How to Build a Healthy Meal at the Dining Hall (30+ Tips)

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This week, my sister is starting college [word of advice to those starting college: enjoy it. love it. treasure each moment]. I remember the first few weeks of eating in a dining hall and navigating the meal plan. I definitely ended my dinner with soft-serve ice cream and sprinkles most nights for a few weeks in the beginning. After a month or so, I realized that the chicken parmesan and soft-serve would be there for me any-day, but maybe I should include more veggies into my day.

Although it may seem difficult at first, it’s absolutely possible to eat well in a dining hall!

First things first, the #1 tip I have for eating well in college is do not skip meals. Yes, I know, that sleeping in until 8:20 for your 8:30 class sounds like the most appealing option, but then, you’ll just end up falling asleep in your 8:30 class. Not a good impression to make. Set the alarm, and get up in time to eat breakfast. Better yet, wake up early and get in a morning workout session. Now that you make your own schedule, you have to make time for meals.

Once you get to the dining hall, take a look around first. Many schools also let you look ahead of time on their menus online. Think about building a balanced plate by including:

  • Half your plate full of veggies
  • Quarter of your plate with a protein source
  • Quarter of your plate with a healthy carbohydrate source
  • Healthy fats in cooking or on top

Veggies

  • Look for a salad bar. Overload your plate with veggies for tons of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals, and fiber to keep you full and your digestive system happy and healthy.
  • Look for steamed or roasted veggies. Don’t be afraid to ask for extra veggies.
  • Add veggies to your main meal. If you’re ordering eggs, throw in some mushrooms, onions, peppers, or spinach. Same with sandwiches or burritos. You can always ask to add extra veggies instead of a ton of rice, for example.

photo

Protein

  • College students are busy running around campus, working out (another tip: hit the gym in the morning to avoid the afternoon/evening gym rush), and socializing, of course. Protein is what will keep you full and satisfied to avoid those hunger rushes where you end up snacking on everything in your room.
  • Aim for about a palm-sized portion of protein at all meals, even breakfast! Most people eat large amounts of protein at lunch and dinner but skip out on protein at breakfast.
  • Ideas for protein at breakfast are eggs, peanut butter, cheese, Greek yogurt, or nuts.
  • Lunch and dinner protein could be chicken, meat, deli meats, fish, beans, or more.
  • Try topping your salad with tuna, beans, or grilled chicken.
  • Look for soups with extra veggies and protein – chili, lentil/bean soup, veggie soups.
  • Grab grilled or baked protein instead of fried or breaded options.
  • If there’s fish available, try to eat it at least twice a week for omega 3 fats.

Carbohydrate

  • Look for nutrient-dense carbohydrate sources like those in fruits and vegetables (sweet potatoes, squash).
  • Look for a fruit and yogurt bar.
  • Grab a piece of fruit with meals, and take one to go. Fruit can be a great snack on-the-go or after the gym because it’s full of nutrients and portable.
  • Add fruit to salads for an extra flavor boost.
  • For a snack, think carbohydrate + protein. This will keep you going in between meals instead of just a carbohydrate-rich snack. Instead of an apple, try an apple with peanut butter.
  • Skip refined carbohydrates and simple sugars, most of the time. These include most bagels, pasta, breads, and sweets. Most people are shocked to hear a normal size bagel is equal to about 5 slices of bread! If you’re only having a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast, it will drive your blood sugar way up. It won’t satisfy you, and you’ll end up hungry in an hour.
  • Think if you really want dessert. Just because dessert is there doesn’t mean you have to have it. At the end of your meal, assess your hunger level. If you’re truly hungry and want a little sweet treat, grab a small treat. Enjoy each bite, and stop when you’re not tasting it anymore. On the flip-side, don’t deny yourself dessert if you truly want it.
  • Improvise with dessert. Make your own sweet treat with yogurt, fruit, and even a dash of honey if you want more sweetness. It’s delicious!

fruit college

Fats

  • Fat-free is not always the best choice! Fats are essential for brain function, skin and hair health, and so much more. Don’t be afraid of fat.
  • Grab simple salad dressings like olive oil & vinegar instead of low-fat or heavy dressings (ranch, bleu cheese).
  • Throw healthy fats as toppings on salads or meals like a handful or nuts or half an avocado.
  • Be careful of hidden fats in your food like fried foods or heavy sauces (alfredo, caesar, ranch). Make switches like choosing grilled chicken vs fried chicken, or a marinara sauce vs alfredo sauce.

oil vinegar

Extra Tips

  • Pay attention to beverages. Grab water most of the time. Yes, there will be soda and juice fountains, but they’re usually empty calories and the calories and sugar can add up quickly. [Also, pay attention to the other college beverages, if you know what I mean.]
  • Leave comments or feedback. Dining halls often have comment boxes. Leave comments about what you like about the food and what can be improved. Be specific, and leave requests like adding a fruit and yogurt bar. Fill out the email surveys at the end of the semester on dining halls. Request local food or campus farmer’s markets.They can’t improve the food without feedback!
  • Watch portion sizes. I know dining halls are unlimited, but that doesn’t mean you should eat every single meal they’re offering.
  • Variety is key! Mix it up on a daily basis, so you don’t get bored. Instead of hitting the pasta or sandwich station, try something new.
  • Consider a “points” meal plan. Points plans can help you avoid the “unlimited” overeating at dining halls, and there may be more options like sushi or certain snack foods available.

sushi

  • If you have dietary restrictions, talk to a chef or manager at the dining hall. Dining halls are usually pretty accommodating if you are gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, or have a food allergy or intolerance. My university would make special meals on request if a student wanted a gluten-free option, or had a food allergy. It’s for your safety!
  • See if your school has a Registered Dietitian! A lot of campuses have dietitians that may have tabling events with nutrition information and food samples, or that can meet with you for nutrition counseling or to answer questions. If it’s covered in your health fee, take advantage of this service!
  • Take advantage of the end-of-the-semester feast. Many campuses offer a special meal during finals to celebrate being done the semester. We had lobster at mine! Enjoy the delicious food, and celebrate completing the semester.

Whew, that was a bunch of tips, but I know there’s more tips out there!

Look forward to another post in the future on Snacks to Keep in Your Dorm Room.

Share below if you have tips on building a healthy meal at the dining hall.  Feel free to share an example of a healthy meal you ate at the dining hall.

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