The Caf, the D-Hall, the Mess Hall — no matter what you call it, the dining hall is the nucleus of the college social scene. Every student, aside from some commuters, files through the food lines at least once a day, so it’s naturally the place on campus where social groups form and people meet to catch up after class.
Navigating the dining hall can be tricky, but it isn’t nearly as terrifying as it first appears. In general, it’s a good idea to use the buddy system. Going alone is a good way to meet new people, but some students are too focused on their own friends and scarfing down food to make newcomers feel welcome. Going with someone else means that if you want to join an already crowded table, at least you have someone to talk to if the students you’ve joined turn out to not be your type.
On the other hand, don’t be afraid to talk to strangers. At the beginning of the year especially, many students are trying to find people to socialize with, just like you. Feel free to plop down at a busy table, with or without your dining hall buddy, and ask “Is it alright if I sit here?” Introduce yourself to the student or group, make small talk over the kitchen’s sad attempt at taco night, and start to get to know each other.
Also, sitting alone is totally okay. This isn’t like high school, where people would rather eat sandwiches in a bathroom stall than sit at an empty table. Because college dining halls are just so enormous, it’s completely normal for students to grab a meal alone because they don’t have time between classes to socialize while grabbing a bite. If you’re still nervous about looking awkward by yourself, eat with a book or laptop open to give the illusion that you decided to study over lunch (this is also a great way to give a signal that you need alone time if you’re feeling antisocial). Even better, use those study materials to actually study. It’s the perfect multitasking opportunity: getting work done over a meal.
In terms of the food itself, familiarize yourself with the cafeteria layout as soon as possible. Find the hot dishes stations, the salad bar, the areas that serve food you can grab on-the-go, the fresh fruit, the dessert, beverages — once you know the basic layout, you can speed through lines as quickly as possible. If you’re in the mood for something greasy and fried, you know where to look, and if you’re just up for a bowl of cereal, you can speed in that direction. Moving through queues as quickly as possible leaves extra time to actually enjoy your meal with friends — which is the real point of going to the dining hall, after all.