Top 10 Best Free Food Opportunities

It can be a challenge to get students to attend meetings, seminars or tours at a university – even if they are a mandatory element of their academic program. The reason? The content is commonly exceedingly dull or too advanced, the temperature of the room is usually set to an extreme, and there’s always something else that they’d prefer to be doing.

So, how do you entice the average student to a meeting or event? The answer is simple – provide the attendees with free food. Not only does this universal “bribe” serve as an incentive, but it also provides a sufficient blood level sugar boost to keep anyone awake during the event. Unsurprisingly then, there are almost daily opportunities to score some complimentary fare on any campus.

These opportunities range from a standard weekly meeting to the visitation weekend when the best platters of food are on offer. To help you get the most of these benefits, I have ranked the top 10 best options around for an average college student to score free sustenance.

10: Weekly Seminar

Most departments host a weekly seminar. This is when someone from another institution gives a presentation. You’re left feeling your research is pitiful in comparison or confused because after the second slide you didn’t comprehend anything else that was said. To make matters worse, these seminars are invariably held at the most inconvenient times, e.g., 4 PM on a Friday.

On the plus side, these seminars provide you with a weekly food loot, even if it is uninspiring. Due to the seminar’s frequency and the nature of limited funds in academia for anything other than a few sports, you can expect the lowest of the low. Normally, this experience consists of coffee made from over-roasted beans, made with unfiltered water, that is then brewed for too long.  To elevate the experience, you can complete your beverage with a cheap knock-off creamer and perhaps a sachet of fake sugar. If you’re prompt, you’ll be able to grab a stale cookie to balance on the top of your Styrofoam cup. Use the coffee’s heat to soften the cookie to an edible consistency. If you’re lucky, you might find a chocolate chip contained within the cookie when you bite into it.

9: Group Meeting

Group meeting is another common weekly event.  This time, the presentations are given by the students. They’re a chance to show fellow lab members that you’re not as lazy as they assume and you’ve achieved something since the last time you presented. As a member of the “audience”, you want to stay focused enough to ask a thoughtful question or two but not expend too much mental energy in the process. Fortunately, if you’re in a well-funded lab, you’ll be provided with a perk to keep your energy levels high.

While I had the misfortune of suffering through 7:30 AM lab meetings, I was lucky enough to be supplied with bagels for my trouble. Not just a plain bagel from a supermarket that was full of preservatives. No, I got to choose from a variety of bagels were supplied fresh from a local establishment. Further, two flavors of cream cheese were provided. It might seem a tad pathetic, so I shouldn’t admit it. But I’ll be brave: these weekly breakfasts would sometimes be the highlight of my week during my graduate career.

Presently, I have the opposite misfortune of experiencing a 6 PM group meeting. In exchange for this social inconvenience, I am blessed with an individualized sandwich.  I won’t lie, it is a pretty sweet deal.  The only reason group meeting doesn’t rank higher on this list is because such freebies are not guaranteed. Many groups provide nothing.  Some can only stretch the budget far enough for a monthly cookie.  If you are blessed with a goody, enjoy it.  Many struggling students must suffer through these meetings without stimulus.

8:  Lab Birthday

When someone in the lab has a birthday, there is usually a delicious dessert-themed treat to enjoy. More often than not you’ll be offered a store-bought product, so you are not risking your digestive health by consuming your lab mate’s latest baking experiment. In larger labs, you can have the pleasure of enjoying cake, fruit or pie frequently. It’s a legitimate reason to have a break in the middle of the day.  This, as times, can seem like a gift from a deity.

While the treat is delicious, there is a downside to a lab birthday.  If it’s your birthday, you’ll be forced to cut and serve the dessert. This puts you front and center and makes you the target of your PI’s awkward attempts at being sociable.  Expect ridiculous questions about your culture (if you’re international) or perhaps an inappropriate question about your personal life. The boss’ presence makes the entire social occasion difficult for all involved as no one will relax.  Silence descends on the room as your fellow lab members scoff the cake into their mouths quickly.  This is when you beg for a chatty undergrad to say something, anything.  Please.

