The Cafeteria Challenge

Smart strategies to navigate your school's dining hall.

My first year of college, I subsisted mostly on cereal. Tired and hungry after class and rehearsal, and faced with unappetizing dining hall options, I ate bowl after bowl. It was far from the most nutritious way to fuel my dancing.

College students are responsible for planning all their own meals, often for the first time in their lives. But without kitchens in most dorm rooms, the main dining option is typically the campus cafeteria. Fortunately, most offer everything you need to meet the physical and mental demands of a degree program—if you avoid a few common pitfalls.

Do: Choose smart portions.

In buffet-style food halls, it can be tempting to try a taste of everything, or keep returning for seconds of your favorite dishes. Instead, build a plate with a balance of nutrients. Dietitian and sports nutrition expert Lisa Moskovitz recommends that at any given meal you should fill half your plate with vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables. Then, one-quarter of the plate should consist of lean protein, which helps with muscle recovery and repair, and the remaining quarter should be a high-fiber starch or carbs, which will give you the energy to make it through long, hard hours of dancing.

Don’t: Always reach for packaged foods.

Cafeterias often provide easy access to heavily processed foods like bagged chips, sugary cereals and candy bars, warns Rachel Fine, a dietitian who works with dancers. If you want to grab a snack for later, granola bars can be a wise option, but check the package: If you can’t pronounce an ingredient, says Fine, your body will probably struggle to digest it.

Do: Control what you can.

Look for stations, like salad and sandwich bars, that allow you to choose the exact ingredients that go into your meal. Simple choices are often the smartest. “Raw fruits, vegetables and nuts are usually the healthiest foods you can eat from most cafeteria menus,” says Moskovitz.

Don’t: Overdo breakfast buffet items.

Just because you see pancakes and sausage at the buffet every morning doesn’t mean you should be eating them for every breakfast. A build-your-own omelet is ideal if it is available, says Fine, because you can decide what to put in, and eggs are a great source of protein and vitamins. Otherwise, have some Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and nuts.

Do: Allow yourself to splurge sometimes.

It can be challenging to pass up indulgences like burgers, mac and cheese, and sugary soft drinks at every single meal. “If you try to restrict or avoid certain foods that you love too often, you will likely only crave it that much more later on,” says Moskovitz. Fine recommends choosing the indulgence you love most—hers is dark chocolate—and enjoying one portion each day. Moskovitz says it is perfectly fine to enjoy one or two “free” meals per week as well, but make some compromises, like sharing your french fries with a friend. 

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