How Ridgeway Commons Dining Hall Saved My Diet

If you haven’t heard of Western Washington University (Western), it’s a Washington State public university just on the south side of Bellingham.

(You can find us nearly in the farthest Northwest corner of the United States you can imagine).

Western accepted my application to start classes this year (2016) and it hasn’t been long since my first day. You might agree that in a brand-new place, knowing proper locations is a big deal. Honestly, it wouldn’t take you long to find your classes and staff buildings on Western’s fairly small campus. The part that will take you more time, however, is finding out where you’re going to eat. I don’t mean this in the sense of simply finding food. It gets more complicated for those of us who are “lifestyle-dieters”. For our “kind”, finding a place to eat is finding a place you can count on to feed you the right food for extended lengths of time. In my case: We’re talking four critical years of critical food.

Maybe it’s your first day on a different college campus, or perhaps you’re just getting used to a new town, relocating from a recent promotion. Perhaps you’ve just started a diet, and need to find a place to eat through a new perspective. I’m no stranger to these feelings; I’ve relocated at least 12 times within the last 13 years for the military, work and now, finally, school. Furthermore, I’ve failed at almost a similar number of diets, only finding success in my most recent attempt. My new venture into establishing (another) new place to eat was important for me to get right, and I suspect you might feel the same way. Our results would make the difference between keeping the success streak alive or failing again forcing us to start over at a disadvantage later.

I wanted to find:

  1. Enough selection where I could fully facilitate my diet
  2. Good value-per-dollar, so I could afford to go often

At Western, my journey required memorizing nearly the entirety of our Campus Dining website and days of trial-and error. Eventually I stumbled across my first point of real interest: Western’s own Ridgeway Commons Dining Hall (RCDH).

I chose to explore RCDH in more detail because it’s a buffet as opposed to a convenience store or traditional restaurant which were easier to find. A decent buffet can do a great job facilitating your diet, thanks largely to a strong selection and opportunity to customize meals. This buffet was in an all-you-can-eat format, and just might fit the budget bill I was crossing my fingers for as well. After walking 0.3 miles (straight uphill, I swear) away from main campus, I’d finally made it. Just inside the door jamb, a meal schedule was posted before stairs (are you kidding me!?) leading up to the dining hall. I read RCDH meals range from between $7.34-$10.27 depending on the time of visit. I’d arrived for a period called “Lite Lunch” priced at $7.34. It’s not an easy task keeping any sit-down meal below that threshold, so if I could put together enough to make a meal, RCDH just might the kind of new place we’d be setting out to find.

Inside RCDH

The salad bar‘s “sharp left”

I distinctly remember having to speak over the loud den of exhaust fans, asking the pay station attendee about what was available. Beyond the pay station, you’ll quickly observe a comprehensive sandwich bar to rival a familiar deli on the left. Expect to gather the sandwich bar’s eventual merit from the suspicious, unidentified tub of green goop you later discover to be pesto aioli. Badass. To the right, a salad bar takes a sharp left just behind a short order grill station. If your diet preferences expect royal treatment similar to my ketogenic demand, just these three spots alone will be very appealing, considering you can omit whatever doesn’t find your fancy. Behind the long linear counters are unlimited coffees and teas that you’d pay $2 for at a restaurant, vending machine or convenience store. The period in-which I’d arrived,“Lite Lunch”, turned out to lite as-advertised, seeing some counters empty, and smelling absolutely nothing. The two or three of entrees available for self-serve, were boldly heralded as “vegan” or “gluten-free” with giant flags above the dishes’ displayed nutrition facts. I attempted to conceal most of my excitement from these findings and proceeded to build my plate and eat. Everything I’d taken from the sandwich and salad bars tasted fine! This was more than I’d hoped for, always expecting something awful to pop up, making the experience better justify its price-tag.

