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For as long as she can remember, Savannah T., a freshman at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, has enjoyed nightly meals of lean meats, grilled vegetables, and fresh fruits. At home, healthy eating was just a part of life. Now, as a college student, she is responsible for putting healthy foods on her own plate.
“I don’t really know what the options are. Hopefully [there are] more than just carbs and pasta,” she worries.
Savannah is not alone in her concerns. In college, even the most conscientious eaters can be swayed by the repeating siren song of soft-serve ice cream and waffle fries. While these are fine to enjoy sometimes, integrating nutrition-packed foods into your diet is important.
Katelyn J.—who studies dietetics, nutrition, and exercise science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln—admits that she struggled to make healthy food choices during the first few months of living on campus. “At first, I definitely did what everyone else does, like eat greasy breadsticks with my meals,” she explains. Eventually, though, the novelty of certain foods wore off and she started searching for healthier choices.
“I look through what [is] there and try to have a salad or fruit with each meal,” she notes. Katelyn explains that it is helpful to look at each day as a whole and try to keep each meal balanced. For example, if she has a carbohydrate-heavy breakfast, she aims for a protein- or vegetable-rich lunch and dinner.
Instead of waiting until the sluggishness caused by a fried-food diet sets in, start making healthy decisions from your very first trip to the dining hall. No matter whether you’re at a small college or large university, campus food options can be overwhelming. But more options mean more, and varied, opportunities for healthy eating!
Your Plan of Attack
- Nutrition information is the healthy eater’s best friend. Many campus dining establishments offer facts about ingredients, calories, fats, sugar, vitamins, and minerals on a sign right next to the meal or on their Web site.
- Use the information you gather as a guide toward healthy foods that will boost your energy. Be conscious of serving sizes too: sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs and it’s tempting to finish everything on the plate. If you are full, ask for a takeout box.
- Some dining services may be more hesitant to provide information. If that’s the case, gather support from other students and interested professors, get in touch with the manager, and ask for more readily available nutrition information.
- Figure out what’s regularly featured. There might be a salad bar or sandwich station. These can provide reliable, healthy options, and also offer ways to get creative. For example, ask for a dollop of hummus at the sandwich station, grab some veggies from the salad bar, and voila! You have an instant, healthy snack that wasn’t advertised anywhere on the dining hall’s menu.
Grab ingredients and go!
Gourmet Guacamole: Ask a server for some cumin and an avocado, or pick them up at a local grocery. Spoon the avocado flesh into a bowl and mash it together with one tablespoon of salsa or crushed tomatoes, one tablespoon of diced onions, and the cumin. Add some parsley: it’s surprisingly high in Vitamins A & C, iron, potassium, calcium, and folate. If there are lime wedges by the soda fountain, squeeze two or three over top for even better flavor. Instead of dipping fried chips, ask for a whole-wheat tortilla and grab some sliced veggies. Spread the guacamole on and top it with lettuce, more tomatoes, and a sprinkling of cheese if you like. Instant burrito!
Simple Pasta: Ask for one cup of whole-grain pasta. Add your favorite veggies and protein from the salad bar. Drizzle on one-half tablespoon of olive oil, then snag a few lemon wedges from the soda fountain and squeeze them on top. Toss it all together and season with spices
Pocket Pizza: Grab a whole-wheat pita pocket from the deli. Top it with a spoonful of pasta sauce. Sprinkle on a bit of cheese and a handful of mixed veggies from the salad bar. Add some cubed chicken or tofu, pop it all in the toaster oven, and bake until the cheese melts.
Consult a Professional
Colleen Davis, a registered dietitian at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, says that she often meets with students seeking advice about healthier on-campus dining options.
“Try to stick to one plate,” she suggests. “When you are in an all-you-can-eat facility, you can get overwhelmed and end up over-consuming.”
She also recommends thinking of your plate as a pie chart. Fill it with one-half vegetables, one-quarter complex carbohydrates (such as whole-grain rice or pasta), and one-quarter lean protein, such as grilled or baked meats, or things like chickpeas and lentils.
Schools often provide access to a nutritionist for questions, and you may be able to arrange a one-on-one meeting to come up with a personalized strategy for healthy eating. Check out the campus health center’s Web site for more information.
Ask for What You Need
Students with specific dietary needs may need to be even more creative. Katelyn, who has been a vegetarian since her senior year of high school, finds that the dining hall provides plenty of meat-free options. They aren’t always main entrees, though, so she “get[s] bigger portions of sides for a meal.”
Davis says that school administrators are generally receptive and understanding of food restrictions. She explains that St. John’s University provides vegetarian, vegan, kosher, halal, and gluten-free options.
She also notes: “If there is a student with a severe allergy or disease, the dietitian, chef, and dining hall managers are usually able to work together to accommodate [the person]. We are strict with cross-contamination in the back and front of the house.”
If your campus eateries don’t offer satisfactory options, talk to one of the dining managers. He or she will likely be willing to help. Just provide a list of restrictions and, if possible, a few suggestions for diet-friendly dishes. If your pitch is met with resistance, track down a campus administrator and state the case.
There are many ways to enhance dishes that are already available, making them a better match for your palate. Taste food before adding salt, as most prepared dishes and meals have plenty already. Look instead for spices like black pepper, basil and oregano, sesame seeds, and chili flakes to sprinkle on. Condiments like Tabasco®, vinegar, Parmesan cheese, and tamarind paste can really add a lot of flavor, too.
Also be mindful of consuming plenty of liquids. Sodas and sweetened juices pack a big calorie punch, and can also lead to blood sugar level spikes and crashes. Instead, try sparkling water, 100% juice blends, unsweetened iced tea, and yes, plain old H2O.
Approached with enthusiasm, knowledge, and a dash of creativity, campus eateries can provide healthful, easy, and surprisingly delicious food.
- Think of your plate as a pie: ½ vegetables, ¼ whole grains, and ¼ lean protein.
- Combine items from around the dining hall and add flavor and variety with spices or condiments.
- Drink plenty of lower-sugar beverages, like unsweetened iced tea, 100% juice, and flat or fizzy water.
- Dining service Web sites and staff can offer nutritional information.
- Talk with a nutritionist if you want customized support.
- Ask for what you need, especially if you have allergies or other food restrictions.
Here are more tips for healthy, delicious eating:
- Substitute creamy sauces such as Alfredo or ranch dressing with healthful olive oil, tomato sauce, or a light vinaigrette.
- Eat fried foods in moderation. Keep an eye out for keywords like “battered” or “crispy,” which usually indicate the food was prepared by submerging it in oil.
- Select whole-grain breads and pastas. Try out nutrition-packed alternatives, too, like quinoa. These keep you feeling full and energized for longer.
- To treat a sweet tooth, look for fresh fruit, low-fat granola, and frozen yogurt. If you want some rich chocolate cake, ask for a small portion.
- To stave off munchies, keep wholesome snacks in your room or apartment. Stock up on hummus, pre-cut veggies, lean/low-sodium deli meats, whole-grain crackers or pretzels, fresh fruit, and Greek yogurt. These are filling and nutritionally dense.
Get help or find out more
MyPlate Dietary Guidlelines
Harvard University School of Public Health’s Nutrition Source
United States Department of Agriculture’s Smart Nutrition 101