7:  Pie and Mole Day 

For this one to be available, you need to be involved in science-themed major. With Pie day being March 14th (3/14) and Mole day being October 23rd (10/23), these two “fictional” events are nicely spread throughout the year.  The department graciously allocates an hour in the afternoon for the celebration, where they have purchased pies, whipped cream, and coffee for everyone.

These free food options rank higher than the lab birthday due to the improved social aspect; there isn’t a general requirement that you talk to faculty during the eating of pie, which makes this a real freebie. Instead, you can hang out with fellow students in the department for an hour, eat as many calories as you desire, and avoid your PI the entire time.

6: Defense

The day someone defends their thesis is a massive one in their lives. It also holds great importance to the free-food scrounger that academia is littered with.  I will admit though, attending a defense is a high-risk option to score some grub.  You will be exchanging 45 minutes of your time for whatever food spread you enjoy, so make this decision wisely.

The quality of the food offered can range widely in quality and variety. This is because the food is supplied exclusively by the defender and their family members.  Sometimes, they bring beverages and snacks is a total afterthought. For you, this means you’ve given up 45 minutes for a cup of warm water and a broken cookie from a supermarket tray.  Thankfully, this is rare, as impressing the committee members with a smorgasbord of options is an accepted route to an easier defense.

Let’s assume you’re attending a defense where the family has made some effort. While alcohol is not provided, you can expect a variety of beverages that will always include coffee.  This coffee is purchased from a nearby coffee house and it comes hot, with real half and half, and tastes like coffee. If the family has decided to bake, you could get anything from a nice range of items including, cookies with M&M’s, muffins, fruit loaf, and perhaps a brownie.  Thankfully, if the family goes down this route, they have normally exhibited talent in the baking arena previously.  Your teeth, taste buds, and stomach will be able to process whatever they’ve produced in their kitchen while their child stressed over their PowerPoint. There will always be a healthy option, which is frequently represented by a fruit and/or vegetable platter. This means you can fill up on these lower-calorie options and finish your free meal with a sugar rush.

If the defender is in your lab then the feast isn’t over yet.  Once the private portion of the defense concludes, you attend another celebration.  This time, you will receive a half glass of sparkling wine (no one can afford actual champagne) and a piece of cake. It’s a lot of sugar in one day.  However, these events are rare and you can take this nutritionally empty day once in a while. Due to the options available at a defense, it beats a birthday celebration despite having to listen to a 45-minute talk that you’ve probably heard before.

5: Lab Party – at the PI’s House

The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is that you normally have to make something and bring it yourself, negating the whole “free food” concept.  However, the quality of food and lack of faculty, combined with free-flowing alcohol and games make this an overall decent event for an inexpensive feast.

I’ll admit that while all lab parties are different, they will each invariably begin with a period of extended awkwardness while you wait for the other guests arrive. Everyone has the same idea – arrive late and avoid that entire phase. You can guess how well that works out.  During this excruciating social situation, you will sit with your PI and munch on chips and dip.

Once the party starts to flow, the entrée, purchased by the PI, is served. It can range in ethnicity; Indian, Chinese, American or Turkish have all been themes I’ve seen served.  What makes this potluck buffet hilarious is the variety of food that the students bring with them. Fully expect to create a plate of butter chicken together with potato salad and spoonful of baked beans. Of course, many students in American labs are international, therefore, you get to experience some truly exquisite cuisine. Big opportunity to allow your palate to experience something other than a cold cut sandwich for once.

If you have a sweet tooth then a lab party is the place to be. That’s because preparing deserts is monumentally easier for the lazy grad student than anything else. This is why I once went to a party with eight different trays of brownies.  Yes, I brought one of them.

4: Departmental BBQ/Mixer/Party

Some departments have social committees and these planners like to bring everyone together as often as possible. As with every departmental event, you may be forced to talk to faculty, or classmates that you had forgotten existed since you last took a class with them two years ago. The small talk you must endure can be worth it though.

At an indoor event, such as the Christmas party, they go all out and provide highly respectable finger food.  We’re talking chicken satay, fruit on sticks, spring rolls, and sandwiches. The event is staffed with a bartender that will keep you refreshed with a beer or a glass of wine.  Don’t worry, there are always non-alcoholic options too.

