Eating in College
Eating at college will probably be a very different experience than eating at home. Familiar dishes may taste differently than they did when your parents made them, and the dining hall hours may be hard to fit into your busy schedule. Dining halls are also busy places with lots of choices and many other students.
However, with a little practice, you can learn to create a healthy, well-balanced eating pattern in the dining hall. (Bear in mind that while you may struggle to keep up nutritious eating habits, some students find that the college dining hall offers a chance to eat even healthier than they did at home.)
Eating in a dining hall is very much like eating at an all-you-can-eat buffet at every single meal. This makes it hard to regulate portion sizes and make healthy choices. What can you do?
First, before you start filling your plate or tray, take a quick look at the options. Remember, even if it’s "all-you-can-eat," you’re only looking for one meal. If you start filling your plate with the first items you see, you'll soon have a mountain of food.
Once you've scanned all the options, you can choose the meal that best matches your appetite. This will not only prevent you from overeating, it will also cut down the amount of food you waste when you finish your meal.
The next trick is to balance your diet. This means getting some carbohydrates, some fruits, some vegetables, protein, and a small amount of fat.
For example, choose a piece of chicken, steamed veggies, rice, and an apple over the hamburger, fries, and chocolate cake. This might seem obvious, but when actually filling their plates, many college freshmen pick according to what they want to taste rather than what’s best for their bodies.
Most cafeterias have “lighter” options, and here are some other suggestions to help you make healthy choices. These suggestions work at restaurants too!
- Use only small amounts of sauces and dressings, or put them on the side.
- Use salsa or mustard in the place of mayonnaise.
- Use nonfat or low-fat milk instead of cream.
- Choose baked or broiled rather than fried or deep fried – avoid deep fried anything.
- Choose vegetables rather than fries as a side dish.
- Fill your plate with colorful food. Try to eat a green, orange, and/or yellow vegetable with each meal.
- Try to eat salad at least once a day.
- Look for lean meats (for example, chicken or turkey) instead of red meat.
- Pass on dessert or select fruit instead of sugary, high-fat desserts.
- Choose water or low-fat milk instead of soda or sugary juices.
- Get a piece of fresh fruit or a yogurt for a snack later in the day.
And lastly, do not fall into a rut. Change up your meals! If you eat the same things every day, you may be missing out on some nutrients and getting too much of others. Eating variety is an important part of eating a balanced diet.
Also keep in mind the "80-20 rule": aim to eat a well-balanced meal, adhering to the guidelines above approximately 80 percent of the time. Allow yourself to have (and enjoy!) something you really want (like a treat or a hamburger) approximately 20 percent of the time.
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The Freshman 15
Many of us have heard of the “Freshman 15” – the idea that the average freshman gains around 15 pounds in the first semester of college. This phenomenon has been researched, and while some results support this theory, others conclude that most people only gain a few pounds.
Some freshmen (particularly males) might be in the middle of a growth spurt and would have gained weight no matter where they were. For others, gaining weight could result from new eating patterns in college (for example, staying up late and eating fast food at 3 a.m.).
Whether you've already gained the weight or want to avoid it, there are ways to manage your new eating patterns. If you balance your diet and avoid greasy, fried, processed, or sugary foods you are on your way not only to maintaining a healthy body weight as a young adult but also for the rest of your life.
For more tips to avoid the Freshman 15, visit the American Council on Exercise page.
Want to improve your diet? Track your progress on your health goals using your Young Adult WAY2GO! Dashboard.
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- Sonja Swenson, Public Health Education Intern
- Aguirre, College Writer
Reviewed By: Nancy Brown, Ph.D.
Last Reviewed: July 8, 2013
Below are links PAMF accessed when researching this topic. PAMF does not sponsor or endorse any of these sites, nor does PAMF guarantee the accuracy of the information contained on them.
10 Tips on Avoiding the Freshman 15, American Council on Exercise.
Healthy Dining Hall Eating, KidsHealth.org.
10 Healthy Eating Tips for the Busy College Student, Clarke University.
Mihalopoulos NL, Auinger P, Klein JD. The freshman 15: Is it real? Journal of American College Health. 2008;56:531–533.