It’s easy to neglect your health as a college student when everything else seems so much more important. That 50 page reading assignment in an impossibly tiny font, that essay due in 6 hours, that lab report on an experiment you barely understood – priorities. In between we take a quick trip (or two, or three, or four) to the college dining hall and trust the cafeteria to keep us satiated, but before we know it, we end up with list of health problems that no 20-something should have to deal with. To remedy this, here are 10 tips on how to stay healthy on a dining hall diet.
1. Head to the salad bar before heading to the entrees.
Many people equate salad with side dish status, so we often forget that a well-balanced salad can actually be a full meal on its own. Most dining halls have a garden variety of fruits and veggies. Take advantage of this! Load your plate up with colorful foods, like spinach, cherry tomatoes, and bell peppers! Add some protein, like grilled chicken breast or low-fat cottage cheese and you have a healthy meal to get you going for the day.
2. Check out the vegetarian section (if there is one).
Some college dining halls have special options for vegetarians. Even if you aren’t vegetarian, the options offered there can provide balanced nutrition for the day. And believe it or not, quinoa salad and tofu “steak” can be surprisingly delicious!
3. Avoid refined carbohydrates.
A good rule of thumb for this tip is to stay away from white foods, like white rice, white bread and white pasta. While carbohydrates are an important part of a balanced diet, the simple carbs found in these foods won’t keep you as full, since the fiber has been stripped away from them. If you can, choose whole grains over refined grains. Go for wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, or brown rice if you have the chance.
4. Limit dessert intake by treating dessert as a reward, rather than an everyday occurrence.
It’s tough to stop eating sweets, especially if your college provides a display of tasty baked goods to tempt you every day, like mine does. How I deal with this temptation is by designating one day as my “dessert day,” and only choosing one single dessert to indulge in. That way, dessert is something rare that I can look forward to, rather than a typical daily occurrence.
5. Reduce your meal plan.
This tip might not work with everyone, but for me, reducing my meal plan helped me think more deliberately about my nutritional choices. I went from an unlimited meal plan to an 8 entries per week meal plan. Now, I’m not saying to eat fewer meals. Eating regularly is important to staying healthy. Although my meal plan only allows me to go to the dining hall 8 times a week, I still eat three meals a day with some snacks in-between. I do this by stocking up on food for the rest of the day during the times I do go to the college dining hall, and I choose food in terms of what will provide me the most nutrition for the day. Losing track of your health is easy when you don’t think about what you’re eating, and when you reduce your meal plan, nutrition becomes a deliberate choice, rather than a “I want some snacks, so I’m just going to head to the dining hall” decision.
6. Learn some healthy dorm room recipes.
This, of course, will depend on what cooking appliances your residence hall allows you to have. I’m allowed to have a fridge and a microwave in my dorm room, and as it turns out, a microwave can be used for more than just instant Ramen and cups of mac and cheese. When I don’t feel like going down to the dining hall for breakfast, I make microwave scrambled eggs.
7. Take out fruits and veggies for later.
If you don’t have portable food containers or zip-top baggies, these are a must. I use mine to take out fresh grapes, pineapple, spinach, tomatoes, lettuce, and more for my personal use later. I snack on the fresh fruits and veggies in my fridge when I don’t feel like leaving my dorm.
8. Use a smartphone app to track your food intake and exercise.
I use MyFitnessPal, but there are plenty of other apps out there, too. Taking a couple minutes to log down what you’ve eaten, and the exercise you’ve done, contributes to making your health a conscious choice. You can see if you’re getting the recommended nutrients and calories for the day based on your health goals, whether they are to gain weight, maintain your weight, lose weight, or something else.
9. Use your rec center.
Eating well is a significant part of staying healthy, but physical activity is just as important. At many schools, the gym or rec center is part of tuition payment, but it can be kind of scary to work out alone, especially if you’re a total newbie to fitness like I am. However, many schools offer free fitness classes and intramural sports, which are both great ways to stay in shape and make new friends in the process.
10. Everything in moderation—even keeping track of health.
It’s definitely possible to stay healthy on a college dining hall diet, you just have to be proactive about making conscious choices relating to your health. Just remember not to sweat it too much (pun intended!). If you begin stressing out about tracking calories or about maintaining health, remember that the most important thing to maintain is your psychological health and happiness.
Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist, but these tips worked for me based on personal experience. They may not work the same for everyone. Additionally, the intent of this article is not to body-shame, rather, it is an attempt to encourage healthy living for college students of all shapes and sizes.