With the summer season, comes the promise of a departmental BBQ.  A grilled burger (or hot dog), with all the fixings and sides, can feed you for an entire day. I’d be remiss for not pointing out the issues you’ll encounter – it’s unbearably hot to be outside and flies are as interested in your food as you are. Also, you need to eat early, around 11 AM, otherwise they’ll run out of food and you’ll be left with a sad hot dog bun filled with warm, slightly spoiled, macaroni salad for your lunch.

If you time everything correctly, however, you can relax for an hour in the middle of a workday under a shaded tree enjoying a cheeseburger and laughing with your friends.

3: Seminar Speaker Lunch

When the seminar speaker comes into town, they need to be entertained for the entire day before they give their presentation at the end of the day. If your PI is the host that week, i.e., they invited the speaker, then chances are high that you have a professional interest in what the speaker has to say. Your PI will have entertained them the night before, therefore, they will send you and another couple of lab members to escort the speaker to lunch. Normally, this involves frequenting a local restaurant and ordering whatever you want to eat. Don’t hold back. Get the shrimp on your salmon. Enjoy a side of onion rings.  Order that appetizer so can take half your entrée home to snack on later. If there’s time and things aren’t awkward, treat yourself to a cup of coffee. There will be no judgment when you hand in the receipt.

Yes, you have to “work” for this meal but very little compares on the free food scale to a restaurant meal in the academic world.

2: High Profile Guest Speaker Seminar

Once or twice a semester, the department will invite a prominent speaker to give the weekly departmental seminar. This elevates the free food potential so far beyond the pathetic coffee and rock-hard cookie that it is laughable. The department wants to look impressive.  They need to pander to this academic “celebrity” and that automatically means an impressive spread after their seminar.

The reason this food source ranks so highly is that these seminars are typically so busy that you can sneak in at the end.  That’s right, free food without having to sit through any presentation.  A rare event indeed. Additionally, the faculty is too distracted by engaging in intellectual conversations with the speaker that they have no desire to talk to the lowly students.  This allows you to just chat with your lab mates while enjoying a banquet of adorable sandwiches, mozzarella and tomato skewers, shrimp cocktail, edible fruit arrangements, a cheese plate, and some chocolate brownie crunch concoction. Then, wash all of that down with something from the open bar.

It is advisable though that you know the title of the seminar, just in case you do get dragged into an intellectual conversation.

1: Visitation Weekend for Graduate School Perspectives

Visitation weekends keep paying out after you enroll in a school. This event can get you through a whole weekend without having to buy a meal, all the while obtaining credit from your adviser and department head. It’s 48 hours of the best your department has to offer. After all, the aim is to impress a new batch of students that they want to suck the soul from.

The first night everyone arrives is the most food for the least work option.  This usually includes you having a designated perspective to meet, greet, introduce, and then hopefully lose during the evening. These events are normally at a non-university location (to make it seem like being a student at this institution is fun).  This invariably means music, unlimited food (buffet), and a few free alcoholic drinks that help alleviate the boredom of tedious repetitive conversation. Yes, you will detest the sound of your own voice after continuously talking about the professors, the town, and what the weather is like.

This is followed up the next day with a breakfast event where the perspectives meet the faculty for the first time. For you, this equates to free bagels, pastries, and coffee. This is pretty decent; however, it usually requires a 7 AM start. If you’re not an early riser, skip it. It’s not worth a bagel.  Take leftovers from the buffet the night before if you’re struggling to feed yourself.

If you’re seen as socially useful, you might be asked to represent your department at a closing formal dinner with the professors and perspectives.  This meal is a three-course extravaganza. Remember the whole point is to show the department in the best light possible, so no expense is spared. At the dinner expect the menu to use terms like sautéed, on the bed of, wild-caught, free-range, infused, artisan, and organic. For your entrée, you can anticipate choosing between steak or salmon with a side of asparagus and perfectly seasoned potatoes. This will be paired with appropriate wine and you’re not limited to a single glass.

The added bonus is that everyone else at your table will be trying to either get accepted to graduate school or convincing the perspective to join their lab.  Your work as a student is minimal.  So, just relax and enjoy the cheesecake. 



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