How To: Eat Well on a Meal Plan
Ever since arriving in Aspen, I’ll be honest: I have felt lost without a kitchen. However, I’ve noticed that I’ve been losing quite a bit of weight, and I know it’s not from exercise (to be even more honest, I need to figure out a foolproof running route and then commit to training myself to run at this altitude – but that’s for another post). I have been eating the cafeteria food here almost every day, very different from my usual fare since I have no idea how it’s prepared. However, it’s the easiest option with my limited means.
Going into college, I would have LOVED to have had an informational post on how to eat healthy on a meal plan. It would have saved me a lot of money that I spent on food that I thought was healthy. And bigger clothes 😉 So, I’m writing one for you now. This information is based on years of experience with several very different dormitory-style dining halls, but please be aware that every dining hall is different and you may have to use some savvy to make your environment work for YOU. Also, I should list a disclaimer that I’m NOT a doctor or certified nutritionist. But I have seen one before. And you should too if you are having ANY doubts as to what foods you should and should not be eating.
That being said, here we go!
1) Breakfast: Don’t Skip It
We’ve all been told this over and over again, but breakfast is REALLY important. If you have an 8 AM class (or in my case now, early morning rehearsals) it’s so easy to go about your day and just not eat breakfast. Some people don’t have appetites in the morning, which is fine, but hungry or not, our bodies need that fuel in the morning to be able to think and function at their best. In fact, early morning obligations suck so much LESS when you’re fed. Whatever you decide to do, make sure you eat something nutritious in the morning! If you’re going to be eating at the dining hall, there’s often an omelette or egg station where you can make your own or serve yourself. This can be a great tool if you use it to your advantage. Ask to stuff your omelettes full of vegetables like spinach, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Cheese IS good for you and can be a nice addition to your breakfast, but if you can enjoy eggs without cheese, I can guarantee that you won’t miss it! Also, because you unfortunately have little to no control over how much oil the omelette/eggs are cooked with, it may be to your advantage NOT to add extra fat if you can avoid it.
Other options for breakfast usually include hot cereals like oatmeal or cream of wheat. I love plain oatmeal for breakfast and usually stir in a (singular) tablespoon of almond or peanut butter and slice in a piece of fruit or some fresh berries. Cinnamon also makes a great addition. If your dining hall doesn’t offer oatmeal, you can easily make it in a dorm microwave using water or milk (I prefer almond milk) or overnight by soaking 1 cup of oats with 1 cup of liquid or liquid/yogurt mixture. (It’s roughly a 1-1 ratio but you can adjust it to your liking.)
My last tip for breakfast: If you’re on the go in the morning and find it will be hard to make the hours that the dining hall offers (which unfortunately is often the case), keep some healthy breakfast bars in your room. Combined with a piece of fruit or a hard boiled egg (which you can sometimes buy premade at the store or find in the dining hall), the right bar can be really effective and satisfying when you’re in need of a quick breakfast. Be cautious when buying, because some cereal and granola bars are higher in artificial sugars than they are in actual nutritional value, and may cause you to crash early in the day or become hungry sooner. I prefer to stick to the all-natural bars where I can see and pronounce all the ingredients. My go-to favorites are Larabars and Kind bars (don’t let the natural sugar stats scare you too much), but there are plenty to choose from!
2) The Salad Bar: Friend AND Foe
I’m going to venture to guess that almost every single modern cafeteria now features a salad bar. Salad can be one of the best things for you if you load it with healthy vegetables and toppings. It can then become one of the worst things for you if you load it with croutons and dressing. It’s upsetting to think that a mountain of vegetables could be bad for you. But it can.
When I go to the dining hall for lunch and dinner, I load at least half of my plate with greens and vegetables from the salad bar. My favorites are cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and carrots, which are pretty standard among most salad bars. If available, I will jazz up my salad with healthy fats like avocado or olives, or any other raw vegetables they might have. For protein, many salad bars will have a small selection of meat, but go for meat that is prepared without breading, not fried, etc. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, other sources for protein include beans (chickpeas, kidney beans, etc.), broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, tofu, edamame, peas, and avocado, amongst others. Also, use spinach, kale, or darker leafy greens as your salad base for more protein and nutrients!
In terms of croutons, while they are quite delicious (and canbe prepared healthily), the kinds offered in bulk in dining halls are usually processed and not the best for you. To give your salad more crunch, try a small sprinkle of sunflower seeds, or healthy grains like quinoa if your cafeteria happens to be super hip like that. Mine is not but I have high hopes for the future.
