See Food, Eat Food: Breaking the Cycle with College Dining

For most of you college students out there, final exams are approaching, and healthy eating is probably the last thing on your mind! However, staying well nourished during the stress and flurry of exam week will help keep you alert and focused as you study.  While eating at dining halls on campus, it can be tough to make healthy choices, especially since many college dining facilities are set up like all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants. With so many types of foods all around you, people often get on a “see-food” kick – you see a food, your mouth starts watering, and you automatically want it.  So much for portion control!

So how can you navigate the dining halls without going overboard? Here are my basic tips for eating on campus without unintentionally consuming excessive calories:

  • Before getting your food, take a walk around.  It’s easy to see a specific dish or food and automatically go for it; however, if you see other things you like after grabbing that first yummy-looking dish, you can end up with three or four plates of food! Taking a lot more than you need can lead to a lot of waste.  In addition, the more food you have in front of you, the more you’ll probably eat.  Instead of lunging for the first food you see, take a walk around the entire facility and see what’s being offered that day.  This way you can make a decision on what looks the best and avoid plate pile-up.
  • Hit up the salad bar (or vegetables) first.  It can be easy to overlook the veggies when there are so many good-looking options in the dining hall, but getting a salad can help boost your vegetable intake and fill you up a bit before diving into the other tasty foods.  Try to choose a variety of different veggies to maximize your vitamin and mineral intake, but go light on the croutons, cheese, mayonnaise-based salads, and heavy dressings.
  • Reach for the whole grains.  Fiber, vitamins, reduced risk of chronic diseases…these are only a few of the many benefits that whole grains have to offer!  Many dining facilities will offer whole grain substitutes for their refined grain counterparts.  For example, choose whole wheat bread instead of white bread at the deli, brown rice instead of white rice for a stir-fry, or wheat pasta instead of regular pasta if you’re craving some Italian.
  • Aim for COLOR on your plate.  If everything on your plate is white (ex: mashed potatoes, cheese pizza, pasta, etc.) or another color, you’re probably not getting the variety of nutrients that your body needs.  Try to get at least three different colors in your meal for a variety of vitamins and minerals.  A piece of grilled chicken, a baked sweet potato, and sautéed asparagus would be one good example!
  • Watch the beverages.  It’s easy to overlook your drink when it comes to adding calories to your meal.  However, if you’re going for the juices, sodas, or sports drinks (and getting refills), these can quickly add on a lot of empty calories.  If you want one of these beverages, try drinking a glass of water first to help quench your thirst before choosing a higher-calorie beverage.  Low-fat or fat-free milk is a good option that will also help boost your calcium intake!
  • What about desserts? Many dining halls have ice cream machines as well as a variety of cookies, cakes, and other goodies to choose from.  It’s OK to have a treat every now and then, but watch your portions, and don’t grab anything if you’re already full from your meal.  Fruit and yogurt is always a great option if you’re craving something sweet.

So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed at the dining hall, be sure to try out a few of these tips.  Hopefully this will help you avoid the “see-food” kick and allow you to be more mindful while dining on campus!

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