Did you know that Food Services’ has a Registered Dietitian and Food Safety Officer? Pooja Mansukhani, based in New College, can answer all your campus dietary, allergy, and nutritional questions through e-mail or by appointment! Here at Food Services, we want everyone, regardless of their dietary preferences or restrictions, to eat well and healthy. We spoke with Pooja about Food Services’ options on campus and how to navigate the Dining Halls, cafeterias, and retail locations with a food restriction.

Please introduce yourself as a new member of the Food Services team. What is your role; your background?

I completed my first degree at the University of Waterloo where I studied economics, and then I decided I wanted to be a Dietitian, so I went right back to school at Ryerson and studied nutrition. I started working here at the University of Toronto in Food Services shortly after I graduated, and I’ve been here for just over two years now; I think I know my way around the campus and can navigate without getting lost, which is a big accomplishment at the U of T St. George Campus. I grew up in Toronto, so this is home for me.

I am the Registered Dietitian and Food Safety Officer with U of T Food Services. So what that means is I try to make the food environment on campus a healthy one, and I educate people and provide them information on what the healthy options are. I try to steer them in those directions to create a little more nutritional balance in their food choices and their eating habits. In the new year, we’ll be running events and samplings so people can taste our healthy foods.

I meet with students who have dietary restrictions and allergens to make sure they can navigate the food environment and find food that is safe and also healthy, along with food that they actually want to eat. We don’t want to provide them with a single option because that is the only thing we have.

I also offer training sessions, so workshops and seminars for various student groups on campus, and lunch-and-learn for people who are generally interested in various topics in nutrition.

The food safety side of my job entails rolling out a formal food safety program to make sure that all of our locations have a standard that they have to meet, and everybody is serving safe food to the customers. Safe food involves, of course, making sure that the food is compliant with people’s various diets and allergies and restrictions. Our staff is consistently trained to be able to deal with such diets and are able to interact with customers who have concerns when they come to dine with us.

From a Dietitians’s viewpoint, what do you think are the most positive aspects of Food Services and the food they provide?

I think the fact that Food Services has moved completely towards scratch cooking, meaning nothing, or very little, is brought in processed, is automatically going to make the food healthier. When you’re using fresh ingredients and you’re chopping and you’re cleaning andblending those ingredients together, you’re guaranteed to minimize your preservatives and additives, and you have a lot more control over the nutrients that are in your food. So, you can control the amount of fat and the amount of sodium, for example. Of course, as a Dietitian, nutrition isn’t everything. I recommend eating in a way that is sustainable, and appreciating your food. Not everybody enjoys food, but I think most people enjoy some aspect of eating, so we want to focus on that part too and ensure the eating experience is fun and people are getting a lot of variety to keep their pallets interested and engaged. Here at New College, we have a ton of international students, and so we want to be able to cater and tailor our menu towards their eating preferences and foods that are familiar to them, but also introduce what you could call “Canadian” foods,  foods that we’re proud of, that they maybe haven’t tried before. It’s all about increasing the variety and nutrition will follow. The more variety you consume, the higher the chances of your diet covering your nutritional needs.

Food allergies and intolerances are gaining awareness and becoming increasingly more prevalent in university students. How do you feel Food Services caters to those students?

We are working towards classifying our menus based on the main categories of diets or restrictions- vegan, gluten free, vegetarian, kosher, and halal. We will make this information as prominent as possible by posting it online and eventually on site for students to look at. We currently have recipe binders available at both Chestnut and New College Residences for students to browse through. I mentioned meeting with residence students to review their dietary needs or choices and I will follow up with them a couple times throughout the year. Any students who have questions about our menus and our food are welcome to connect with me. Our chefs are also really knowledgeable about dietary concerns and our staff receive training throughout the year so they know what to do when they are approached by a student asking about the food.  We don’t expect our staff to necessarily have all the answers, but at least they know who to go to. They expect these kinds of questions and provide good customer service to people who have such inquiries rather than viewing them as a hassle or a pain. So I think these four things: providing the information, having knowledgeable chefs and staff who know how to deal with dietary inquiries, and inviting students to meet with me help them feel comfortable when dining with us.

