Courtesy of Lindsey Byman / North by Northwestern

For McCormick second-year Zach Crampton, eating tacos at the Foster-Walker East dining hall is a “religious experience.”

“The passion and the flavor and the emotion of it all just is so potent and transformative,” Crampton said. “When I tell you that my life is never going to be the same because of Plex tacos, that's the truth.”

Crampton discovered the Plex East taco bar at the end of Fall Quarter this year, and he now indulges in them every meal they are served – Fridays and Saturdays during lunch and dinner.

For many, Northwestern’s two years of a mandatory open-access meal plan, costing $2,705 per quarter, is expensive and wasteful. But some students, like Crampton, have found ways to curate their dining experiences so they can now gaze fondly upon the long rectangular tables of Plex.

Below, students who have swiped to success share their hacks for Northwestern’s dining halls to help future meal-goers craft drool-worthy plates.


Crampton’s eyes were bright as he reminisced about steak sizzling behind the glass partition: the aroma, the anticipation. When the grill is working, the chef warms tortillas and either chicken or steak to order, combining the two for a “perfectly balanced” delicacy.

Next comes rice and beans and cold toppings including guacamole, red and green salsa, pico de gallo, cilantro and onions. Some Plex taco regulars bring ingredients like tofu, vegetables and cheese from the Plex West dining hall.

“The steak and the sauce and the toppings all come together in your mouth as an explosion of flavor,” Crampton said. “I've never felt more nourished in the dining hall than after having eaten Plex tacos.”

He said he has also found community in the Plex dining halls.

Sitting next to Crampton at a Plex plastic rectangular table, McCormick second-year Ty Bennett compared the culinary experience in Plex East to riding a rollercoaster.

“You don't know what's happening to you. You just feel the tosses and turns, the stomach flipping around, rapid emotions, the adrenaline,” Bennett said. “Similar feelings with the tacos … you don’t know what’s going to come next.”

Bennett logs his weekly Plex taco intake on his notes app. He ate a record of 34 soft-tortilla delights one weekend after the grill had been broken. He rates Plex 10 out of 10 when the tacos are made to order, and seven out of 10 when they are premade.

Though Bennett dislikes all other dining halls, he said he might purchase a limited meal plan next year for the tacos alone. Crampton agreed, but only if the grill is working. Crampton rates Plex 7.4 out of 10.

Unlike at restaurants, where seconds cost money, Crampton said, “You could eat as many tacos as you wanted, and you could never stop if you wanted.”

Bennett added that this unlimited freedom is a key to happiness.


Aala Basheir is patient when it comes to pesto mayo.

To the din of pop music and chatter in the Allison Dining Commons, the Weinberg second-year waits by the Flame station sandwich bar while a dining hall employee fills a translucent squeeze bottle with the light green condiment.

Basheir holds her bowl ready. It contains a bed of crisp romaine lettuce, white rice from the rice cooker, the salad bar’s honey sriracha tofu, feta cheese and four plump cherry tomatoes. A drizzle of pesto mayo will complete her prized dining hall recipe, which she concocted last winter.

Photo by Lindsey Byman / North by Northwestern 

“It's just about figuring out what unique ingredients each dining hall has and how you can use them in a way to where you're making your own food,” Basheir said. “In college you don't have a pantry, you don't really have a fridge, and I feel like we kind of forget that there are ingredients.”

Her lettuce-rice-tofu-pesto mayo combination began as a salad topped with crisp, cool tofu – “the best tofu” she has ever had – and she added rice to make it more filling.

Recalling her Peer Advisor’s advice to put pesto mayo on everything, she drizzled it on her salad.

“It's been my go-to meal when there's not anything I necessarily really want to eat,” said Basheir, who rates Allison an eight out of 10.

She estimates she made this meal at least three times a week last year, but she has had it only a few times this year since she now lives in Plex, no longer Jones.

Basheir said her friends would personalize the recipe with items like mushrooms and carrots.

The key, Basheir said, is taking advantage of each dining hall’s unique options and getting crafty when none look appealing (one of her “hot takes” is mixing cottage cheese into her pasta sauce). She said many people only go for the prepared meals, overlooking side items like sandwich bar chicken, tuna and egg salads.

Her friends have also let their cooking juices flow with combinations like sugar on spaghetti, Chex cereal with Plex froyo, muffins dipped in coffee and cheese with everything.


In Sargent Dining Hall, Weinberg third-year Nicole Ceriani is a self-described hunter-gatherer. She first takes a lap, then she assembles her ingredients – almost always including sunbutter or hummus.

A favorite is mixing sunbutter with prepared noodle dishes to make her variation of pad thai. She often smears salad bar hummus and babaganoush on barbeque tofu and cooked vegetables.

“If nothing is good, then creativity gets to shine,” Ceriani said.

Her most recent invention: roasted sweet potatoes from the salad bar topped with juicy pineapple, a sprinkle of chunky granola and, of course, a glob of sunbutter. Another classic is her “peanut butter and jelly cereal”: Cheerios and Chex, chocolate pea milk, sunbutter and jelly.

Photo by Lindsey Byman / North by Northwestern

She said being vegan improves her dining hall experience. The Rooted station always has plant-based protein and typically a shorter line, and peoples’ complaints often center on meat.

Ceriani doesn’t relate when people say they miss home cooking. For her, Sarge is “gourmet” and better than home-cooked meals.

“We’re not a chef family,” Ceriani said.

Her culinary specialty is mashed banana pancakes. She cheffed them up twice a week over winter break, eating leftovers in between.

Ceriani rates Sarge 9.5 out of 10. Her only complaints are that the sunbutter is sometimes packed away early and the vegetables can be too oily.

She plans to get a limited meal plan next year when she lives off campus because her Sarge creations cannot be replicated at home, she said.

“They’re dining hall recipes,” Ceriani said. “They are created in the dining hall. They live in the dining hall.”


Nadia van den Berg’s Sunday routine: Work at the Evanston Athletic Club from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., then hit Elder dining hall’s weekend all-day omelet bar. Ham, green peppers, onion, tomatoes and cheese, please, with ketchup on top.

After the Communication second-year tried her first Elder omelet this past fall, she got five per week. She now eats around two weekly omelets, but they remain a “game changer”.

They are served at United Table, Elder’s central cook-to-order station that serves a weekly rotation of international dishes including ramen, sweet and savory crepes, shawarma and bubble waffles with ice cream.

“That's where you’re going to get the best quality,” van den Berg said.

United Table keeps her meals exciting, but she has also been pleasantly surprised by buffet-style options she would not typically choose, like coconut snow pea curry.

Elder’s spread of main courses and desserts also aren’t available at home, but van den Berg said she eats healthier when she cooks.

“Sometimes I do feel like I'll leave the dining halls and my digestive system really needs to work harder,” van den Berg said.

She sautes vegetables with less oil and butter than the dining halls use. She also misses having berries, which the dining halls do not offer.

Her tip to “maximize” her meal plan is taking fruit and bagels back to her dorm for rushed days.

While she rates both Elder and Sarge 7.5 out of 10, van den Berg said the “vibe” is key.

Elder has fewer options, but she can relax and do schoolwork in its dim, restaurant-style lighting and circular booths, but Sarge’s bright overhead lights and long, rectangular tables make her feel like she’s in a high school cafeteria.

“None of the dining halls here are necessarily my ideal dining experience,” van den Berg said. “Every dining hall has their strengths and their weaknesses, so you can make a good argument for all dining halls.”