While some college students are used to making all their food choices, preparing their meals and cleaning up after themselves, in my experience, most college freshmen are not. College is often the first time young adults have to decide what they will eat at every meal and go out and get it for themselves. Those who are not prepared often end up with a weakened immune system, unhealthy weight loss or gain, worsening acne, and gastrointestinal problems due to a poor diet. Having a dining strategy can prevent these problems.
Colleges are trending toward requiring dormitory housing linked with a meal plan for at least the first year. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Living on campus may not be luxurious, but it does have both the advantage of keeping you close to classrooms for when you need to sprint to class because you hit the snooze button and being a very social environment so you’re less likely to feel isolated your first year.
You or your parents will probably pay a lot of money for your meal plan whether you use it to your advantage or not. It’s possible to eat well at almost any college dining hall if you have a strategy. First, consider how your meal plan will meet your nutritional needs. Virtually all meal plans offer choices for people on a limited diet. They usually have vegetarian,vegan, gluten free, dairy free and nut/peanut free selections at every meal. If you have special dietary needs, contact the director of the dining plan with your questions prior to starting school.
Colleges often have one or more dining halls as well as fast food restaurant options. Dining hall meals are usually unlimited while restaurant meals often include an entree, side and drink. Try to make sure that your restaurant meals are as healthy as your dining hall meals by including a fresh vegetable or fruit with each one. Fast food venues usually allow take out, but not all dining halls do.
How to eat a balanced diet on a school meal plan:
- A daily plan to eat well should include at least 2-3 meals a day, a moderate serving of protein at every meal, at least 5 servings of fruit or vegetables, 2 to 3 servings of calcium and vitamin D containing foods, and a source of iron. Load your plate with nutritious items you need before filling up on less nutritious foods like pasta, processed breads, drinks, and desserts.
- Aim to get at least 2 servings of produce at each meal (5-10 servings a day). You’re not likely to love every fruit or vegetable the dining hall serves, but you’re not required to eat everything on your plate either.
- Try as many options as possible. Food is unlikely to be like the food you ate at home. Try the meal plan’s version of foods you don’t normally eat and foods that are out of your comfort zone. You’ll find some new favorites that may surprise you. Dining hall soups, grain or salad bowls and ethnic dishes are often very tasty. Look at what the staff eats when they get a chance.
- Avoid fried foods. Unfortunately, most plans serve plenty of fried breads meats and vegetables. Try not to eat the fries, doughnuts, fried chicken and chips unless there are no other alternatives, especially if you are prone to tummy troubles. These heavy foods are not nutritious and are hard to digest. It’s no fun to have to rush to the bathroom after a greasy meal.
- Get a protein source like nuts, peanut butter, meat, eggs, beans, cheese, yogurt, milk, tofu, or soy milk at every meal.
- Eat at least 2 daily servings of high iron foods like beans and lentils, meat, or fortified cereals (like Cheerios, Total or Wheat Chex). Eat several servings of green leafy vegetables and frequent servings or fresh and dried fruits like raisins too.
- Ask for the whole grain option when you eat bread, pasta, cereal and other carbs.
- Resist getting sweet drinks and desserts at every meal even though they’re usually included.
- Get 2 to 3 servings of Vitamin D and calcium containing foods like milk or milk substitutes like soy milk, cheese, yogurt, and tofu. If you don’t eat these foods, consider a calcium and Vitamin D supplement.
- Plan to eat 3 meals even if they’re not breakfast, lunch and dinner. Late risers will likely eat brunch, dinner and late night.
- Dining halls and restaurants will have different hours. If you’re used to eating dinner late, you may miss out on the healthier options. Few schools serve healthy foods after 8pm.
- There will be times when you’ll need to eat alone because your roommates and friends will have different schedules. If you don’t feel comfortable eating alone at first, cultivate friendships in classes and extracurriculars so you have a larger group of meal companions. Most people send out a group text to roommates or friends to see who is interested in eating together at what time that day. It’s good to know people in your classes so you can walk to the dining hall together after class.
- If your dining plan offers to-go options, you could take food back to your dorm to eat if eating with a friend doesn’t work out. Sometimes you can get a second meal or snack out of the take-out meal.
Be sure to practice good food safety:
- Don’t eat perishable food that is more than 2 hours old without refrigerating it.
- Don’t store perishable food that you have eaten directly out of the container for more than a couple hours. (For example, dipping into a cup of yogurt with a spoon putting the spoon in your mouth, then back in the yogurt puts bacteria from your mouth into the yogurt. This is called “double dipping” and causes food to spoil much faster. You wouldn’t double dip a chip in salsa…I hope).
- Don’t keep refrigerated leftovers from the dining hall more than 24 hours.
