How to Eat Healthy in a College Cafeteria

As little of y’all know, I was away in Seattle and Portland last week for a college tour! Of course, that meant I ate the majority of my lunches at college cafeterias. You have no idea what that meant for me. I was excited, but at the same time so frightened! I remembered, this is how the freshmen ’15 happens. The sophomore ’20. Junior ’25. Senior ’30? I don’t even know, but yes, this is where you gain a shiz ton of weight! Yikes.

However, being the health nut I am, I refused to give into the junk. Of course, that didn’t mean I deprived myself since I knew just cutting cold turkey would only induce the cravings. So, in all, moderation is key. Sometimes you only need a little bit of something and not a whole serving. Without further ado, here are my full tips on surviving college cafeterias!

1. Go without a plate–the FIRST round. Yes, you need to browse the cafeteria at least twice, even three times. This is to navigate where all the sections are–the ethnic, the salad bar, the grill, the dessert booth, etc.–as well as special dietary labels and figuring out an idea as to what’s there. This is especially important if you follow a certain diet–paleo, vegan, gluten free, lactose free, raw, etc. Utilize this time to ask servers how the food is cooked and what’s in it. Because if you find out that you just consumed something with almonds and you have a nut allergy, then uh-oh!

2. When in doubt, go smaller. This applies very much to dessert, and interesting foods you’ve never tried before. There were two days I practiced this: the first was chocolate hemp milk. I looked at the back of the carton and found a whopping 23 grams of sugar but really wanted some. Just pour a teensy amount in a glass, and savored the deliciousness without too much sacrifice of a sugar dip. The next day I was seriously tempted by the vegan raspberry and lemon sorbet being served at the gelato booth and gave in. But I grabbed the smallest bowl I could find and scooped around 1/4 of a cup of both flavors while topping them with some fresh PB&J. It seriously hit the spot, sans food baby.

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3. Never arrive starving. This is an absolute given. It’s like going to the supermarket, and you’ll be more drawn towards the seemingly more filling yet fatty food! Unless if you want to gain the freshmen 15, this is probably a terrible idea. Drink a shiz load of water before you come, or go around meal time right at the margin of your hunger, not when you’ve just escaped class and your stomach is growling.

4. Pack snacks! Unfortunately, not all cafeterias will serve fancy tempeh salads, acai bowls or hemp patties. You may find that there’s little variety and make a super bland salad. Next thing you know, you’re reaching for something sugary and fatty like a donut or ice cream! If you really want dessert but don’t have enough time to make a decision, pack an ounce of dark chocolate, some coconut water, a piece of sweet fruit or protein bars ahead of time! Sweet craving curbed.

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5. Bring your own bottle of water. Not that there’s anything wrong with drinking from a glass, but I just find this a lot easier to drink more water, especially if your bottle is larger. Also, it will prevent you from reaching for that added sugar fruit juice and Coco Cola that you may or may not have to pay for. Go easy on your wallet anyways.

6. Be creative. Did you know at a breakfast buffet, I created my own vegan protein waffle with three ingredients?? Not only did I get a easy, nutritious breakfast high in protein, fiber, complex carbs and antioxidants, it tasted amazing and was one of the best meals of the trip! That is, if you don’t have protein powder stashed in your bag, then you’re still in luck. Can’t find what you want? Create it! Make a macro bowl by taking quinoa and beans from the salad bar, roasted vegetables from the grill, and a curry sauce from the ethnic booth! See how I went all Cafe Gratitude there? 😉 It’s perfectly fine to be your own chef. After all, the food is for you.

7. Portion it out. It’s a waste if you throw out half of your food because you got too much, and it’s even worse if you’re starving after you’ve purchased everything! Sometimes I’d stuff myself with too much food and feel tired and sluggish afterwards! 😦 If you’re not quite sure, then just listen to your body. Are you craving a fruit salad? Lots of protein? Some chocolate? Split your plate into the categories made to your satisfaction. If you accidentally got too much? A good idea would be to bring a small take-out box in case if you don’t eat all of your lunch and want some for later. If it’s too little, drink some more water to feel fuller or grab a healthy snack on your way out.

Those are all the tips I have for surviving the university cafeteria! Now, if you want an idea of what ate while on the college tours, then feast your eyes down below! These are mostly lunches, minus the waffle, but they work great for dinner as well.

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Cucumber Chickpea Mixed Greens Salad with red peppers, black beans, Sriracha and Carrot Soup

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Loaded Veggie Plate with Romaine, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, roasted zucchini, black beans, chickpeas, lemon herb tofu, steamed chicken, eggplant, beets, edamame under vegan and GF sundried tomato dressing

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Lentil Curry Salad with roasted root vegetables, carrots, jalapenos, peppers, chicken, onions, romaine, eggplant and cilantro

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Vegan Raspberry and Dairy-Free Lemon Sorbet with peanut butter and strawberry jam (for dessert!)

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Spinach Black Bean Salad with grilled zucchini, bell peppers, cucumber and roasted cauliflower in a spicy curry sauce

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3-Ingredient Vegan Protein Waffle (a favorite!) with sliced bananas and a red apple

That concludes this fun and yummy post! I had such a wonderful time hanging out in the dining halls, and yes, while it’s a bummer not to cook most of the time, you can still enjoy good and nutritious food with all the options catered to you. This shows you don’t have to go all organic and local to be healthy while away, even though those two are definitely beneficial. You’ll be surprised to see how much they offer! So have no fear because with these tips the freshman 15 ain’t got nothing on you! And let me know down below what other tips you have to staying healthy while eating in college! 🙂


8 thoughts on “How to Eat Healthy in a College Cafeteria

  1. SO amazing! I’ll be going off to university next year and these tips were very helpful. I’ll try to keep them in mind when navigating the university dining hall in September. Too bad they are so much easier said than done because even the hot bar at WF calls my name – their mac and cheese gets me every time! Thanks for the fab post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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