20 Secret Dessert Hacks For Your College Dining Hall

The college dining hall can either be the bane of a student's existence or a place to express culinary creativity. In the average college cafeteria, you're likely to find several stations with various food options, including a salad bar, ice cream machine, and grill. While there are a host of premade dessert options available for students during lunch and dinner, the standard offerings can quickly become mundane after just a few weeks. With some imagination (and access to a microwave), you can transform many of these desserts into exciting creations that appease your palate and sense of adventure.

Here are some of our favorite ways to upgrade dining hall desserts with new flavors and textures. Many of these suggestions are customizable and can be tailored to a variety of foods available in the conventional dining hall. Modify the recipes based on your favorites and whatever the staff puts out for students each day.

1. Make a cookie ice cream sandwich

Who doesn't love an ice cream sandwich on a hot summer day (or a cold winter one — we don't judge)? Your college dining hall likely has the tools you need to make a simple yet delicious treat with cookies and soft serve ice cream. 

For this sandwich, you'll want to pick a cookie with flavors that complement the ice cream. For instance, choose a classic chocolate chip, sugar, or molasses cookie if you have coffee ice cream. The cookie texture is important; it needs to be soft and pliable so you can bite down without spattering ice cream everywhere. 

Want to share with a friend? Slicing the ice cream sandwich in half before adding the top cookie prevents the ice cream from squishing out of the cookie layers. For an aesthetic and flavor boost, roll the cookie ice cream sandwich in chocolate chips, nuts, or sprinkles. 

2. Wafflize your ice cream sandwich

Many colleges leave waffle irons out 24/7 so students can take advantage of the appliances throughout the day. You can make a dessert waffle in your dining hall with premade waffle batter and toppings from the ice cream bar, such as fruits and syrups. However, we recommend using waffles to make an even more creative ice cream sandwich. 

To pull this off, simply add waffle batter to the iron and cook it according to the directions. You can choose to bake only half of a waffle and use each quarter for the top and bottom of the sandwich or split a whole waffle with someone else. Once cooked, place your favorite soft serve ice cream and toppings on one piece and place the second waffle on top to complete the sandwich. Leave it open-faced for a fun twist on a banana split if you like.

For that perfect golden-brown waffle color, Consumer Reports recommends preheating the iron for at least 10 minutes before cooking. Take this time to enjoy a beverage or gather your toppings — it's worth it!

3. Stuff a banana with sweet fillings

Bananas are a perfectly sweet vehicle for fillings like peanut butter, chocolate-hazelnut spread, granola, and nuts. Easy to make in the dining hall, stuffed bananas are a simple, sweet dessert that comes together in just a few minutes. The only definitive ingredient you need is a firm banana. Barely ripe, yellow bananas are ideal for stuffing because they're strong enough to hold the fillings, and the subtle flavor lets you enjoy the delicious additions. 

Once you split the banana down the middle, customize the dessert with your favorite combination of toppings. For instance, try peanut butter, chocolate chips, and fudge brownie chunks. For a fruitier rendition, add macerated strawberries to your banana. Macerating softens the strawberries and heightens their naturally sweet flavor; simply pick up strawberries from the salad bar, mix the slices in a bowl with a bit of sugar, and let it sit for about 30 minutes. 

4. Roll up some dessert sushi

Although sushi is commonly associated with savory fish and veggies, you'll find that there are many different occasions when you can make sushi-like rolls: including dessert! To quickly craft dessert sushi, fill a tortilla with your favorite spreads, such as Nutella, peanut butter, or jam, along with fruits and crunchy elements like granola or nuts. Roll it up and, if you like, finish it with more spread on the outside before rolling it in shredded coconut, granola, or nuts. Slice the tortilla into small rounds and serve. 

The fillings for dessert sushi are entirely customizable, and you may want to include sweetened rice. To make it, mix cooked rice (available at most dining halls) with maple syrup and butter until combined; you want a tacky texture so it is pliable in the wrap. Toss the rice in cinnamon before adding it to the tortilla with sliced apples or any of your favorite fillings.

5. Use the panini press for an on-the-go dessert

The panini press is one of the most underrated appliances in a dining hall. Not only can you use the panini press to make savory panini sandwiches for lunch or dinner, but you can also make a sweet dessert with your favorite dining hall bread, fillings, and spreads. Have fun and experiment with honey, banana, Nutella, and any of your other dining hall MVPs.

Panini Happy recommends placing wet ingredients like jams or mashed fruit in the center of your sandwich to prevent burning the edges. For an even crispier dessert panini, you can also add butter, margarine, or cooking spray to the exterior of the sandwich (you'll find these at the sandwich station in your dining hall). 

6. Head to the soda fountain for a root beer float

Root beer floats are a nostalgic diner classic, and the dessert is at your fingertips in the dining hall. To make this sweet beverage, simply combine fountain root beer and a scoop of hard or soft serve ice cream in a tall glass. Top it with whipped cream (and a cherry), and enjoy with good company. 

