How to Eat Healthy in The Dining Hall

college school

I’ll never forget my first experience at a college dining hall. Visiting my dream university as a junior in high school, I walked into the cafeteria with wide eyes and a bottomless stomach. Had Ariana Grande’s 7 Rings existed back then, I would have floated around pointing at the buffet spread in front of me like, “I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.” 

Macaroni and cheese pizza? Yes, please. Endless pile of fries? Don’t mind if I do. Chocolate chip cookies? GIMME.

For many college students, the freedom to feast on all types of food (especially dishes that previously may have been considered an occasional “treat”) is exciting. Flash forward a few days or weeks, however, and many soon realize that this freedom creates a list of problems. Frequently eating food that is heavier or saltier than you’re used to can lead to bloating, heartburn, indigestion, and feelings of overall sluggishness. Many students also quickly tire of the same rotating menu that gets really old, really fast.

This is why it’s not uncommon for students to eventually ask, “What should I eat to help me feel my best?” as well as, “How can I not feel like I’m eating the same food every day?”

In today’s blog, we’ll tackle these kinds of questions along with a few other dining hall topics. Grab a notebook and a pencil, because class is in session. 


 As a busy and active college student, providing your body with enough energy and nutrients is crucial to help you feel and perform your best. Enjoying regular, balanced meals is an easy way to accomplish this, and you can use the following 3 tips to help get you started...

1. Aim for balance (a source of protein, carbs, fat, and color) at your meal. Including these key elements will help you get enough energy and nutrients, and also help your meal be more filling and satisfying.

  • Protein sources: When most people hear the word “protein,” their thoughts immediately go to animal products like meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, milk, yogurt, and cheese. While these are all protein-rich foods, many forget that plant-based foods can also pack a protein punch. Some examples include beans, lentils, soy products like edamame, tofu, and nuts and seeds. There is plenty of research that supports including more sources of plant-based protein in your diet, so I recommend adding a scoop of chickpeas on your plate every now and then. Click here and here to read more about this.
  • Carbohydrate sources: Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel, and they give us energy to power through busy days. I always recommend aiming for carb sources that are minimally processed and higher in fiber. Common sources that you might find in a cafeteria include whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, barley, and whole wheat products like bread, tortillas, and pasta. Potatoes can also be a source of carbohydrates (pro tip: enjoy these with the skin on to get more fiber and nutrients out of them).
  • Fat sources: The public gets a lot of confusing messages about fat. Is it our friend? Is it our enemy? Should we only eat certain types of fat? Fat is an essential nutrient that is not only a source of energy, but also something that we use to protect our organs, keep us warm, and produce important hormones. Fat is what adds flavor and texture to a lot of dishes, and it is digested slowly, so it helps make our dishes appetizing and satisfying. Fat can be found in animal products like red meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy. Fat is also found in plant sources like oils, nuts and seeds, avocados, and olives. Including more plant-based sources of fat in the diet can help to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Click here and here to read more about this. Finally, the American Heart Association recommends that adults should aim for at least two servings of fish per week to reap the benefits of omega-3’s (specifically the oily varieties like salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, and trout, herring, and sardines). Bottom line? Don’t be afraid of fat, experiment with plant-based sources of fat such as olive oil, avocados, and nut butters in your meals, and dish up some tuna or salmon when possible.
  • Sources of color: Did you know that the beautiful colors in your fruits and vegetables do more than just help them look more appetizing? Where there is color, there is likely lots of nutrients. Orange pigments found in carrots or bell peppers are a source of eye-protecting beta-carotene, while red colors indicate the antioxidant, lycopene. Because different colors offer different nutrients, it’s important to incorporate a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables on your plate to help you reap all the benefits. What this can look like is grabbing an apple or a handful of berries at breakfast, snacking on some sliced carrots and cucumbers at lunch, and enjoying a side salad with dinner. Fruits and vegetables are also a good source of fiber, which helps keep you fuller for longer and promotes healthy digestion.

Here are a few ways you can enjoy balanced meals that have a source of protein, carbs, fat, and color...

Please note: portion sizes will vary from person to person. This is not a meal plan, but rather a few ideas to give you inspiration when deciding how to fill your plate in the dining hall

Breakfast ideas:

  • Oatmeal with peanut butter and berries
  • Yogurt parfait with fresh fruit and muesli
  • Veggie omelet with toast and apple slices
  • Peanut butter and banana wrap

Lunch/Dinner ideas:

  • Spaghetti and meatballs with steamed broccoli
  • Bean burrito with guacamole and fajita veggies
  • Turkey and cheddar sandwich with sliced celery and carrots
  • Tofu stir fry with brown rice and cauliflower, snap peas, and carrots

yogurt parfait as a healthy breakfast for college students

2. Aim to eat on a consistent schedule that works with your lifestyle

If you’re the kind of person who forgets to eat when your schedule gets crazy or puts off eating until you’re ravenous, it might be a smart idea to make regular meals and snacks a habit. If you’ve got an hour break in between literature and history, schedule that time as a lunch break. If there’s a 15 minute stretch of time between biology and math, pack a snack in your bag to munch on as you walk to your next class. Enjoying regular meals and snacks will help keep your energy levels more stable throughout the day and avoiding any "crashes" or eating to a point of uncomfortable fullness once you finally get the chance to eat.


eating on a consistent schedule to help you stay healthy

3. Add variety to your plate

When we’re in a rush, it’s easy to reach for the same repetitive meals. While this strategy may save you a little time and mental energy, it’s important that we aim to add a little variety to our plates. As I mentioned earlier in this blog, variety helps us cover all our nutrient bases, and it also ensures we’re not getting too much of a particular nutrient. Click here to read more about easy ways to add variety to your diet. Adding a little variety will also go a long way in solving the, “I’m so sick of eating the same cafeteria food” conundrum. 

4. Practice eating without distractions

Let’s face it: we’re all guilty of multitasking while eating. I know I’m not the only one who’s practically inhaled a bowl of cheerios while cramming for a chemistry exam. While multitasking may sound like a good idea, the smarter solution is to enjoy your meals without distractions. This will help you tune in to your hunger cues better, and avoid under or overeating at your meal. Give yourself at least 20 minutes to savor your meal, relax, and/or catch up with your friends.

5. Seek out the help of a professional

If you have a specific question about your diet (ex: "Do I have a food allergy or intolerance?" or "How do I make sure I'm getting all the right nutrients on a vegan diet?") it’s best to seek the help of a professional who can make the informed suggestions for you and your unique needs. Many universities and colleges have dietitians on staff to help students find solutions with their eating habits. If that’s not an option, you can talk to your doctor or use this link to connect with local dietitians in your area. No matter what your need is, you deserve personalized, unique care to help you feel your best.

college student seeking out the help of a registered dietitian

Questions? Comments? Feel free to shoot me an email. Hungry for more? Here are a few more blogs you may find helpful...

Here’s to fueling your body for success in all areas of your college career!



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