What’s good:

Nobody would expect you to travel here to Bellingham, to eat at the RCDH, but there are enough parallels that remind me of other places I used to maintain my diet in a previous busy commercial life. If you have access to chain buffet restaurants like Old Country Buffet or Golden Corral, RCDH could be considered to have a fairly similar selection. RCDH’s particular selection (check out the menu here) hosts fully prepared entrees and other hot courses such as pizza and short orders like burgers and omelets on-demand. Aside from main courses, the 2nd half of RCDH is dedicated to a deliberate sense of the selection being tailored to fulfill a range of dietary and allergenic categories. Having “bar” formats for salads, sandwiches, and short-orders leaves it to us to exclude anything that would conflict with dietary restrictions. We’re not as fortunate to have the same options when salads or sandwiches have already been packaged and locked down with their predetermined ingredients. The RCDH does well addressing individual diners’ needs and expectations with its buffet layout and thoughtful assortment.

My previous expected selection criteria: Met

Adding to the list of what RCDH (and buffets) excel at, is its eventual value for more significant portions. Generally, if you’re considering a multi-course meal, you can expect to have saved a fair amount of money compared to the average sit-down restaurant bill for the same amount of food. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon to over-indulge knowing that your meal is “paid for”, so be sure to aim your 2nd and 3rd trips for the salad bar. RCDH’s value feels good in the short-term, not having to pay nearly $20 per meal, but remember, we’re talking about a place to come back to over the course of years. In that sense, eating at RCDH is sustainable, especially if you pick off-peak hours to dine at $7.34 per unlimited meal.

My budget’s expected value per dollar: Exceeded!

What doesn’t work as well:

Despite what RCDH has to offer, there are certainly some instances within our academic, business, or just average day that make the trip less appealing. For instance, any visit to the RCDH will expect you to pay a flat rate at any given meal period. With small meals considered, RCDH’s “value by volume” is massively diminished if your lunches are better referred to as snack-breaks. Offering a fixed all-you-can-eat price on-entry makes diets that emphasize frequent smaller meals nearly incompatible with the diner category RCDH expects.

Another mandatory investment for visiting RCDH is the time involved. To even consider spending a 30 or 45-minute meal break at RCDH or a buffet venue almost seems obscene unless you work there. It’s tough trying to coordinate any average lunch break offsite and have it fit within workplace or school expectations, even more so here. Adding insult to the repeated “timeliness injury”, RCDH and some buffets often forbid taking unfinished meals or leftovers “to-go”. For those of with congested schedules, the RCDH may only be useful for the last meal of the day, if at all.

Good enough today, but for four years..?

I can make a case that it’s reasonable for us to project that RCDH can continue to keep up its quality and mode of operation in the future by looking to the past. To establish this past evidence, let’s review the meal periods available at Western’s commons locations: Per the schedule at RCDH’s 1st floor staircase, meal periods are certainly rooted in a traditional sense of daily dietary rhythm displaying times for “breakfast” “lunch” and “dinner”. At some point perhaps decades ago, our student body eventually rejected traditional 19th century breakfast and lunch periods to the extent that RCDH’s serving hours were eventually overhauled by campus dining staff. Today, breakfast ends at 11am (imagine the initial dismay of that decision) and ‘Lite Lunch” covers the entirety between Lunch and Dinner. RCDH currently serves for 12 hours straight from 7 am to 7pm, which would likely have been unheard of when Western was established in 1893. Moral of the story: The RCDH and campus Dining Team have been capable of making these necessary changes to encourage optimal traffic in the past, and we can expect that they’re capable of similar change in the future to keep the RCDH operational and successful.

I recommend:

RCDH portrays a positive overall example of a place dieters can use to ensure access to good selection and get their money’s-worth. As I mentioned earlier, RCDH has enough parallels with chain buffet-style restaurants and deli’s that merit any nearby dieters checking these places out. Even more so, if you have a college campus nearby, and their dining halls are accessible to the public, I’d doubly recommend investigating for yourself. If you examine other campus’s dining websites, college dining halls tend to have the RCDH’s selection advantages of chain buffets, but also adhere to fundamental dietary diversity. It’s effectively like finding a Panera Bread, or a similar health-focused Deli a few steps away from the requisite buffet “tater and gravy mountain paradise” all of these seem to have. Even if you don’t have a reason, you may find something at your version of RCDH that neither of us expected, so go check it out, and enjoy!

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