The Ultimate Guide to Eating at Columbia College Chicago

Food is an essential aspect of every college students life. Since it plays such a large role in the experience, there are many questions you may have. What type of food is available through campus? What do I do if I get bored of the food? What are some common restaurants? Well I am here to give you a sneak peak of your options on campus! Keep reading for the ultimate guide to eating at Columbia College Chicago!

Meal Plans

Columbia’s only dining hall is located at the University Center, 525 S State St. If you are residing in one of the UC’s Traditional style Semi-suites you are automatically required to purchase a meal plan. Students that live in apartments can chose to have a supplementary meal plan. A detailed list of these options and their prices can be seen here, but these are the key points of each plan.


Mandatory Meal Plan

A mandatory meal plan consists of 15 meals a week. These meals will not transfer over to the following week which means if you don’t use all 15 meals, you lose them. Each time you walk into the dining hall they will swipe your campus card and it will be registered as one meal. These swipes are only valid for your meal, if you are attempting to bring a friend along who does not have a meal plan you will have to pay $10 for them through Flex dollars.

Flex Dollars

You will receive $360 Flex dollars per semester as part of your meal plan. Flex dollars can be used within the dining facility during the regular academic year. Keep in mind that during holiday breaks they will not be open, so if you are planning on staying during spring break make plans and budget for food that week. Since we are not a college town like many Universities, Flex dollars can only be used in The Caf or in Outtakes. If you run out of Flex dollars you are able add money to your card during the school year, but be aware that your money will not carry over to the next semester or the following year.


Optional Meal Plan

An optional meal plan provides 150 meal total (Average 5 meals a week) for the entire year (Fall and Spring semester). You are given $376 Flex dollars for the entire year. The optional meal plan can be beneficial, but depending on your financial and living situation it could also have some disadvantages. For starters, I will break down the costs so you can see what you are actually paying for. An optional meal plan is $1,774 per year. This price includes your flex dollars. Overall that’s about $9 per meal. This doesn’t sound too bad, but you also must be aware of the fact that this is only about 5 meals per week and you will need more meals than that to live off of. Inevitably, you will end up spending more money on food besides the meal plan you have already chosen. So it is a bit expensive.

If you are looking to budget, you could definitely spend less money cooking for yourself than you could using the meal plan. Moving on from the cost, an optional meal plan may be the right choice for you if you know you are not the type who will go grocery shopping or want to cook on a daily bases. The Caf is open on a daily basis, so it will definitely be convenient for this type of college student. Location wise, if you have classes at the 33, 623, 624, 600, 618, or 619 building The Caf will be easy to get to between classes because there isn’t too much of a distance. Unfortunately that is untrue for the students who are mainly in buildings like the theatre center, the music center, the dance center, or the media production center. For them the Caf is a bit of a distance, it could be a 20-30 minute walk.


Depending on your schedule that may cause an inconvenience and a temptation to eat elsewhere in which case you don’t even end up using the meal plan and you have now wasted your money. Also if you live any place else besides the UC the caf is a bit of a walk which will be unfortunate during Chicago winters. Thankfully you should have your schedule before settling into a meal plan so you can take your location and travel into consideration.

Dining Center: The Caf & Outtakes

The Caf and Outtakes are both on the second floor of the University Center. All you have to do to get a meal is let the cashier swipe your campus card. Once you swipe your card, it is basically a buffet style. Which is great, but can also be bad if you don’t watch what you are eating and plan ahead. Biggest piece of advice that I couldn’t stress enough: Plan out your meals! Freshman 15 is not a joke kids! The menu is always posted outside of The Caf, but it is also online, which you can check out by using this link.


The Caf has different stations that will keep you from getting bored of the food:


Featuring Streets of Chicago: Provides themed meals every day, which keeps things interesting!


Simple things like hot dogs, burgers, grilled chicken, fries are served here. If you are craving a grilled cheese this would be the place to stop by.


This station is kind of like subway. You make your own sandwich by choosing your bread and ingredients then you can choose to get it grilled or have it cold.



Another simple station where you are usually presented with two types of pasta and two types of sauce.

Salad Bar

Provided daily and usually has the same items. Typical items include tons of vegetables, canned fruit, yogurt, granola, some type of noodle salad, and pudding.

