Nourished on Campus: 6 Steps to Tackling the Dining Hall with Confidence

My client sessions over the past few weeks have been filled with conversations about the transition to college and how to navigate the food piece once there. Let’s face it. College dining halls can be overwhelming. Actually, college in general can be overwhelming. Classes, homework, sports events, parties, clubs, the list goes on of all the directions you’re constantly being pulled in. Sometimes walking into the dining room can seem like a daunting task that you’d rather skip - there are so many different foods to choose from, never ending lines and people everywhere. It should be the time of day when you’re catching up with friends and refueling before you’re onto the next big event of the day. Fun instead of stressful, right?! We promise there is a way to enjoy your dining hall experience - enjoy the food, enjoy the company and walk out feeling ready for whatever’s next. We hope these tips will help you navigate the dining hall with confidence and make it a time of day that you actually look forward to.


6 Steps to Tackling the Dining Hall with Confidence

Step 1: Make Plans with a Friend

One of the first things that can make the dining hall experience feel scary or stressful is if you head there alone. You might start overthinking where you’re going to sit, who you’re going to sit with and then hightail it out of there without even eating. Make plans ahead of time with a friend from the class right before or your roommate if his/her schedule lines up with yours. Taking on the dining hall with a friend and chatting it up while you wait for your food will help the lines go quicker and can help distract you from any stress you might be experiencing.

Step 2: Check Out the Menu Online

Visiting the menu online BEFORE you get to the dining hall can help you to formulate a plan before you even walk through the door. This will allow you to go right to the food station that you know is going to have an offering that you are interested in without feeling overwhelmed and anxious by the crowds of people and trying to read each menu board before you circle back to what you’re interested in.

Step 3: Ask yourself...Are You Hungry?

You may arrive at the dining hall exhausted after a long day and immediately scope out whatever is quick and easy to grab or make your way to the station with the shortest line or quickest cook time. Is this food that you’re about to grab really what you’re in the mood for? If the answer is yes, then have at it! If it’s no, then let’s take a moment to figure out what you do want. Before you walk into the dining hall, take a minute (less than 60 can do it!), check in and ask yourself these questions:

  1. How hungry are you? (confused? check out our hunger and fullness scale HERE)

  2. What are you in the mood for?

Taking the time to ask yourself these two questions will help prepare you for what to choose when you get on the other side of the dining hall door. Honor your hunger and what your body is asking for in that moment even if it takes a few extra minutes of waiting in line. You’ll be glad you did.

Step 4: Balance is Best

At NourishRX, we’re all about balance, but not in the old school “food pyramid” way. To us, balance means all foods count. We don’t expect you to be married to the salad bar at school and miss out on all the other delicious options that are there. If the salad bar is your jam then make sure you grab some healthy fats like avocado or salad dressing, protein like hard boiled egg, grilled chicken or beans, and a grain such as quinoa or a slice of toast or pita bread to make a complete meal that keeps you satisfied until the next time you eat. If you gravitate towards the mac n’ cheese or pizza stations, add some chicken and broccoli to make your own version of “chicken, broccoli, ziti” or go for the veggie pizza and maybe get a side salad to round out your meal. Making sure you have the right balance of nutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) will not only help to nourish your body, but it will help to keep you feeling satisfied and content until the next time you eat. Remember, being satisfied with the foods that you are choosing is important! Make sure that you are not just making food choices because you feel that this is the “healthiest” choice, but because you actually enjoy the taste and the flavor of the food too.


Step 5: Don't Skip Breakfast!

Do you find yourself running to class without time to grab breakfast? Unfortunately, running on coffee doesn’t cut it. Your brain needs some nourishment to function properly, so make sure you feed it before class. You don’t need to wait in line for a gourmet breakfast--instead, grabbing something as simple as a piece of fruit with peanut butter, a yogurt and some granola, or a cup of oatmeal and a handful of trail mix will do the trick.

Step 6: Bring Containers

Meal plans are costly, so you might as well take advantage of what you’re paying for! Even if you are living off campus you can still make the most of your limited meal plan. Bringing reusable containers is the best way to save some time and money when your weeks are busy. Try bringing a few different sized containers--use larger ones for meal items like pasta, mixed veggies, or rice. In smaller containers, add snack items like nuts, raw veggies, or cereal. Grab a few pieces of fruit on your way out, too!

Once you’ve been on campus awhile you’ll be more accustomed to the busy times of day, what your friends schedules are so that you can coordinate meal meeting times and what types of meals the dining hall is offering. Remember, transitioning to college is a big step - don’t let the stress of navigating the dining hall get in the way of you making the most of this new experience.

As always, we’re here to help!


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We're a group of non-diet, balance seeking, cupcake consuming, quinoa loving, registered dietitians. 
By sharing our expertise, favorite tools and services, we want to help you heal your relationship with food and body and find your own balance amidst the diet culture chaos.

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