By Katina Solomon
College students have the freedom to eat whatever they want, whenever they want, thanks to the convenience and wide variety of college cafeterias. These dining halls can be a junk foodie’s dream and a health nut’s worst nightmare because of the buffet-style dining that usually consists of pizza, burgers, fried chicken, and sometimes a salad bar. Without direction or nutritional discipline, students may fall victim to the all-you-can-eat lifestyle that is sure to pack on the pounds.
You don’t need a nutrition degree to eat healthy; just follow these 12 nutrition tips to navigate your college cafeteria.
1. Load up on fruit and vegetables
College cafeterias offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that can be added to your meal or eaten whole. Fruits and vegetable are full of vitamins and nutrients that are essential to your health and should be incorporated into every meal. So, instead of getting a side of French fries or chips, opt for a fruit cup, salad or veggies to make your meal more nutritious.
2. Limit your chunk food
College cafeterias are laden with fried and fatty foods that might taste good, but certainly aren’t good for you. As tempting as it is to order pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken fingers and French fries, it’s in your best interest to avoid these foods as much as possible. Limiting your junk food intake will help you manage your weight and leave more room for healthy meals and snacks.
3. Choose water
Most college students aren’t getting enough water, thanks to the overwhelmingly popular sodas, juices, coffee and sports drinks offered at college cafeterias. Although these drinks are fine in moderation, most students aren’t limiting their intake. When dining at school, opt for water. Water has zero sugar, calories or caffeine and will help you stay hydrated throughout the day. Plus, ordering a cup of water or refilling a bottle at the water fountain is free.
4. Go easy on the condiments
College cafeterias offer a wide range of condiments to go with your favorite meals, but many of these sauces, dressings and spreads are high in fat, calories and sodium. When dressing up a sandwich, salad or really any meal, pay attention to the amount of fat and calories in your condiments and watch your portion sizes. When in doubt, opt for low-fat and reduced-calorie condiments and only use what you really need.
5. Read the nutrition facts
Many college cafeterias now list nutrition facts for the meals they offer. Pay attention to the serving sizes, ingredients, calories and fat content listed for snacks, drinks and entrees. Taking the time to look at nutrition facts can help you make more educated decisions and ensure that you’re getting enough nutrients with every meal.
6. Know key terms
After years of eating Mom and Dad’s cooking, you may not know the nutritional differences between certain foods and terms that are commonly used in college cafeterias. Foods that are broiled, baked and steamed are generally healthier than fried, breaded or creamed dishes. Also, look for foods that are labeled fat-free, reduced-calorie and light to avoid extra fat and calories.
7. Split your meals
Despite what you might have been told about clearing your plate as a kid, you don’t have to finish every last bit of food on your plate in college. College cafeterias tend to serve larger-than-necessary portions, so splitting your meal in half and taking the leftovers home is a smart way to control portion sizes. Not only will you avoid overstuffing yourself in one sitting, but you’ll also have food for the next day. You can also split meals with a friend and cut the cost in half.
8. Go for variety
It’s important for college students to eat a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods with every meal. When dining at your college cafeteria, try to get a variety of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy products on your plate. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) new “MyPlate” food guide, fruits and vegetables should make up half of your plate and the rest should come from the recommended food groups.
9. Snack smart
Snacking is beneficial for satisfying hunger and maintaining a healthy weight, but even though you’re not eating a full meal, you still need to snack smart. College cafeterias provide many healthy snacks for students to enjoy. Whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits and veggies and low-fat dairy products can be found around a cafeteria and are easy to grab on the go.
10. Eat in moderation
Moderation is the key to eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy body weight. Don’t beat yourself up for having a hamburger or ice cream sundae every once in a while, just make sure that you are eating plenty of nutrient-rich foods on a daily basis.
11. Take your time
College cafeterias are bustling with students who are eager to eat and go on their merry way and those who take full advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s easy to fall victim to the buffet style of eating and disregard the nutritional value of food when rushing through the line, but slowing down the process can make a huge difference. Take your time when dining at a college cafeteria by going through the entire line first and scoping out your choices. This will allow you to think about the nutritional value of the foods available and make a healthier choice.
12. Ditch the tray
One trick to avoid overeating at your college cafeteria is to ditch the tray and use one plate. Cafeteria trays allow you to pile on multiple plates and beverages, which encourages overeating or food waste. Sticking to one plate will help you practice portion control and make more conscientious choices. The good news is that many colleges are ditching cafeteria trays for environmental reasons, so carrying one plate may be your only option after all.
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