Stir Fry

Personally my favorite station, the Stir Fry station is very similar to the restaurant Flat top grill. You grab a bowl and then pick out your vegetables, hand the cook your bowl, and choose from the different meats or tofu that they offer, then choose your sauce. Rice is provided as well, either white or fried.



This is the pizza station. They will always serve the basics like cheese, pepperoni, and sausage, then they provide one that is a little different. The original one will usually go with the theme of the day.


An allergy free station that provides meals free of common allergies: i.e. peanuts, gluten, etc.

Sweet Treats

My second favorite: The desserts station! They have anything from pies to cookies and ice cream out every day for your enjoyment!


*Pro Tip*

This isn’t a specific station, but The Caf will also always provide fresh fruit like bananas, apples, and sometimes oranges. I suggest grabbing some to snack on for later.


To-Go Options

You can purchase a paper to-go box for one dollar every time you want to take food to go, or you can purchase a plastic, multiple use, to-go box for $10 with your flex dollars. I bought one and I would say it was one of my better decisions. When you’re done using it, on your way to using your next swipe make sure the cashier sees you had the to-go box and place it with the other dirty dishes, they will give you a clean one once you swipe. If they don’t have clean ones at the time of your arrival they will give you a plastic chip that you can present the next time you need a to-go box. Also it is helpful if you have an optional meal plan. You can fit a good amount of food in them and you can turn that into two meals.



If you’re not feeling the options that day and don’t have money to eat out go to outtakes, during cafeteria hours you can actually purchase a meal swap. Instead of using your flex dollars you can snag an item (usually a sandwich) with a yellow sticker on it, a drink that is the equivalent of one dollar or less, and either a bag of single serve chips or a piece of fruit. It is very helpful when you are on the run or just don’t want to sit in the caf. You can purchase any of the meals at their regular prices, it’s basically a convenience store.

See Also


Hours they are open:

You can find the hours for with this link, but here are the hours.

The Caf

Monday – Friday
Breakfast: 7am – 9:30am, Lunch: 11am-3pm, Dinner: 4:30pm-9pm
Saturday – Sunday
Brunch: 11am – 2pm, Dinner: 4:30pm to 7pm

You might not always make the call times for meals if you have classes that don’t line up with the schedules, but that’s okay because……Outtakes is open.


Monday – Friday
Saturday – Sunday
10am – Midnight


Places to Eat outside of Dining Hall

Sometimes the meals at The Caf aren’t appealing to you, not to worry, there are plenty of good options very close to campus!

Pauly’s Pizzeria

Everybody loves pizza, the most common place to go on campus is Pauly’s Pizzeria. It is located at 719 S State St and is awesome because they are open until midnight on weekdays and 2a.m on Fridays and Saturday. At Pauly’s you can purchase a single slice of pizza which is perfect for late night and last minute meals.

Their options for slices go beyond the regular cheese, pepperoni, or sausage, they also have a veggie slice, Malibu slice, or my personal favorite: BBQ chicken. They also have great tasting wings and salads, and their Italian ice is to die for! With its many option it is a good choice for social gatherings as well.


Devil Dawgs

Just a few blocks down from Pauly’s is the best hot dog spot in town! They have everything from the classic Chicago, Chili, and Bacon Dawgs to the original Demon and Seoul Dawg. They also have a really awesome selection of burgers and their shakes are killer!

Peet’s Coffee

A wonderful place to pick up coffee and a quick snack on the way to class is Pete’s Coffee. This is one of my favorite stops on campus, they have tons of options with coffee and tea and are constantly coming up with new flavors to try!


Last Thoughts

There are plenty of places to eat on campus, but the best way to learn is to travel around and try new places. Be careful and make wise decisions of how much you spend and let yourself be reminded if you do have a meal plan you got it for a reason, and you have paid for it already. If you don’t have a meal plan it is still good to keep in mind how much it costs to consistently eat out, there are tons of ways to eat well and cheap through shopping at grocery stores like Jewel and Trader Joes, which are both close to campus.

What else should we add to this guide to eating at Columbia College Chicago? Comment below and share this article with friends!

Featured image source:
Cameron Theresa

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