What's cooking?

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Eggplant parmesan, Korean barbecue tacos, chicken cacciatore or teriyaki vegetable stir-fry? With these kinds of options, what to eat for dinner is inevitably on the minds of many Penn State students.

As the newest batch of freshmen accustom themselves to the ins and outs of college life, they're also likely discovering the feast-like spread of food choices on the menus at Penn State's dining commons and the wonder of their all-you-care-to-eat meal plans.

With approximately 500 breakfast, lunch, dinner, late night, snack, side and dessert options offered at University Park's five dining hall locations throughout the semester, choosing what and where to eat — and healthfully — can be overwhelming.   

But, thanks to the University's Dining@PSU app that connects students with two week's worth of daily menus, nutrition information, a food log and a calorie-counting tool, making smart food choices and planning ahead is easy.

Available on Apple and Android mobile devices, the app, which has been downloaded nearly 20,250 times since its Apple release in 2012, is a one-stop resource for eatery news, GPS maps and hours for the dining halls at 12 Penn State campuses.

"We created the app to help students make healthy choices and to be transparent about what is in the food we serve," said Anne Davis, a project manager in Auxiliary and Business Services, and whose marketing team helped develop the app.

The Android version, released last year, not only features complete nutrition information for the day's food selections but also offers new designations for vegan, meatless and low-calorie choices. The Apple version of the app will add nutrition and dietary labels to its portfolio this month. In the future, the team also hopes to incorporate gluten-free and other allergy indicators.  

For Meagan Button, a first-year student living in Pollock Halls, Dining@PSU has helped her maintain a healthy lifestyle during her first months in college. She relies on the app's calorie counter and food log to keep track of what she's eating.

"It's been enlightening to see how easy it is to eat too many calories or not as healthfully as I think I am," Button said. "The app helps me go to dinner with an idea of what I'm going to eat, so I don't have to wander around the cafeteria being tempted by burgers and fries."

This fall, she's already dined at Pollock Dining Commons, and West and South food districts and appreciates being able to access all these details directly on her phone.
 
The app works by importing information from FoodPro, a software and database used by Housing and Food Services that holds daily menus, food inventory, nutrition content and nearly 23,000 recipes.

Three seniors in the College of Engineering at Penn State Harrisburg and University Park helped develop the Apple and Android versions of the app. Collaborating with Steve Focht, an analyst in Housing and Food Services, and John Hannan, an associate professor of computer science and engineering, they wrote programs that enable Dining@PSU to communicate and automatically sync with FoodPro when dining commons staff add new menu items and recipes to the database each week.

"The students were the driving force behind the creation of the Apple and Android versions of the app, which each took a little less than a semester to develop," said Mike Sherlock, assistant director of information systems in Auxiliary and Business Services. "Along with gaining real-life experience working with a team of developers, designers and project managers, they were able to come out of school having helped build an app that is benefiting thousands of people."

Before Dining@PSU, the University community could access daily dining commons menus only by checking the Food Services website or by reading signs posted at the eateries.

"Our goal is to educate on-the-go students about the variety of food options available to them at the dining commons," Davis said. "Dining@PSU makes it so much easier for students to find what they want, whether it's an omelet bar, fresh fish or the much-loved turkey dinner with whipped potatoes."

A toggle bar on the app screen lets students pin their favorite menu items, which sends text notifications on days those picks will be served.

"Using the favorites tool to save wholesome choices is one of the ways students can develop healthy habits as they transition into adulthood during college," said Laura Kassab, a nutrition assistant in Housing and Food Services. "Developing these habits now will set them up for success later in life."

Kassab is the brains behind the Residential Healthy Eating and Living (RHEAL) program, a student-focused initiative she helped create last spring while she was a nutrition student at Penn State.  

After experiencing the leeway of the all-you-care-to-eat meal format when she lived on campus, Kassab created the navigation system to help students easily locate healthy food options in campus eateries. Through RHEAL, foods that fit specific caloric and nutrition criteria are labeled using a carrot graphic on entrée cards in the dining commons.

Those carrots also appear next to healthy items in the Android app and will become part of the Apple version later this month.

"Together, the app and RHEAL program help educate and empower students to live a balanced lifestyle," Kassab said. "It's not that they always have to choose the most healthy option — everything in moderation — it's just that the app makes finding those healthy options easier."

As it turns out, there can always be a little room for dessert — especially West Food District’s soft and gooey chocolate chip cookies.

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit http://news.it.psu.edu.

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Last Updated September 19, 2014