How to Navigate the Dining Hall Like a Pro

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash
Dena Gershkovich, Dietetics and Journalism Double Major ’20, University Health Center Nutrition Peer Educator

Are you nervous about making nutritious food choices in the dining hall? Many find buffets overwhelming and even anxiety-inducing, so you’re not alone!

You likely have limited time to eat before your next class/club/social event, so it’s good to know how to assemble a nutritious plate quickly. After reading these tips, you’ll be gliding through the dining hall as smoothly as you’ll be pouring milk from the dispenser into your cereal.

Step #1: Eat Regularly Throughout the Day

Entering the dining hall famished and expecting yourself to make nutritious food choices is about as likely as you cleaning your room the night before an exam – aka not going to happen.

It’s not fair to ask yourself to pick tuna salad over pizza when you’re overly hungry. When you go for long periods of time without eating, you’re biologically programmed to crave foods that are high in sugar and/or fat. This is because sugar is the fastest way to get energy, and fat is the most efficient.

So “hello fries, goodbye salad” is a survival adaptation that is normal and expected during times of extreme hunger. It’s certainly not a reflection of your lack of “willpower.”

By eating regularly throughout the day, however, you’ll keep your hunger at bay and put yourself in a good position to make healthy food choices in the dining hall.

Step #2: Consider Your Food Choices

You don’t have to limit yourself to certain foods to be considered a “healthy” eater. In fact, all foods in the dining hall can fit in a healthy diet – even fresh-baked cookies and soft-serve ice cream! College dining halls provide an opportunity to try new foods and flavors that you may not have been exposed to before, so take full advantage!

Make your meals balanced by including foods from at least three out of the five food groups. It’s best to include protein, carbohydrates and fruit and/or vegetables at every meal. Doing this promotes optimal satisfaction and nutrition (goodbye late-afternoon stomach rumbles!).

For example, layer yogurt (protein) with melon (fruit) and granola (carbohydrate), or add brown rice (carbohydrate) and chicken (protein) to salads (vegetable) to meet these criteria!

After building your balanced plate, go back for sweets, if desired.

When choosing desserts, check in with yourself: Are you truly craving the sweet, or are you too tired to make a more nutritious food choice? Will the brownie “hit the spot,” or will it make you feel overly full and sluggish? Would you prefer a chocolate chip cookie to a sugar cookie? Consider tastes and textures when determining food preferences, especially when choosing desserts.

If checking in leads you to pick up the sweet, enjoy it slowly and intentionally, without any distractions. If you realize that you aren’t in the mood for the sweet, don’t eat it – chances are it will show up again in next week’s dinner rotation anyways!

Being able to enjoy all foods guilt-free provides tremendous value. Food contributes so much more than nutrition, and part of having a healthy relationship with food is allowing yourself to partake in those pleasures. By giving yourself “permission” to have dessert, you are respecting and responding to your unique needs as a student, which is an important skill and a form of self-care.

Know that enjoying less nutritious foods doesn’t negate the fact that you also ate nutrient-dense foods! A balanced diet includes all foods – even sweets!

Step #3: Learn How to Manage Your Portions

Practicing the above steps will put you in a good place to manage your portions. Portion management is individual and best determined through trial and error.
If you’ve been influenced by diet culture, you’re probably confused by the above statement.

Let me explain:

If I told you how much of each food group to eat at each meal, my recommendations would likely be misaligned with your unique hunger and satiety needs.

Paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues is the best way for you to reach and sustain your nutrition goals, whether you’re looking to gain or lose weight, build muscle, feel more energized or foster your relationship with food.

The only person who knows how to eat according to your hunger and fullness cues is you.

By eating intuitively and paying attention to your body, you’ll learn how to eat just the right amount!

As a rule of thumb, seek to make half of your plate fruits and/or vegetables and a quarter each carbohydrates and protein. Eating foods in these ratios promotes satisfaction and helps keep cravings in check. If you’re still hungry after finishing the food on your plate, go back for seconds of whatever you’d like more of!

Whether you choose to make your cereal sugar-free or sugared, your milk skim or whole, it won’t be long before you’re leaving the dining hall feeling proud of your dietary decisions.

To learn more dining hall nutrition tips, reserve your free session with a nutrition coach by calling 301-314-5664 or emailing [email protected]