Avoid a super fizzy root beer float (and a sticky mess) by tilting the glass while slowly dispensing root beer from the tap. This simple step reduces the foam that builds up when the soda's carbon dioxide touches the fat in the ice cream. For an even more transformational root beer float experience, see if your dining hall offers chilled mugs. It's guaranteed to make the flavor of the float more pronounced. 

7. Dress up your ice cream with cereal

Everyone knows the obvious ice cream toppings like chocolate chips, hot fudge, and sprinkles. But did you know another secret crunchy topping lurks in your dining hall's breakfast section? Next time you make a soft serve sundae or cone, try topping the ice cream with your favorite breakfast cereals. They're usually left out all day (because, yes, everyone needs a bowl of Frosted Flakes at midnight during exam season), so you'll usually have access to your childhood favorites when it's time for ice cream. Fruity Pebbles, Cocoa Puffs, and Honeycombs are some of the popular and common cereals you can find in the average college dining hall. 

Try combining cereals with other unique ice cream sundae toppings like pretzels and potato chips for an added crunch. Above all, don't be afraid to get creative! 

8. Make caramel apples with ice cream toppings

Always a favorite sweet treat in fall, caramel apples can be a dining hall favorite too. You'll need a sufficient supply of caramel from the ice cream station as well as fresh apples. If you have a choice in apples, try to pick a sweet eating apple such as a Gala or a firm, tart apple like a Granny Smith. You can either leave the apples whole or cut them into thin slices with a knife. You'll next want to melt the caramel in a microwave, stirring frequently. 

You can prepare an array of toppings based on the availability of your dining hall. Chopped nuts, chocolate chips, and sprinkles are all perfectly crunchy and sweet toppings for a candy apple. 

9. Craft a quick dessert parfait with Greek yogurt

Greek yogurt is a popular breakfast for college students, but did you know that you can transform it into a perfectly sweet dessert with only a few other ingredients? Make a parfait with Greek yogurt, layered fruit, and a bit of sweet, crunchy toppings like granola or nuts. When you want something sweet but not overwhelmingly decadent, it's the perfect dessert. 

You can customize a parfait to the ingredients available in the dining hall and your favorite sweeteners. Just let your imagination and taste buds guide you, and have fun trying new combos. For instance, make a Greek yogurt parfait with layers of vanilla yogurt, honey, slivered almonds, and pomegranate, or try a fruity yogurt with granola, strawberries, and caramel sauce. 

10. Make hot chocolate with two ingredients

Hot chocolate is a college necessity, and you can make a delicious warm cup using only two ingredients in your dining hall. Bring milk to a simmer in the microwave (the exact time depends on the microwave's power) and stir in a tablespoon or two of Nutella. You may have to clean off the spoon frequently to mix the Nutella into the milk thoroughly, but it will no doubt be worth it. This steaming chocolate-hazelnut beverage is creamy, refreshing, and perfect for enjoying with friends while studying in the dining hall. 

To upgrade your hot chocolate, add a drizzle of chocolate sauce from the ice cream station as well as chocolate chips. Don't forget a hefty serving of whipped cream on top, either! 

11. Make ice cream nachos

Ice cream nachos have to be the best dining hall dessert hack ever. Although ice cream nachos can use crispy tortilla chips, we also recommend breaking sugar cones and using the shards in lieu of tortillas. If you're using chips, first cover them in a mixture of cinnamon sugar — tossing lightly so all the chips are covered. Then add your favorite hard ice cream and sprinkle toppings over the whole bowl. Scoop the ice cream with the chips or cone pieces and enjoy a blissful bite. 

This is the perfect treat to experiment with and enjoy with friends. You can make a Reese's-inspired ice cream nacho plate with a drizzle of chocolate syrup, peanut butter (softened with a splash of milk), and peanut butter cup pieces. Or, try a cookies and cream variation with crumbled Oreos, chocolate syrup, and cookies and cream icing. The possibilities are endless! 

12. Ditch Starbucks for a DIY dining hall Frappuccino

It's college, so naturally, everyone needs some sort of caffeinated boost to get through long nights of studying. If you're too far from a Starbucks, try making your own Frappuccino in the dining hall with a few simple ingredients. The typical Frappuccino uses a blender, but if you don't have one available, you can use super-fine crushed ice in a mug instead. Shake or blend the ice with cooled coffee, a sweetener, and your milk of choice. It is best to drink this beverage ASAP because super-fine ice tends to melt very quickly and water down the other ingredients. 

Flavor your DIY Frappuccino with chocolate syrup, caramel, or maple syrup. Like our other dining hall hacks, don't forget to add whipped cream! 

13. Pour hot coffee over ice cream for an affogato

Traditionally, affogato is hot Italian espresso poured over a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream. This coffee-flavored dessert is sweet, creamy, and highly caffeinated. It's the perfect sweet boost you need to get through a hard night of studying!  

