How to Eat Healthily at Your Dining Hall

Whether you're a freshman or an upperclassman, staying healthy at college is important. Here are some tips to help you eat well while sticking with your meal plan.
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Chiara - Vassar College
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Whether you're a freshman or an upperclassman, staying healthy at college is important. Here are some tips to help you eat well while sticking with your meal plan.

Yes, college dining halls are the home of all-you-can-eat waffles, pizza, french fries, cereal, cookies, pie... you name it. However, cafeterias are starting to recognize the importance of providing students with healthy dining options, and most are taking steps to make healthy food more readily accessible.

Although it can be tempting to eat pizza for every meal, I'm going to give you some cafeteria food "hacks" to help you eat healthily and deliciously. Who knows, after reading this, you might just want to bypass that pizza all together.

Breakfast

egg breakfast

Egg and toast makes for a great breakfast. Photo Credit.

I hate being biased, but breakfast is definitely my favorite meal of the day. There are endless possibilities, and you can choose between savory or sweet. Although it's always a good idea to have some sort of breakfast in the morning, there are plenty of dining hall options that are not the healthiest and will leave you feeling sluggish and unprepared to tackle your day.

To prevent that mid-morning crash, here are some yummy meal ideas:

Try Me!

  • Yogurt + granola + banana
  • Yogurt + peanut butter + banana (personal favorite)
  • Whole wheat toast + peanut butter + banana
  • 2 eggs over-easy + whole wheat toast + 1 piece of fruit
  • Omelette with whatever fixings you like + whole wheat toast + 1 piece of fruit
  • Whole wheat pancakes/waffles (if available) + peanut butter and banana or low-fat cream cheese and berry compote (if available)

Lunch and Dinner

healthy eating college dining halls

Salad with chickpeas, carrots, and an egg along with roasted root vegetables and a barley stew.

Having a nutritious breakfast helps you make better food choices as the day goes on. So, it should be easier to say goodbye to that plate of french fries, and hello to some of these options for lunch and dinner instead.

Anything But Boring Salads

Eating salad at every meal can definitely become monotonous, but when used correctly, the salad bar can be your best friend. Here are some ideas to make it more appetizing:

Try adding beans (kidney beans, chickpeas, black beans, etc.), tomatoes, shredded carrots, and either an egg or some raw pumpkin seeds on top. If you enjoy meat on your salads, get a cooked chicken breast from the grill, slice it, and put it on top. It's also fun to add in raisins or cranberries for some sweetness. For the finishing touch, I always add olive oil and vinegar as a dressing, but balsamic vinaigrette is a great choice, too!

Homemade Panini

Most cafeterias have a panini press for students to use. If you have one available, this can be a great tool for you to make a healthy lunch or even dinner. Try combining whole wheat bread with one or two slices of cheese, tomato slices, and mustard for a delicious grilled cheese. Add in some spinach from the salad bar and you have a meal filled with everything you'd need (and want). 

Hummus Plate

If you love hummus as much as I do, you'll love this idea. Grab a nice spoonful of hummus and then surround it with raw veggies from the salad bar. I really like using cut up cucumbers and peppers and whole carrots. Cut up a pita pocket from the sandwich station and your meal is served!

Stir-Fry

college dining hall stir fry

Stir-fry with tofu, quinoa, kale, tomatoes, beets, carrots, and mushrooms.

At my dining hall, we're lucky to have our own stir-fry station where you can basically cook anything you want for yourself. If your college dining hall also has a stir-fry station, follow these tips to make an epic dinner. 

The perfect stir-fry has a combination of protein, veggies, and healthy carbs. Start off by sautéing as many veggies as you like in some olive oil. Once they are tender, add in your protein. Even though the protein will already be cooked (unless you're using raw eggs), make sure you give it enough time to brown in the pan.

If you're using eggs, move the veggies over to one side of the pan and allow the eggs to cook for a bit on the other side. Once they are almost done cooking you can mix them together with the veggies to make more of a scramble. Most salad bars or other stations have grains available. If you can find brown rice, quinoa, or barley, those are all great additions to a stir fry. Add the grains in at the very end and let them cook in the pan just long enough to heat up and brown a bit. 

Last but not least, choose your seasoning. Some seasonings make better choices than others. I usually opt for a splash of soy sauce and some red pepper flakes to finish it off. Another nice option that gives a bit of a sweeter touch is teriyaki sauce. If you're feeling really adventurous, try combining a spoonful of peanut butter with sesame oil, a little bit of rice wine vinegar, and red pepper flakes (if you're into spice). 

One other fun stir fry idea is making a healthier mac and cheese. Grab plain cooked pasta, which is usually a cafeteria staple, and let it cook in a little bit of olive oil. Add a splash of milk and one or two cheese slices from the sandwich station. Mix it all together and you'll have yourself a plate of cheesy goodness that's much healthier than the version your dining hall dishes out for you.

Feeling Inspired?

As you head back on campus, keep these dining hall "hacks" in mind to help you make healthy choices all year long. With these ideas, the cafeteria doesn't have to be boring or the home of unhealthy meals.

Do you have any dining hall "hacks" of your own? What do you eat at your dining hall? Let me know in the comments!