Navigating the college dining hall can be extremely overwhelming. It's easy for the plates to start piling up, and for seconds to turn into thirds. Having a meal plan doesn't have to be a disaster, and you can actually use the foods and resources provided by your campus dining services to your advantage. Avoid that dreaded college weight gain, and eat food that will fuel your studies rather than ruin them.
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For a lot of college students, the combination of the feeling of newfound freedom and the ease of a simple swipe into a cafeteria of endless food options can sometimes be a recipe for disaster. However, you can still have a meal plan and navigate the dining hall without going completely overboard. By keeping these tips in mind, you can still enjoy mealtime with friends without creeping up on the infamous freshman 15.

Have a Plan

Before you start getting in line for a particular food station, scope out the entire dining hall so you have an all-encompassing view of what they’re serving for that particular meal. This way, you can devise a plan and make sure that you have a general idea of what you intend on getting. Rather than sampling that day’s offerings from each station, pick your favorite and stick with that.

Go For Breakfast

Use a meal swipe and eat breakfast. A granola bar or a sugary latte is not the start to the day that you need. Head to the dining hall for eggs and bacon, the make-your-own omelet station with some fruit, yogurt, or a high fiber cereal. Stay away from those cereal bins that dispense Froot Loops like an unstoppable waterfall, and keep to no more than one or two handfuls of cereal.

The Salad Bar is Your Friend

The easiest way to make sure you’re getting your veggies is to pack a hearty bowl of greens at the salad bar. Vary it up with different lettuce options, and don’t be shy when it comes to other veggies. Skip the croutons and heavy dressings, and opt for seeds or nuts and a light vinaigrette dressing instead.

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Eat More Than Just Salad

Yes, the salad bar is a great place to start, but if you’re just running on lettuce and beans, you’re going to be hungry. And a hungry, stressed college student is way more likely to head to their campus’s greasy fast food options than one who ate like a well-balanced king in their dining hall.

Know What’s In Your Food and How It’s Prepared

Most campus dining services have become increasingly proactive about making nutrition info and ingredients readily available to their diners. Steer clear of dishes that are drenched in heavy cream, butter, and sugar and deep fried. Instead, stay on the lookout for foods that are roasted, baked, steamed, or broiled.

Aim for a Balanced Meal

Try to shoot for a protein, a fat, and a carb for a well-rounded meal. Baked chicken, roasted pork, a fish filet, a turkey burger, a tofu scramble, or bean salad all make for a satisfying protein. Pair it with a whole grain, like brown rice or whole wheat toast, and add in plenty of fruit and/or veggies. If you’re only hovering over one station, then you’re doing something wrong.

It’s Unlimited, So What About Seconds?

Money in college is tight, so it’s easy to reason that overeating at the dining hall is a financial necessity. Before you convince yourself that you need another round of food, wait 10 or 15 minutes and drink a glass of water. If your dining hall offers to-go boxes, take some veggies and hummus or a handful of fruit to-go. Keeping to healthy, realistic portions is one of the most important goals you can set for yourself. Take a breath between each bite. If you’re leaving the dining hall keeled over with crippling stomach pains, it might be time to scale back on the portion size.

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What You Drink is Just as Important

While the soda fountain is tempting, a glass of soda with your meal will add no nutritional benefits, plus extra sugar and calories. On top of that, you’ll probably crash in a couple hours, which is not conducive to productive studying. Stick with water, coffee, tea, or a glass of milk, and budget your caloric intake for your actual meal.

Get to Know Your Dining Service Employees

Happy people make and serve happy food. Strike up a conversation with the person who is making your food, and don’t be afraid to ask them questions. If you’re unhappy with what your dining hall is serving or have specific requests, voice them! Chances are, your dining hall officials want to hear your feedback and ensure that there are ample options for all dietary needs.

Enjoy the Moment

The dining hall, as repetitive and unexciting as it may seem, may be one of your fondest, most nostalgic memories of your time on campus. Eating in college shouldn’t be stressful. Go with a friend or a group and take a break from studying. Don’t worry so much about how many calories your meal is and whether getting dessert will ruin your diet. In ten years, you won’t remember splurging on that slice of pizza, but you will remember losing that bet you made at dinner and crying from laughing so hard.