- Foods with an expiration or “best by” date go bad before that date once they’re opened, usually within a few days, depending on the type of food. Mark the date a food was opened on the container so you know if it’s spoiled. You can’t always tell by the smell.
- If freshness is in question, better to throw it out now than throw it up later.
Even the best meal plans aren’t likely to meet all of your food needs and you will want to keep some food in your room.
- Make a point of keeping tempting junk foods out of your room. When you’re craving sweets or other junk foods, use your meal plan to get unhealthy foods you want. There’s no need to buy them and keep in your room. Sometimes the craving will pass before you get to the dining hall.
- If you keep healthy snacks in your room, that’s what you’ll eat when you need a snack. Peanuts, nuts, peanut butter, whole grain crackers and bags of natural popcorn are good snack foods to keep on hand to satisfy hunger between meals. (Keep in mind any food allergies that your roommate might have.) Buy iron-fortified whole grain cereal to munch on when the dining hall is closed.
- However, know yourself, don’t buy boxes of cereal or granola bars in bulk if you don’t enjoy eating them.
- Make sure all foods are tightly sealed to keep bugs and other pests out of your room. Plastic tubs or ziploc bags work well for this.
- Don’t waste your money on beverages for your room. Drink water when possible.
- If the water in your dorm tastes bad, invest in a filter pitcher rather than polluting the planet with a plastic bottle every time you’re thirsty!
- Most dining halls offer unlimited coffee, tea, soda, milk and milk alternatives. Try to limit yourself to enjoying them only while you’re there.
- Some people insist on having their own coffee maker in their dorm room. I totally understand this. I’ve had some really lousy coffee at some colleges, but shockingly good coffee at others. If you feel you need a coffee maker, select one that either brews a single cup or brews directly into a thermal carafe and shuts off. Coffee makers with a hot plate are a fire hazard.
- Also, be considerate of your roommate. There is nothing more rude than loudly brewing coffee, or worse: using the microwave (bing!) at 6 am when your roommate doesn’t need to be up until 10. Don’t bring a sodastream or other loud devices to your dorm. It will not make you popular.
- Having a refrigerator in your room is worthwhile for most people. It gives you the ability to store leftovers safely and stock up on healthy foods that your dining hall may not do a good job of providing.
- Some meal plans offer great fruit, yogurt and salad options. Others do not. Once you get a feel for your meal plan’s strengths and weaknesses, shop for items that your meal plan doesn’t provide and keep them in your room.
- It’s always a good idea to keep a sharpie near the refrigerator and put your name and when the food needs to be tossed out on the container. It’s frustrating when your roommate eats the food you were counting on eating later or when old food gets stinky in the back of the fridge.
- Don’t leave used to-go boxes and food scraps in the room after you eat. Take that garbage out as soon as possible. A covered garbage can is a better option for your room than an open wastebasket.
On days when your meal plan fails you or you end up needing to eat after the dining hall is closed, consider ordering healthy take-out delivery. You’re not limited to pizza! Restaurants with nutritious options like Chipotle, Panera, and local Chinese restaurants often participate in delivery services. If you decide to go out to a restaurant at night, make sure you travel in groups for safety. Take all the recommended safety precautions if you use services like Uber or Lyft. Never get in a car with someone you suspect has been drinking or using. (Tell them you feel nauseated if you want to decline a ride politely. Nobody wants you to vomit in their car.) Only accept rides from people you know well and tell at least one other person where you are going.
Sample food choices for those with early morning classes:
- Breakfast in the dining hall with a friend from your dorm: whole grain toast or waffle with peanut butter, strawberries, melon slices, milk or soy milk.
- Lunch at a campus restaurant with a friend from class: chicken taco bowl or bean burrito with lettuce, peppers, onions, salsa, beans and cheese.
- Supper with roommate in a dining hall: stir fried vegetables with shrimp or tofu, brown rice. Carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes from the salad bar with ranch dip or hummus. Small serving of soft serve ice cream or applesauce. (Depending on what’s available, you may end up picking odd combinations of foods in the dining hall to suit your taste.)
- Late snack in your room: Hand full of almonds and Chex cereal
Sample food choices for a night owl:
- On the way to class: Coffee with milk and a banana from the dining hall
- Brunch at a campus restaurant or dining hall with a classmate: Egg, cheese and potato wrap with whole grain tortilla, fruit cup.
- Supper in the dining hall with roommate: Chicken, green beans, salad, whole grain roll.
- Late night campus restaurant or delivery with study group: Half turkey and cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato, apple. Keep the other half of the sandwich in the refrigerator for a snack tomorrow.
Eating on your own can be challenging, but with a little planning and experimentation eating at college can be a healthy and enjoyable experience.