To cater, or not to cater? That is the question.

Claudia Chmura

So, you’re about to move to university, possibly away from home for the first time, and you’re being prudent enough to consider how you’re going to feed yourself for the next few years, here are some questions you may have: Should I commit to catering? What will I cook? Will I have enough money for food? How will I carry groceries home? (That last one actually didn’t actually occur to me until I was already 6 hours from home with nothing but a handbag, but let’s pretend I had actually thought this through properly). As your friendly Durham student, I am going to utilise all of my extensive experience in this department to address as many of your concerns as possible, and maybe flag up a few things that turned out to be important to me that you may not have thought about yet. The powers that be (of blogs) have come together to address the age-old question: to cater, or not to cater?


The first thing to consider is definitely cost. Catering is more expensive. No doubt about it. If you are good at budgeting and happy to cook for yourself then you can save a significant amount by choosing a self-catered housing option. I have been living in a student house this year and cooking almost every dinner with a good friend, this saves both of us money and effort because we only need to buy half of the ingredients for a dish each. We do have to cook larger portions as there is two of us, but it usually works out cheaper and easier to cook more as it’s easy to waste food if you don’t manage to use it up before it goes off. Food going off is not something I really worried about in my family home (also it’s really gross to think about) but when you’re the only one eating everything you buy, there’ll be little colonies growing in your fridge before you know it. It makes you reevaluate if you ever really *need* to buy anything fresh (you do, please eat fruits and vegetables). As for carrying groceries home: there’s a Tesco in the Market Place where you can get groceries, a larger collection of shops on the outskirts of town in Dragonville (yes, it’s actually called that) and sometimes my housemates and I order groceries and split the delivery fee, this way it works out as less than the bus fare.

One of our mealtime creations


On the other hand, the advantage of catering is that you’re more likely to have access to healthy and nutritious meals regularly, and you don’t have to figure out what you want to for dinner every day! One of the things that really hit me this year cooking for myself is how tedious it can be to have to decide what I want to eat every day, it’s much worse than the actual ‘having to cook’ part of cooking. The meal-plan at my college repeated every 3 weeks so I did get used to the food, but only in the sense that I became familiar with what would be served. As far as I am aware there is always a vegetarian and gluten-free catering option available at college meals and I assume they would endeavour to meet any other nutritional requirements. However, I do understand the stress that comes with someone else preparing your food if you have any serious dietary needs and that sometimes the only way to feel more comfortable is to make it yourself. 


I’m going to segue into something a little less pressing but still important for a moment: the social aspect of eating. Catering is a great way to meet new people, catch up with those you haven’t seen in a while, and just generally get some healthy human interaction in your day. I had access to a kitchen in my first year of university, but I disliked spending time there so much that I almost never did and instead ate most of my dinners in college with friends, whereas the kitchen in my house this year is the main social hub. Theres no way to guarantee that you’ll be living with friends in your first year, but you are most likely to form a bond with the people you live with, so cooking or eating dinner together can be a great way to get to know each other. That’s not to say that you won’t have friends outside your college, or that you’ll necessarily enjoy having to socialise at every meal if you choose catering – it’s just something to consider.

Time and accessibility 

Another thing I sometimes forget about catering is that (at least at my college) it has set mealtimes, so if you don’t make it to the dining hall for that slot or aren’t hungry at that time, you’ve probably missed the food. This is a big one for me because I don’t tend to get hungry at regular times, so I had to spend the first few weeks of first year adjusting to a new schedule. This is probably a good thing, because it keeps me functioning on regular time (as opposed to midnight meals during exam season) but having to walk back to college every few hours for my meals can really be quite disruptive. It was possible to sign up for packed lunches in the evening to be picked up the next morning, but if I wanted to have a warm meal, even if I have a lecture on the other side of town or a good flow going in the library and didn’t really want to leave, I needed to get back to the dining hall on time. Durham is an *extremely* walkable city, so you’re never going to need more than about 30 minutes to get anywhere, and the exercise is (again) probably a good thing if you’re spending the whole day in the library, but it’s still a little awkward to have to stop whatever you’re doing and pack up because you can’t just cook for yourself later. 

So, what are your priorities?

The bottom line is that catering can be more convenient but being self-catered is much more flexible, but the final decision definitely depends on what your priorities are, I just hope I’ve given you a few things to consider so it’s easier to make a decision.

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Claudia Chmura

Hi, I’m Claudia and I am an English student at St Chad’s College, this will be my second year as a content creator for Durham University. I’m excited to see what final year studying English year has in store for me and just trying to muddle through somehow! 

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