Healthy Dining in the Dorms

Even though the notorious "Freshman 15" is really just a myth, leaving home for the first time can translate into weight gain or bad eating habits. It's hard to make healthy choices when confronted with a buffet of options in the dining hall. Plus, your parents won't be around to remind you to eat your veggies and late night pizza delivery can easily turn into a habit. We turned to the members of SparkPeople, who know a thing or two about changing bad habits, to get their tips for eating healthier when you go away to college.

Ask for Help
No matter what you're trying to accomplish, going it alone can be tough. If your goal is to practice healthier eating habits, turn to those around you for support and information. There are lots of people you can ask for help including your roommate, a nutritionist at your school's health center or the manager of your dining hall. Here's what SparkPeople members had to say:
  •  "Leave comments with your dining hall manager. Ours was extremely receptive to suggestions and added many healthy vegetarian main dishes, varied the salad add-ins, and had special vegan options (including dessert!) at every meal. Many chefs and cooks will welcome the challenge as they often don't get to 'express creativity' in places like dining halls." – COTTERR
  • "Find a buddy who is interested in eating well at the cafeteria, too. You can encourage each other along and offer suggestions. I have found this to be very effective when I have to eat at unhealthy restaurants. I model my choices on someone else who already makes great choices and it seems a lot easier than 'talking myself' into it every time." – JOYFULROAD
  • "Try stopping by the dietary services office and speak to someone face to face. Explain your eating goals and see what they have available. There are often vegetarian options and lighter options, but sometimes they were hard to find amid the more popular fried foods and burgers."  – SOCPAGE
  • "My university includes nutritional counseling as part of the student health fee. Check to see if your campus has the same type of thing. The counselor is probably very familiar with the offerings at your university and might be able to give you some specific advice." – PCVCHRISTINE
Practice Portion Control
When faced with a buffet-style dining hall full of food options, it can be difficult not to overdo it. Become familiar with what recommended portion sizes really look like and make sure you have a solid understanding of basic nutrition guidelines. Here's what SparkPeople members had to say:
  • "In addition to picking healthier food, another way to not eat as much at the all-you-can-eat dining halls is to not use a tray. When you have a tray to put your food on it's easier to load it up and grab more food than you need. Without using one, you can't carry as much food so you're not going to have the temptation to overeat." – BRAVESPENGUIN
  • "I just avoided the hot food lines most of the time. Stick to salads, soups, sandwiches and cereal. Since you make them yourself, you'll have more control and mindfulness of how much you're making and what's in it, and ultimately how much you consume." – ELEANORRIGBY13
  • "I brought in a couple measuring cups and measured out the serving sizes of the foods I ate most often, putting them on a plate or in a glass. I know that eyeballing portions is a dangerous game, but having even a marginally improved concept of portion sizes when using the dining halls' plates and cups helped me know around how many calories I was eating when I served myself." – ECDAVENPORT
  • "Most campus dining services have a website that you can visit and look at nutrition information for the meals they prepare. It isn't always perfect because you have to eyeball the serving size. (Or be like me and bring your food scale with you)."– REYNINGSUNSHINE
Watch Out for Extra Calories
You're certainly familiar with the phrase "empty calories," which refers to foods and drinks that are packed with calories (usually from sugar) but offer little to no nutritional benefits and/or won't make you actually feel full for very long. The other kind of calories to watch out for are the ones you consume when you stay up late studying, go out drinking with friends or just generally don't get enough sleep. When your body is tired, it will make you want to eat more so you'll have enough energy to get through your busy day. Here's what SparkPeople members had to say:
  • "Avoid soda! Our cafeteria had at least three different soda machines, and for the first semester I didn't even know that water was available. I bet I drank an average of five 12 oz. glasses of soda every day. Find the water or have milk or juice (but don't overdo the juice either) or other healthy beverage options."
  • "When I did gain a little weight in college it was when I went out for beer and pizza after a night at the local bars. The cafeteria is not why students gain weight. Watch what you eat outside of cafeteria meals, too." – REEDSKI
  • "I could have done better on campus, but money and time were also factors. The salad bar was my best choice as was the baked fish (offered on Fridays) or poultry when it was not fried or drenched in gravy."
