With trying to balance all of the studying and social activities that come with college life, having a meal plan frees up some of your time by taking the guess work out of what’s for dinner – and breakfast and lunch for that matter. With a meal plan you also get to skip frequent trips to the grocery store and the regular cooking and cleaning that goes along with having to prepare meals.
Another plus for having a meal plan? If eating a healthy and balanced diet is important to you, being part of your school’s dining program gives you many healthy options. We caught up with some of our registered dietitians that work in colleges and universities around the U.S. for their top healthy eating tips and advice so that you can start the year off right by eating well on your meal plan.
To help you navigate the dining hall, we’ve provided tips for some of the popular serving stations that may be offered at your school. Previewing what’s being offered first is the healthiest way to start. “I always advise students to walk a lap in the dining hall to see what’s being served before deciding what they want to eat,” says Ashley Thomas, Aramark’s Southeast District Dietitian in Higher Education. “It helps reduce the temptation of eating from every station which can lead to overeating.” Another overall tip for eating well at each meal, “I encourage students to build a healthy plate hitting at least three of the five major food groups,” adds Ashley.
Here’s your road map to eating well on a meal plan:
Visiting the grill station doesn’t have to mean cheeseburgers. “Try something new from the rotating menu options of healthier, lean proteins like grilled chicken, veggie burgers, and turkey burgers,” recommends Jenna Brott, registered dietitian at University of Minnesota.
And if you do go with a hamburger, there are few ways to make it a healthier option. For starters, “if given the option, choose a whole grain bun over a white bun. Whole grains provide additional fiber, vitamins and minerals that are lacking in most white breads,” recommends Kellsey O’Donnell, registered dietitian at Drexel University. And when topping your burger, “choose fresh produce such as lettuce, tomato, onion and even avocado if it’s available.”
Stir Fry Station
When it comes to the stir fry station, it’s all about that base – as in starting with a healthy base for your dish. “Start with brown rice as a base to your made-to-order stir fry,” says Jenna. “Brown rice will provide you with more beneficial nutrients and fiber to keep you feeling fuller longer” compared to other options like white rice or noodles.
Another tip? “Vary the color of the vegetables you add to your made-to-order stir fry. Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables helps insure you get enough of the different nutrients you need for good health,” adds Jenna.
Yes, you can still eat well and enjoy pizza from time to time. “When it comes to pizza, I recommend students take two slices and have a big salad on the side. Or, throw some cooked veggies on top of their pizza,” says Ashley. Another option? Kellsey O’Donnell at Drexel University is a fan of “topping your pizza with fresh spinach, bell peppers and mushrooms,” all of which you can find at the salad bar.
Sometimes, there’s nothing like a home cooked meal to give you a little comfort. This too can be a part of your healthy diet. To start, “focus on making half of your plate fruits or vegetables, one quarter of your plate lean protein, perhaps chicken or fish, and one quarter of your plate carbohydrates, such as rice, pasta, or potatoes,” recommends Kellsey. “Choose baked, grilled, broiled, or steamed items over fried items.” Another tip? Create a hybrid meal: “Carved and whole lean meats from the comfort station are a great addition to any salad creation from the produce market,” adds Jenna. Getting enough protein may help keep your appetite satisfied longer.
The salad station is an easy way to score a healthy meal if done right. In general, incorporating as many vegetables and fruits as you like and pairing with a whole grain, healthy fat and lean protein is the way to go. If you want to learn more about making a healthy and satisfying salad, check out the 5 Steps to Build a Better Salad.
If you feel like you need more help with eating well on campus or if you have a food allergy or another nutrition-related condition, most programs offer dietitian services where you can learn from nutrition experts about finding the right foods to fit your needs.
Note: Since everyone’s health history and nutritional needs are so different, please make sure that you talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian to get advice about the diet and exercise plan that‘s right for you.