For dressing, I swear by my magic mixture of 1-2 tablespoons balsamic + 1 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil + 1/2 -1 tablespoon hummus. It makes a dressing that is super creamy and flavorful, and which can ALSO serve as a healthy sauce on the occasion that the caf’s food is lacking some flavor, which let’s be honest, may be pretty often. If you don’t have hummus available, you can either buy some to keep on hand or just nix it entirely. Balsamic and olive oil make a really tasty dressing by themselves! If you’re not into vinegar, light dressings are a good option as well if used sparingly. Do remember though, that the dressing ladles in cafeterias are often WAY larger than the recommended serving size, so keep an eye out for how much you are putting on!
Lastly: Pre-made and pre-dressed salads are often soaked in dressing – plus, you are also probably going to get a crisper, fresher tasting salad if you just assemble your own 🙂
3) A Look at Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates (complex and some simple) are important to include in your diet. Everyone’s metabolism is different (obviously), so it’s impossible for me to say what will be best for you in particular. In fact, this whole section may be cause for debate. I’m not a scientist or a nutritionist and don’t know much about the details of how carbs work, so be nice to me. However, since coming to Aspen, I’ve been trying to lower my carbohydrate intake overall, which I believe is one of the reasons behind why I’ve lost weight. I am not really talking about the naturally occurring carbohydrates in fruits and vegetables (I don’t count macronutrients, so if you do, I can’t really help you out too much in that category) but those in breads and starchy foods. For example, I’ve found that rice, whole grains, squash, and baked potatoes/sweet potatoes are a great way for me to get in good carbs at the dining hall, as long the serving size is reasonable (i.e. don’t fill your whole plate with a mountain of rice and potatoes. I eyeball about 1/2-3/4 cup serving total). I also don’t like to eat starchy carbs more than twice a day, but again, this is a personal choice. As far as bread is concerned, I try to look for whole grain breads (whole wheat doesn’t always mean what we think it means) in the dining hall that have at least 4 grams of fiber per slice so that I know I will be getting some nutritional value in as well. Cereal is similar. Often times, the selection of cold cereals in dining halls is pretty dismal, but if your cafeteria is one of those super lucky ones I spoke of earlier, they will have high fiber multigrain cereals as an option. If not, and you need your cold cereal fix, you can buy a box to keep in your room. This is what works for me, but experiment with your carbohydrate intake to see what fills you up and makes you feel your best. Also, just as a factoid to throw out there, while certain “versions” of carbs may be better for you (i.e. sweet potatoes vs. white potatoes and brown vs. white rice), their less nutritious counterparts aren’t bad for you either. In fact, potatoes of the non-sweet variety have their own benefits. Carbs that I do generally avoid, however, are those that are heavily processed and/or made with white flour, such as white bread and pasta, muffins, pastries, etc. While delicious, those rarely offer nutritional value at all. Take it from a girl who ate a bunch of muffins in her freshman year. It’s not worth it.
4) Vegetables are not all created (cooked) equally
There is a huge difference between vegetables that are steamed and those that are fried or sautéed. If your dining hall has steamed vegetables, consider it a blessing and LOAD your plate with them. Then top them with my hummus crack-sauce (I’m dead serious though, that stuff is magic). If they’re sautéed, super shiny, or sitting in a pot of liquid that doesn’t look like water, it was probably prepared with butter or oil. Help yourself but be stingy with how much you take and go back for more of the raw stuff. The same goes for meat and protein. It’s only a good if you can actually SEE the surface of the meat itself and it isn’t drowning in sauce. Except don’t eat raw meat if your options are limited. 😉
5) Steal Fruit
Before you do this, please read your school’s dining hall policy. Don’t get in trouble and then blame me, but I have stolen so many bananas, oranges, apples, etc. in my three years at college/summer programs that I can’t even tell you how much money I’ve probably saved on fruit. I am no longer on a meal plan at school so my fruit-stealing days are dwindling before my eyes. But it’s so nice to have healthy snacks lying around that you DIDN’T have to go out and pay extra for.
6) PSA from Germophobe of the Year: There’s hand sanitizers when you walk into dining halls for a reason. Use them.
Or, better yet, carry your own to use after you serve your food. Being healthy is not just EATING healthy!
Now, I could go on and on about how important this is for your college experience. Exercise not only makes you happier, but you’ll be healthier. Coming from someone who eats well religiously and *tries* to exercise regularly, I know that it can be very hard. Especially with an overly time consuming major. But, make time in your schedule for it. It sucks MUCH less if it becomes a habit or something that you NEED to do. Also, walk more. Take the long way to class or find reasons to walk places, especially if you go to school in a city. Your health, happiness, and jeans will all thank you.
Random, uncategorized tip:
Go out and buy salt-free seasoning mixes, hot sauces, or herbs and carry them with you in a Ziploc. Use them interchangeably to season your food if you’re finding that the healthy options at your dining hall are lacking flavor or are becoming repetitive.