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Goodbye mystery meat! 5 top food schools

This is not your father's chicken tetrazzini.

Once renown for suspicious casseroles and "mystery meat," campus dining halls are cleaning up their acts. With a growing awareness of healthy eating, and considering the price of tuition, student have come to expect a higher grade of chow. They want healthy choices and diverse options. Schools are hiring professional chefs to jazz up the menus, and it shows.

"I think what makes Virginia Tech's campus food so amazing is that they don't make it in huge quantities, and there are different 'specials' daily," said Kris Schoels, a 2005 graduate and coauthor of "A Taste of Virginia Tech" (Mascot Books).

"The dining hall food there was and is better than any restaurant I've ever been to. When I was there we could get items like filet mignon, lobster bisque and Cajun cream pasta sauce," she said.

Each year, the Princeton Review (www.princetonreview.com, 2011) and others rate the best college cafeteria fare. Here are a few of the top contenders.

Wheaton College

A Christian college in Wheaton, Ill., this is one place where freshmen won't put on the fabled "15," at least not in the cafeteria.

Variety is the hallmark of the dining hall here, with a rotating series of specials giving students ample choice in their meals. Heath plays a key role too, with a salad bar stocked with a range of local, healthy offerings -- way beyond the traditional iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes.

With foods cooked from scratched and an emphasis on local sourcing, it's no wonder Wheaton appears repeatedly at the top of campus best-of lists.

Bowdoin College

Talk about local sourcing: At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, the annual lobster bake draws its bounty fresh from the sea -- and it does so with care for the Earth.

At is first-ever fully compostable lobster bake, more than 1,800 guests chowed down on 1,256 lobsters, 78 gallons of fish chowder and 1,280 ears of corn.

On a daily basis, two cafeterias serve up some of the most delectable college fare going, with fresh salads and soups, creative entrees and even vegan options. Dining halls that are more like restaurants also score sustainability points, with some produce grown in the school's own garden, and other ingredients culled from local growers.

Virginia Tech

In Blacksburg, Va. daily offerings range from lobster to rib eye. There are burgers in the sports bar, and an Italian restaurant dishes up fresh, hot pizza.

This is campus dining?

Apparently so, at least for the students at Virginia Tech, where 1988 marked a landmark year in student dining. A new president came in that year, along with a VP for student affairs and a committee to study dining services. All these factors together combined to push Virginia Tech's comestibles into a whole new realm.

Dining managers look to students for guidance, polling customers for their taste and interests when it comes to cafeteria dining. Maybe it's that dedication to service that helps keep Virginia Tech consistently in the ranks of the top campus meal plans.

Bryn Mawr College

At Bryn Mawr, students get to take control of their dining options.

At breakfast, that means cooking up their own waffles and omelets, while dinner make-you-owns include fresh stir-fry. Don't see what you like? Tack a "napkin note" to the wall for consideration by food planners, or weigh in via Facebook or email.

International options abound, along with coffee-shop fare and plenty of fresh produce. Still not enough? Several local restaurants accept meal plan vouchers for payment, bringing an even broader range of options to the table.

James Madison University

Students at this Harrisonburg, Va. institution get more than just a healthy meal: They get tasty, interesting options that cater to a range of tastes. Even those hard-to-please palettes -- devotees of vegan and gluten-free foods, for example -- can find something to enjoy.

For those on the go, Lakeside Express in Chandler Hall offers oven-baked specialty sandwiches, pizza, sides and desserts. Kiosks provide a range of daily specials, from mesquite potato chips to sweet n' sour tofu stir-fry. There's late-night fare at the Dog Pound, and for those with mainstream tastes, and campus offers chain fare from Chick-fil-A and Einstein Bros. Bagels.

These are five stand-out campuses whose quality food and congenial atmosphere bring them to the top of many best-of lists. But there are others that merit mention, including Minnesota's St.Olaf College, Middlebury College in Vermont, UCLA in Los Angeles and Washington University in St. Louis

The best campus dining offers more than just quality grub. Some schools get points for originality and creativity. Others stand out for their amenable dining atmosphere, while some of the best make their mark through diversity. After all, hard-working freshmen cannot live on chips and grilled cheese alone.