Lighter lunches, Fairtrade products and sandwiches on the run are winning fans among time-poor, waistline-conscious lecturers, reports Olga Wojtas
Amid the Government's concern about rising levels of obesity, most academics appear to have taken the healthy eating message to heart and are leaving the stodgy options to their students.
Many university catering services report that recent years have seen a shift away from indulgence to austerity. Ann Barlow, catering manager at Stirling University, says: "The days of academic colleagues munching their way through three courses at lunchtime are very much a thing of the past. Nowadays our professors and lecturers are much more likely to opt for lighter, healthier options, with grab-and-go items such as soup and sandwiches, paninis and ciabattas, all proving popular."
Bill McInnes, an admirably trim accounting professor at Stirling, and one of a group that regularly lunches together, believes the prime concern is health rather than lack of time. He reckons he is typical of his peer group when he says: "I'm much more conscious than I was 20 years ago as to what has a high fat or sugar content. I eat more than most because the vast majority of my colleagues will only have one course."
McInnes goes for home-made soup and, generally, the vegetarian option. He notes that even confirmed carnivores are increasingly avoiding red meat. They prefer chicken and fish, with salmon a particular favourite. The students may stoke up on chips and sticky toffee pudding, but their lecturers opt for boiled potatoes and the occasional yoghurt.
"Many of us have fruit in our room which we would snack on mid-morning and afternoon - previously it would have been a biscuit," says McInnes.
"There are biscuits at departmental meetings, and I can't resist. If there's a chocolate biscuit in front of me, I'll eat it. But most of my colleagues are fairly abstemious."
As well as thinking of their health, many academics also think of their wallets. Barlow reports a small but growing trend over the past couple of years for Fairtrade products, but moves in this direction across the UK have been promoted by socially aware students rather than academics.
"Recently we are noticing people are more interested in organic and local foods. Unfortunately, this comes at a price premium that most people are not prepared to pay, but I think attitudes to the cost of food will change and this is something we are watching carefully," says Barlow.
A year ago, Stirling introduced "healthy choice" finger-buffet menus for meetings and conferences in response to staff requests, although, according to Barlow, "It's quite difficult to come up with choices because it's not easy to pick things up unless they're bread and pastry." But Stirling staff can now enjoy mushrooms filled with low-fat cream cheese, roasted vegetable tortilla wraps and poached salmon baguettes, followed by strawberry and melon kebabs. And there is a great enthusiasm for exotic sandwiches, such as chicken and mango with mache lettuce on a poppyseed bloomer and prawns with lime and ginger on a malted bloomer.
Yet there are still some traditionalists around. Mark Houghton, executive chef at Birmingham University, says that, while there has been a shift towards healthy eating, roast joints and the local staple of curry remain popular.
Although customer focus groups call for more unusual and less calorific meals, staff subsequently complain if steak and kidney pie is off the menu. "They're good academics - they can't make their mind up," Houghton says. But he sees a distinct gender division, with female staff opting for lighter lunches and avoiding chips in favour of salad.
Birmingham has a range of eating options, and Houghton reports that the sit down table d'hote lunch has fallen out of favour. "People are eating a sandwich at their computer; eating on the hoof."
One such is Philip Young, senior lecturer in media studies at Sunderland University, but his choice is impeccable. Sunderland has a popular line in Cranks' "eat good, feel good" products, GM-free with no artificial colours or flavours. Young has just had a cheese and pesto sandwich and a bottle of Fairtrade orange juice.
He notices a difference between his eating habits as an academic and in his previous career as a journalist. "The balance between liquids and solids has changed fundamentally. Students prefer you to be upright."
Many journalists seemed to think that food was something to "mop up the beer," he says.
Young is definitely eating more healthily, but sees work pressures as the biggest barrier to convivial lunching, since it is difficult to find colleagues who are free at the same time.
"When I worked on a newspaper, I might have had four pints of Tetleys and a plain white roll with a piece of cheese, but I would have been with ten or 15 other people; meeting contacts, we called it. Here, I'm sitting on my own trying not to get crumbs into my keyboard," he says. "I'm healthier, but not necessarily happier."
The same might be said of conference delegates, for whom a sit-down lunch with wine is increasingly unlikely. Rob Davidson, a conference management expert at Westminster University, says there is a trend to give academic conference delegates "brain food" to avoid the notorious afternoon slump.
"We know that fatty and sweet food dulls the brain, so it's lighter food, salady things. Colours are important, such as red peppers and green peppers. Sparkling mineral water wakes you up, and conferences are doing away with wine, certainly at lunchtime." And coffee breaks increasingly feature alternatives to caffeine such as fruit smoothies and herbal teas.
"But the funny thing about academics is that we tend to pay peanuts for conference attendance but expect a champagne lifestyle," Davidson says. "Academics are not the easiest of delegates. The first complaint is always about the quality and quantity of the food. It's not enough. It's not hot enough. It's not lavish enough."