Navigating the Dining Hall

College students will begin the fall semester in about a month. Freshmen will suddenly have the freedom to choose what they eat without any input from their parents. If they live on campus, students will make these decisions at an all-you-can-eat dining hall.

Living on a college meal plan provides an opportunity for students to think about nutrition—perhaps for the first time. By navigating the choices available they can establish a healthy eating pattern for the rest of their life. I’ve shared a few simple tips below to help health-conscious college students feel more confident and less overwhelmed while eating at school.

Orange Rosemary Roasted Chicken
Prep method matters! When navigating the dining hall, look for roasted or grilled options and limited fried options.

Find a routine and stick to it.

Look at your weekly class schedule and the dining hall’s meal times to allot time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. Your class times will vary throughout the week, so planning time for meals can prevent you from skipping a meal and overeating later. If you tend to lose track of time on busy days, try setting phone or calendar reminders.

Explore all the options and resources available.

After a few weeks you will notice that the meals served at your dining hall are part of a scheduled rotation. Be sure to explore all the serving stations—even after you get used to the meal schedule. This habit can help you make more healthful and less impulsive choices.

Look for nutrition information on the menu labeling as you walk around the dining hall. Take note of how foods are described. Choose options that are grilled, roasted, or sautéed. Limit your choices of foods that are creamy, fried, or rich.

Contact the food service dietitian or dining hall manager to schedule a guided tour if you follow a special diet or have a food allergy. The dining hall staff is there to help. Don’t be afraid to ask how an item was prepared or for the sauce on the side.

Balance your plate.

Start by filling half your plate with vegetables from the salad bar, hot bar, or both. Fill one quarter of your plate with lean protein like grilled chicken, baked fish, or beans. Fill the last quarter of your plate with a whole grain like brown rice, whole wheat pasta, or bread. By following these MyPlate guidelines, your plate will be balanced with fiber and protein. It will satisfy your hunger and sustain you until your next meal. If you still feel hungry 20 minutes after eating, listen to your body and have a little more. Don’t forget to take fresh fruit with you on your way out.

Drinks count too.

Drink water, milk, or unsweetened tea with most of your meals. Drinks from the soda fountain can contribute a significant number of calories and added sugars to your meal. Limit soda as much as possible and keep your portion of 100% fruit juice to half a cup. If you drink coffee, try it black or add just one teaspoon or packet of sugar. If you like your coffee with dairy, try adding low-fat milk instead of cream.

Enjoy your meals.

College goes by way too fast. You will miss eating with your group of friends at the dining hall when you no longer live on campus. Enjoy your meals together and don’t stress over occasionally enjoying the dessert bar. Try to follow these tips as often as you can and remember that moderation is key.