The Best Food Hacks to Improve Dining at Valentine

When we go to Valentine Dining Hall (Val), we all have a common goal in mind: to eat. Whether you are there to catch up with friends, do homework or write that article for The Student you’ve been procrastinating on, the main reason for going to Val is the open access to food. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t official dining hours; there is always something to drink or munch on while you do whatever it is that you are there to do. Although we may refuse to admit it, Val is at the heart of campus life.

This is exactly why the so-called “Val hacks” are precious pieces of information that should be treasured and shared. Amherst students spend years eating at Val and collecting different hacks to spice up what would otherwise be a repetitive, tiresome dining experience. So, for the sake of contributing to a more positive Val experience, here are some Val hacks from some knowledgeable seniors looking to pass on their wisdom.

Saturday mornings may not be everyone’s favorite time to be at Val — weekends are meant for sleeping-in, after all. However, for Soledad Slowing-Romero ’20, Saturdays are the best days for Val breakfast, and it is because of one main reason: fresh strawberries.

Slowing-Romero’s Saturday breakfast of Philadelphia cream cheese spread over a toasted seeded bagel with cut-up fresh strawberries and drizzled with honey is her favorite breakfast of the week, and maybe even her favorite Val meal overall. Still, she has some other tricks but her sleeve. Aside from her beloved Saturday breakfast bagel, Slowing-Romero’s favorite Val hack is a PB&J, Val-style. Simple enough, her sandwich consists of Val’s oatmeal-crusted whole wheat bread with peanut butter and four berry jam and is then toasted on the handy panini press. A perfect low-stakes snack for the go.

The panini press is useful  for more than convenient, everyday lunches, however. It can also be used for a special meal on the day that most Amherst students relish: chicken tender day. Julian Brubaker ’20 has invented and mastered what he calls a “Chicken Tender Melt.” For him, the already-wonderful Val chicken tender experience is enhanced with the combination of sourdough bread, the tenders, cheese (any kind so long as it is not American cheese, Brubaker insists), tomato slices, barbecue sauce and ranch, all pressed into a perfectly toasted panini. Chicken tender day just got an upgrade.

But the panini press isn’t the only equipment Brubaker takes advantage of; the stir fry station is also a star in his creative Val hacks. This time he has set out to reinterpret another American favorite: Mac and Cheese. For those days when Val doesn’t have Mac and Cheese Madness but you are desperately in need of some comfort food, Brubaker has an inventive yet simple solution. All you need to have to create a comforting plate of mac and cheese are noodles from the pasta station (other types of pasta will do), your preference of cheese, veggies from the salad bar and some elbow-grease heating it up and mixing it all together at the stir fry station.

While comfort food like bagels and paninis are often exactly what the stress of campus calls for, there are also days when you want to eat something lighter and healthier. Sydney Nelson ’20 has got you. Nelson’s Val hack is perhaps the most thought-out salad bowl you have heard of. Start off with your rice of choice, then add spinach, lettuce, cut-up lighter side chicken, shredded carrots, beans, brussel sprouts (when available) and quinoa salad, if possible. Then douse the dish in Frank’s red hot sauce and sesame ginger dressing. Mix well and you’ve got a healthy, flavorful alternative to whatever Val’s main dish is, or a filling snack you can feel good about eating in between serving hours.

If the Val hack you’re craving is one that requires a little less manual labor, Jennifer Chen ’20 recommends the underrated trick of combining rice and pesto. Always available, this dynamic duo can save you when you don’t really want anything from Val but still need something to hold you over for a study session. We all have those days, and Chen has figured out how to overcome them. For some extra protein, consider adding some lighter-side chicken, and you’re good to go!

These gastronomic hacks prove what many of us are unwilling to accept. Although Val admittedly has a limited range of options, if you are willing to get creative our dining hall can be a wonderland of culinary possibilities waiting to be discovered. Given the amount of time we all spend at Val (whether we want to or not), it might be worth hanging onto as many Val hacks as possible — and sharing them too. With most of us having plenty more than just half a semester left of eating at Val, we might as well learn from those leaving and make the best of our time eating here.

So, seniors, do us all a favor and share your knowledge! Email ([email protected]) your favorite Val hacks (brownie points if you send pictures with your favorite meal) and you might just have your recipe featured in another Val-hacks article, and save the dining experience of a struggling first-year. In the meantime, everybody should tweet Val food — and hacks — to Gordon Ramsay; his reaction is worth as much as a year’s tuition.