Healthy Eating on Campus: 101

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Imagine that the minivan is packed with fresh twin XL sheets and too many plastic drawers and bins to bother counting. You get to campus to unload and before you know it, your teary-eyed family drives away leaving you on your own. With this moment comes a new-found independence and the responsibility of making your own decisions for the first time- including decisions about what to eat!

Dining on campus often involves buffet style dining with a wide variety of foods. Limited time, money, space, and cooking equipment also means you may have to adapt your normal routine to eat healthy on campus.  Below are tips and tricks that can help you navigate your way through the campus dining environment and create your own balanced meals to keep yourself healthy!

1. Get to know your options. When eating a la carte or buffet style in the dining hall, you may be faced with more options than you’re used to. Check out your school webpage or ask the campus dining staff where you can find the nutrition information of the foods served. Many campuses even offer students services from registered dietitians!

2. Tune in to your hunger cues. When you are busy, it can be tough to always remember to stop and eat. But remember that skipping meals may cause you to eat more than you need later. Establish a meal-time routine around your classes and extracurricular activities. Also, get to know your hunger and fullness cues with mindful eating.

3. Make your plate look like MyPlate. Aim to have three square meals per day using your meal plan. When selecting your food items, picture the MyPlate visual to help you create a well-rounded meal with proper serving sizes. 

4. Save any extra servings or items rather than over eating. Instead of forcing down the second half of your grilled chicken wrap, or worse: throwing it away, take it home and save it for later.  You can ask the dining staff for a to-go box or you can bring your own reusable container with you. Most dorm rooms are equipped with mini fridges and microwaves that will make eating your leftovers easy, and you will be happy to have them later. This is a healthy way to reduce wasted food… and money!

5. Take a break from school work and television while eating. Studies have shown that eating while distracted by other activities such as working is linked to over eating. Put a pause on the work and television while you eat and use your meal time as an opportunity to socialize with friends or reflect on your day. And, it’s always a great idea to practice mindful and intuitive eating by bringing full awareness to the when, why, and how much of each meal that you eat! 

6. Stock up on staple foods for your dorm room. Having healthy food options around your dorm room can help ensure you always have access to a healthy snack or meal when you don’t have time to make it to the dining hall. A mini fridge should be able to fit a few small items such as mini bottles of milk, Greek yogurt, fresh fruits and veggies, and even hummus. In the room you can keep wholesome cereal choices, oatmeal, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, sweet potatoes, and more. You can even try and use your extra meal plan money to purchase the food staples when you need to stock up.

7. Add protein to every meal. Ensuring that protein is a part of every meal will help to keep you full for a longer period. Easy ways to add protein to your breakfast are through eggs, Greek yogurt, nut butter, turkey sausage, and milk. Ideas to add protein to your lunch and dinner are through low-sodium lunch meat, lean chicken and pork, fish, hard boiled eggs, nuts and seeds, quinoa, tofu, and beans.

8. Get your five a day. Fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. You can mix it up and keep your meals interesting by choosing from a variety of fresh, frozen, and canned options. Whenever possible, grab an extra piece of fruit on your way out of the dining hall, drop some blueberries in your cereal, toss some veggies in your omelet or stir fry, and layer some lettuce and tomato onto your sandwich. You get the idea- add them when you can!

9. Take advantage of the salad bar. Salad bars are a quick and painless way to get a heaping plate of fresh fruits and vegetables all at once. Try to make a salad with lots of different colored veggies- picture the rainbow, and stick only one or two extra toppings. For an added bonus, a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar is a delicious and healthy option for any salad!

This post was written by Alison Webster, dietetic intern at Virginia Tech.