• Eating Healthy at the Dining Commons

    Resident Dietitian and UChicago Dining help students navigate the dining commons

By Belen Edwards

Christine Cliff started working at the University of Chicago as UChicago Dining’s Resident Dietitian in July 2018. A little over a year later, she hopes to expand upon her first year experience of working with students and Bon Appétit to develop and maintain a health-focused approach to eating at the dining commons. 

“At Bon Appétit, things are made from scratch as often as we can. We try to keep health in mind, but we also know that people want comfort items,” said Cliff.

UChicago is one of Bon Appétit’s Well-Being Indicator accounts. This means that “at least one third of the recipes on the menus at the dining commons must meet our well-being commitment,” said Cliff. “This includes meals that are centered around abundant fresh produce, whole grains, and lean or plant-based proteins, prepared with minimal amounts of healthy, plant-based fats.” Cliff works directly with the chefs to ensure that the University meets these standards.

“They have the creativity and the chef mind, and I have the dietitian mind,” she said. “We have what I call the division of threes: we have a third comfort, a third middle of the road, and a third healthful.”

Aside from menu planning, Cliff works closely with individual students on meal plans who have food-related concerns, such as students with allergies or students coming from disordered eating programs. In those cases, students reach out to UChicago Dining and have an individual meeting with Cliff, Assistant Director of Dining and Operations with UChicago Dining Deborah Kekelik, and Campus Executive Chef Ken Dixon to speak about their specific concerns. Students meet with Cliff, Kekelik, and Dixon in their dining commons so that they can speak with staff and feel more comfortable about their dining experiences.

Along with these meetings, UChicago Dining has recently implemented the “At Your Service” program, where plain, non-seasoned proteins and simple sides are made available to students with allergen concerns. “It’s another option that caters to students,” said Kekelik. “We really try to meet their needs.”

Students must reach out to UChicago Dining for help with allergies or other food concerns. However, Cliff said she tries to be “as visible as possible” through a wide variety of nutrition-focused programming.

One way she does this is through monthly “Food For Your Well-Being” events that take place at each of the dining commons. Cliff focuses on a health topic, such as hydration, mindful eating, or nutrition, and invites students to partake in trivia or try samples of the food she’s discussing. “I try to make it fun and engaging and just have that one little nutrition nugget that I would focus on,” Cliff said.

Cliff and Kekelik have also taught wellness workshops to students and Pritzker staff, as well as cooking skills classes for graduate students. Cliff hopes to repeat these kinds of workshops in the coming year. 

Both Cliff and Kekelik have backgrounds as nutrition educators, and both acknowledge the importance of having access to good nutritional information. For Kekelik, becoming a Registered Dietitian was driven by her interest in health, wellness, and sports nutrition. Cliff cited AP chemistry as one of the reasons she became invested in nutrition. “There was also a more personal disordered eating challenge that I went through, and I did not have the good nutritional information or education that I needed at the time. So I came full circle, and I try to provide that good quality nutritional information to others,” she said.

Along with providing information about nutrition, Kekelik also stressed the importance of the dining hall experience at UChicago. “I went to convocation this year. The student speakers referenced their dining experience as a huge part of their time here,” said Kekelik. “Those are lasting memories that students are walking away with. And this is why we focus our efforts on helping the students have the best experience they can.”

You can find more information on UChicago Dining’s nutritional programs here. You can also contact Christine Cliff at dining-dietitian@uchicago.edu.