Navigating the “Healthy” Dining Hall Options
So you’re trying to avoid that Freshman 15, or you’re trying to shed that sophomore 30. Either way, navigating the dining hall options can be tricky business for college students. Whether you’re a newbie to the game, or you’ve been hitting this spot for 6 semesters, here are some important guidelines to stay slim without gagging on soggy broccoli.
I can’t speak for every school across the country here, but the majority of schools have a salad bar of some kind. This can be great or awful. Let’s start with the basis of a salad: the greens. If it’s not actually green in color, it’s not a healthy base to a salad. You can almost always find some form of iceberg or romaine lettuce here, but let me be the first to tell you to walk away. Both iceberg and romaine are low in calories, but they’re also low in nutritional value. These “greens” are normally white or yellowish, and serve as tools to scoop copious amounts of dressing and cheese into your gullet. While romaine is slightly better than iceberg, it’s still not a good choice. Try for dark leafy greens if they’re available. Baby spinach is soft and tasty, as are mesclun greens (those mixed greens of varying sizes and colors).
Once you’ve got real greens on your plate, skip over the cheese and add fresh veggies, nuts, and fruits. Stay away from any “salads” with mayonnaise, including pasta salads and chicken salads. Additionally, it’s best to avoid all meat options at the salad bar. The grilled chicken “breast” normally consists of mashed-up chicken pieces re-formed to look like a breast, and overloaded with sodium. You could be eating 30% fat without knowing it. If you really want some meat on your salad, you’re most likely better off by grabbing some fried chicken or tenders from the line food, pulling off the battered skin, and adding the meat to the salad.
I just LOVED the sandwich station at my school. I would often make a nice salad for lunch, and prepare a delicious sandwich to go for an afternoon snack. My version included high-sodium deli turkey, white flatbread, melted provolone, and pesto mayonnaise. Please don’t follow that example.
Opt for any kind of whole-grain or multi-grain bread. Anything dark, oaty, or with seeds is going to be best. While it may be higher in calories than the white bread, it’s also much higher in nutritional content. A slice of white bread provides about 70 calories with zero nutritional value. A slice of 100% whole wheat bread will often have anywhere from 90-120 calories, but it also provides complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and even a few grams of protein. Next, try to skip condiments if you can, but if you can’t handle a dry sandwich, opt for something with a punch, like oil & vinegar, or whole grain mustard. Try to load that baby up with onions, tomatoes, spinach, and a low-fat unprocessed cheese (think feta or cheddar, not sliced white American), and you’re good to go.
For the most part, I’d say avoid the line food options unless they’re preparing something fresh. Don’t eat the pasta alfredo or the week-old pizza. Skip the “chicken parmesan” and the canned green beans. Most of these line food options are loaded with sodium, and not much else. Processed dairy, processed meat, and canned vegetables will not keep you healthy. If, on the other hand, you get the occasional Stir-Fry station, or perhaps even an omelet station, then head over there as fast as you can, opt for lots of veggies, and make sure they go easy on the sauce.
When your school has a “sushi” station on Thursday nights, it can be hard to pass that up. While it seems like a nice splurge or a healthy option, remember to consume in moderation. A serving of soy sauce normally exceeds your daily recommended value of sodium, and sweet white rice will put your sugar levels over the top as well. And for breakfast, when there’s a waffle-making station, you should summon all of your willpower to resist the wafting scent of Belgian waffles. It’s bogus. They’re not Belgian. They’re kind of chewy, and they’re loaded with tons of fat, sugar, and salt, to trick you. Have some low-fat yogurt and a banana, and get out of that dining hall as soon as possible.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a quick comparison of to-go items so you can try to pick the healthiest options.
- Everything Bagel with Cream Cheese
- Prepackaged Microwavable Something (hot pocket, egg sandwich, soup, etc.)
- Whole-Wheat Bagel with Butter
- Prepackaged Sandwich
- Vegetarian Sandwich on Whole Grain Bread
- Banana with Peanut Butter
- Fruit and Nuts
- Plain Yogurt and Berries
- Prepackaged Salad without Dressing