Although many dining halls do not offer espresso machines, you can make an affogato with very strong dining hall coffee. For a simple upgrade to this recipe, we recommend dipping a biscotti or cookie into the frothy mixture and enjoying it right away. You can also pour the coffee right over a brownie à la mode and top it with chocolate syrup for a mocha-brownie infusion. In short, there's no wrong way to enjoy an affogato, so have fun with it. 

14. Make a milkshake

No one disagrees that a milkshake is a perfectly engineered food product. The only thing to argue about is whether a milkshake is a dessert or a beverage! 

Make a milkshake in your dining hall by combining your favorite ice cream with a splash of milk. Add less milk for a thicker shake or more milk for a creamier concoction. You can crumble your favorite dining hall cookie, brownie, or even cheesecake into the mixture for a bit of crunch and flavor. There are some unusual milkshake add-ins to play with, too — try blending bacon into your milkshake for a savory, umami surprise. And, if you need yet another reason to dip your fries into a shake, a touch of salt will boost your taste buds' response to the sweet flavors (via Science).

15. Try out the TikTok tortilla hack

In 2020, TikTok creator crystalscookingfun popularized a folded tortilla hack that changed the cooking world forever. To construct the triangle-shaped pocket, make one slice halfway into the tortilla, place different fillings (precooked if necessary) into each quarter, then fold the quadrants on top of each other. You can eat the tortilla as is or press it for a few seconds in a panini press or skillet for extra color. 

The original breakfast tortilla idea is great, but this hack also makes an excellent dessert when filled with syrups, nuts, schmears, and fruit. We recommend a strawberry cheesecake tortilla with fresh chopped strawberries, yogurt, crumbled granola, and viscous strawberry sauce. 

According to Alpha Foodie, there are some tricks to getting a perfect tortilla fold. Put fresh ingredients like berries and avocado in the middle to reduce overcooking. You can also dip your tortilla pocket into a side sauce. 

16. Spread chocolate in a cone for a DIY sundae cone

Whenever someone reminisces about the ice cream truck, it seems like they forget about the sundae ice cream cone. One of the most tried-and-true novelty ice creams out there, the original Drumstick was invented in 1928 (surprisingly, Nestlé didn't add the signature chocolate interior and "nugget" at the bottom until decades later). Luckily, you can recreate that delicious chocolate cone in a dining hall. 

For a DIY ice cream sundae cone, drizzle microwave-melted chocolate or chocolate syrup inside a sugar cone from the ice cream station. Place a few molten chocolate chips in the bottom and allow the chocolate to harden for about 30 minutes before adding your ice cream and topping it with crushed peanuts.

17. Make a cake pop with dining hall cake

Cake pops are so 2010, but when you need a creative dessert idea, cake pops are always there. This bite-sized treat is fun to make, but you will get your hands dirty (be sure to wash your hands before handling the ingredients). 

The basic ingredients for a cake pop are baked cake, frosting, and melted chocolate. You can deconstruct a frosted sheet cake slice from the dining hall by separating the cake from the frosting. Crumble the cake into tiny pieces while you melt chocolate in a microwave. Add small increments of the frosting into the crumbled cake and mix — you want a pliable, ball-able consistency. After rolling the cake into balls, stick each ball with a fork and dip it into the melted chocolate. Decorate with your favorite sprinkles from the ice cream station and let cool before biting in. 

18. Host a chocolate fondue night with friends

Although the dining hall may not be your dream entertainment space, a fondue party with friends in a dining hall is the perfect way to get together and enjoy a sophisticated treat. Prepare your fondue bar by melting chocolate or grabbing a bowl of chocolate syrup from the ice cream station. Then, collect some fondue-able favorites from the salad bar like blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries, an array of cookies and desserts from the sweets station, and some crunchy pieces like pretzels, potato chips, and maybe even french fries. See which of your friends can find the best chocolate fondue combination! 

Pro tip: If you don't have access to skewers, use metal forks to dip your selections into the chocolate. 

19. Make a dining hall apple pie with granola

Although apple pie is a frequent flyer on the dessert bar, you can make your own with some simple ingredients. Slice your favorite apple (we recommend a Granny Smith for its tartness and robustness in pies) into tiny pieces and toss them with cinnamon sugar. Then, top your favorite granola over the apple and sugar mixture, and heat it in the microwave for a few minutes. You may need to microwave it a second time, but you'll eventually have a soft, molten apple pie waiting for you. 

Apple pie tastes much better when served à la mode with vanilla ice cream and a little whipped cream. You can also drizzle caramel syrup from the ice cream station over your microwaved creation.

20. Press banana bread in a waffle maker for a warm dessert

Who said waffle makers should be reserved for waffles alone? For a quick dessert, place banana bread in a waffle maker and press gently for less than a minute. You'll get delicious waffle-ized banana bread pockets that you can fill with sliced banana and chocolate syrup. 

Before trying this hack, make sure to check with the dining hall staff to ensure that pressing foods other than waffles is acceptable. To keep all students safe, there may be standards to avoid allergens or cross-contamination that must be considered when working with a shared iron. You'll also want to be sure to spray the iron with designated cooking spray before adding your banana bread to prevent sticking.