Eating Well on Campus

At home, you are probably used to preparing your own meals or eating meals prepared by caregivers and family members. The portions and variety of food offered depended upon personal preferences, grocery items available, the amount of food prepared for a meal, and the number of people sharing the meal. Eating in college and university dining halls and eateries can be very different. The types of food offered, the preparation of food, the way food is served, and quantity of food available may be new to you. In a traditional campus dining hall, you suddenly have access to many more options and access to much more food. This can be overwhelming.  Moreover, if you are living in an apartment and cooking for the first time, or simply looking for healthy snack options to keep on hand, you may not know where to begin or where to go to purchase what you need.

Eating well on and off campus is easier than you think. Thanks to MyPlate, there are easy visuals and guidelines to follow to help you make healthy choices at mealtimes for your overall nutrition. To get you started, consider these tips.

Build a better plate.

Think of your plate as having 4 quarters:

  • Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables before adding other items. Dietary guidelines recommend that you focus on whole fruits rather than canned fruits and that you vary your vegetable choices.
  • Choose a grain for one quarter of your plate. At least half of your grains should be whole grains like brown rice, barley, whole wheat bread or pasta, oatmeal, or popcorn.
  • Choose a protein for the remaining quarter of your plate. Proteins include foods made from meat, poultry, seafood, peas, beans, eggs, soy, nuts, and seeds.Choose My Plate

Get enough calcium through low-fat dairy and other foods.

Aim for a serving of low-fat dairy or other calcium-rich food with each meal. You can use low-fat dairy options in your coffee, tea, or other food preparations like oatmeal or smoothies. Instead of using sour cream or cream cheese (even low-fat or fat-free versions), use low-fat yogurt. Good options include low-fat or fat-free milk, fortified soy milk or other milk alternatives, and low-fat or fat-free yogurt.

Limit sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats.

  • Choose fresh foods over processed foods to avoid hidden sodium.
  • Opt for waters or unsweetened beverages instead of sodas and juices.
  • Enjoy a sweet treat every now and then. Sharing with friends is one way to enjoy without overdoing it!

Stay hydrated!

Individual water needs vary based on size, weight, activity level, and the climate where you live. You probably have heard recommendations like drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine guidelines indicate that most women’s bodies require about 2.7 liters or 91 ounces of water derived from foods and beverages each day, and most men’s bodies require about 3.7 liters or 125 ounces per day. People who are more active or live in hotter climates may need more. As a good rule of thumb, the following can help you meet your hydration needs.

  • Drink a non-sugary beverage with and between each meal.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (remember fill half your plate with them at each meal).
  • Carry a reusable water bottle with you to classes.
  • Consume water before and after exercising.
  • If you feel hungry, drink a glass of water before eating a snack or meal. Sometimes your body thinks it is hungry when you are actually thirsty.

Snack smarter.

Snacks can help you maintain energy and alertness, prevent overeating by warding off hunger, and provide energy before and after exercise. If you have several classes or commitments that interfere with mealtimes, snacking is a great strategy. Experts say that snacks should be fewer than 200 calories each. Snacks that contain a blend of a protein, fiber, and carbohydrates are best for helping you feel satisfied. Most campus dining halls allow you to take fruit with you, so be sure to grab a piece of fresh fruit to snack on. Some healthy snack options that require little prep and only a mini-fridge are listed below.

    • Low-fat cheese sticks and fruit
    • Fresh fruit or veggies with low-fat yogurt, greek yogurt dip, or cottage cheese
    • Whole grain crackers or brown rice cakes topped with low-fat cream cheese, peanut butter or other nut butter, or hummus
    • Lower fat/high fiber protein bars that are fewer than 200 calories
    • Whole grain and higher fiber cereal with fruit and low-fat milk
    • Unsalted nuts and dried fruit or applesauce
    • Oatmeal made with low-fat milk and fruit

Get creative in the dining hall.

Sometimes campus dining hall layouts and serving stations can make your choices feel limited. If you are eating in a buffet-style dining hall, you may have more options. For example, if your campus has grilled chicken at the stir-fry station and you want to add chicken to a salad, simply prepare your salad at the salad bar and ask for some of the stir-fry station chicken to add on top. Just because items are not placed together does not mean you can’t mix them to build a healthy plate.

Seek support!

Many campus dining services, and sometimes health services, employ a nutritionist or dietitian. Feel free to check out your campus’ dining services website or reach out to that staff member and ask them for their recommendations within the dining halls. This is especially important if you have food allergies, a chronic medical condition, or other dietary needs. Staff can assist you by providing tours of the campus eateries, explain how foods are labeled on campus, discuss your dining options and accommodations for your needs, show you foods you can eat or stations to avoid because of your needs, and offer support.

View more tips on preparing your own food, shopping for food, and healthy eating on a tight budget here.