and mini-fridge, and some American students will purchase the classic George Foreman grill or electric water boilers (ie a large kettle) to make pasta. Before making any purchases, make note of particular appliances that may be prohibited in dorm rooms for fire hazard reasons. Lists of these products are usually found on a university’s residential life webpage.
Most campuses will have a convenience store as well as nearby grocery store chains. You may find US stores quite different (and bigger) compared to what you are used to. US grocery stores often have 10 to 20 aisles of food with a wide variety in brands, flavours, international cuisine and products. While you may recognise some of the brands, do not be surprised if you find the taste to be different or the product to be unfamiliar. While an American grocery store might be overwhelming at first, many of the foods are quite similar, and you will find your favourite brands and foods in no time!
You may also enjoy a few differences, such as the fact that you do not have to deposit a pound to get your trolley and that there is usually a separate member at each till to bag your groceries for you. Also loyalty schemes in the US provide discounts at the point of sale.
While some UK brands will exist in the US (often with slightly altered flavours), there are some British brands that will not exist in the majority of stores in the US. British brands that are available, such as Cadbury’s, are often manufactured (albeit under the same name) in the US and taste unlike what you’re used to at home. Depending on the type of food, some students will take a small supply of their favourite foods over with them, for example spreads and chocolate. It seems that many British students have a hankering for Marmite, Ribena, Cadbury's, tea, biscuits or sweets at some point while they are in the US! There are however some supermarkets (commonly called International Supermarkets) or small stores that will contain traditional, and often stereotypical, British foods within an international food section, yet beware these prices will be significantly raised to cover shipping costs. You may similarly experience the reverse, having formed an affinity for American food brands that are not stocked in the UK. Use your time abroad as an opportunity to experience new foods and broaden your horizons, and prepare a small stash to bring back home with you after!
In the US, there is a long running joke that American students gain a "Freshman 15" (pounds, that is) when they start university. With the buffet style dining halls, larger portions, unfixed mealtimes, junk food, and alcohol consumption, you can see why. Because of the new-found freedom that many first-year/freshman students experience away from home, many will fall victim to this ''Freshman 15''.
Even if you are traveling abroad for a semester or exchange for an academic year, the factors remain the same and may affect students other than freshmen. Especially with buffet style on-campus dining, it may be tempting to eat huge portions. Bear in mind that typical US serving sizes may be larger than what you are used to in the UK. You may even be satisfied with just a starter! It is important to maintain a healthy diet and regular exercise (this can be in the form of a run around campus or partaking in intramural sports) and to apply self-restraint and willpower when attending meal times.