  • "Remember there are minor alterations that you can make to the normally unhealthy foods you'll find in the dining halls. If the meal offered on a particular day is burgers, don't deprive yourself and only get salad. Go ahead and get a burger, just without the bun (or use lettuce leaves as your bun). Sure chicken cooked in skin isn't as healthy as skinless even if you pick it off, but removing the skin yourself is better. Remember it isn't about perfection at every meal. It’s about a lot of small positive steps that will add up over time."
    – SLIM_SAM
"Cook" for Yourself
Though it might be difficult to actually cook full meals in your dorm room, you'd be surprised what you can accomplish with a mini-fridge and an electric kettle or hot plate. You can also keep healthy snack options on hand to make it easier to make good choices between meals. Here's what SparkPeople members had to say:
  • "I like to keep granola bars and popcorn in my room for snacks. It fills me up and they are both really easy to get. Also, I keep fruit like bananas or grapes in my room for a quick breakfast." – VIDA_P
  • "Check out all meal plan options. One of our meal plan options was to have kitchen access in the residence building versus a food allowance for the cafeteria.  If this is an option, I highly recommend it!"
  • "Do what you can with salad bars, bringing your own dressings if you have to. With protein options that are cooked in unhealthy ways, peel off fried skin or skin in general. Most dining halls will have a bowl of fruit available and milk cartons--use those! If you can, buy a mini fridge and keep it stocked with fresh pre-cut veggies, hummus and Babybel cheese.  Keep things like almonds and trail mixes at hand in your dorm room for healthy options when the dining hall is closed." – C-MERRIE11
Get Creative
There are lots of little ways to make typical meals more healthy, you just have to pay attention to what you're putting on your plate. Pick one or two things to focus on at the beginning (such as snacking on fresh fruit or making sure to include at least one vegetable with every meal) and make more small changes over time. Here's what SparkPeople members had to say:
  • "I would get four hard boiled eggs, some fresh cut fruit, and then eat just the egg whites. A little pepper or ketchup, and my pile of egg whites and fruit were breakfast! And rice! Yes, it was usually white rice, but it was something the chefs kept plain. And you can put plenty of things on top of it. Be creative with the things provided. One meal option might have a chicken breast, another has pasta and still another has a side of steamed veggies. Select the chicken (no bun) and pasta (no stroganoff) with the veggies (no meatloaf). All of a sudden, you've got chicken pasta and some veggies!" – JAZZTHEJAZZ
  • "Add raw veggies like shredded carrots, onions, tomato or shredded lettuce into chili or a spicy soup. It's sort of a taco in a bowl!" – SCINNDY
  • "Try new combinations of foods. You may find a combo that you like that you wouldn't have thought of. Put fruit in your yogurt, in your oatmeal on your sandwiches. Put veggies on your sandwiches or fresh veggies in hot soup to hide them from yourself. Put a salad on top of your burger instead of just lettuce (that cancels out some of the salad-ness) or pour salsa over your salad instead of dressing. Heck, break up a burger over a salad! The more crazy things you try, the more likely you'll find good options."
  • "One of the things that helped me the most was cereal. It may sound weird, but whenever I was eating with my friends, I would get cereal (which was always available) as a side instead of fries or mac and cheese or some of the veggies. I would get Cheerios or Special K, nothing really sugary, and use skim milk, so I was still getting something nutritious that wasn't always carrot sticks or cooked veggies." – KENOVAK
  • "I create a 'dessert salad' sometimes instead of eating the usual dessert. It consists of the shredded carrots from the salad bar, along with sunflower seeds and raisins. Then I drizzle some honey on it for some extra sweetness. It is yummy. A nice combination of salty, sweet and coolness." – SOFTBALLMONKEY
Whenever you feel stuck in a food rut or are ready to make more healthy changes in your life, SparkPeople will be there to help you along the way. Ask questions, join teams, track your progress and enjoy your first experience of living on your own. This may be a very challenging time in your life, but it can also be one of the most fun and exciting, too!