What are the steps students can take to learn about their options on the St. George campus?

The University of Toronto Food Services website is the best hub for information about Food Services. It not only provides menus but offers all sorts of resources on campus food, such as the Uof T food standards.  There are many great articles on nutrition, cooking, and sustainability. There are tips and tricks for cooking on your own and tons of recipes. It’s just a really good place to go to access information for both eating on campus and also eating off campus. And of course this is where we advertise the events and fun things that U of T hosts.

We’ve had some changeover in our food concepts and the menus that we offers at various locations, so I recommend going to visit them and try the food and talk to the chefs to find out what they are servings. The Menus have been developed by the chefs so they are really passionate about them.

Which locations would you recommend to students with a food allergy or intolerance to get a meal?

At many of our locations the ingredients are on display. You can select and customize your meal entirely. At Not Just Greens, for example, at Soup!, even at Za’atar, the food is in front of you. This make it easier and gives you more confidence and comfort knowing that you have full control over what goes into your meal.

The two residences are a little more complicated because they have detailed recipes with many ingredients in them, so it can be challenging if you don’t have a list of the ingredients or the recipes at your fingertips. However, being such large operations, there are many options, which makes it easy to find something that suits your diet or style of eating, whatever that is. At New College, we have a vegan/vegetarian station with considerable options that don’t contain gluten. As I’ve mentioned we want people to be able to eat a variety of foods. We also have recipe binders for our full menus sitting with our cashiers for students to browse through.

The final weeks of the semester are coming up, and then exams—what steps do you recommend students take to continue eating well and staying healthy during such a stressful time?

We all need to remember that food really is energy and nourishment, so it is essential in helping you get through the exam period–the long study days, and the exam writing. Good nutrition is so important for that; it’s not just about filling your stomach; it’s about getting the nutrients that your brains needs. Particularly when you’re stressed and if you’re not sleeping properly, proper nutrition and also some form of exercise is going to boost your performance. And also, I guess this is not really related to eating well, but sleep. We all underestimate the importance of sleep, but it truly does wonders for your whole system.

Get together with friends and eat as a group whenever you can during this period; it’s going to help keep you happy and lower your stress. Knowing that other people are going through the exact same experience that you are makes it easier endure. Make time for a sit-down meal–even if it’s only fifteen minutes–and during that time really try to focus on your meal. Do not look at your cell phone or laptop while you’re sitting down. This will provide a mental break from what you’re doing, and checking out from the stressful realm of exams and studying for fifteen or twenty minutes makes a big difference; it can renew you.

What’s the one best piece of nutritional advice you can give a student?

Eating is something that you’re going to do for the rest of your life, you you need to find patterns that are sustainable and work for you, and ideally you can find some enjoyment or satisfaction in the process. I think that’s really important because the second you start to form an unhealthy relationship with food, it becomes a difficult one to repair because you need food. I don’t recommend following diets, because I don’t think they are maintainable. So find something that’s maintainable; identify something that you enjoy about eating, and be mindful about the way you approach food. Don’t beat yourself up for eating “bad” foods. I try not to categorize foods as “good” or “bad,” because that introduces an element of guilt when you eat these “bad” foods, or a feeling of failure. Look at food as something your body requires, it’s neither good nor bad.

How can someone reach you if they have additional questions?

E-mail is probably best: pooja.mansukhani@utoronto.ca. or food.beverage@utoronto.ca for general questions. Students can schedule appointments with me through e-mail, and I hope to be out and about at our locations more in the New Year running events and actually engaging with the university community.

If you have any questions, concerns, or comments on nutrition or need help with your dietary needs on campus, don’t hesitate to contact Pooja! And remember, our menus are online, and our Food Standards pages outline special diets and what locations offer options for you!

– Emily Hotton