The beginning of my freshman year of college felt like
summer camp: new friends, no parents, and most importantly, an all-you-can-eat
dining hall. The novelty of meals I had never seen before, complete with a
dessert option after lunch and dinner–plus the soft serve machine–made me a
happy camper. I could not be bothered to pay attention to what I was eating or
how many times I went back to get “just a few more” tater tots. Yet just as
college is a place for higher learning, I had to learn how to manage my food
choices in the dining hall if I wanted to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Let me explain the death traps of the all-you-can-eat style
dining halls. The first is obvious from the name: all you can eat. One meal card swipe to enter, unlimited food. Even
when you decide just to take a little bit of everything, those little bits
start adding up. My school has something called the Ratty Challenge (the Ratty
being the name of one of the dining halls). It entails swiping into the dining
hall at breakfast time and staying there until 7pm, effectively getting a day’s
worth of food for one meal swipe. This is great for the frugal college
student’s budget, but bad for our general health.

The second major health obstacle that the all-you-can-eat
style dining hall possesses over dining halls where you pay by item is that,
like I said earlier, you can eat a little bit of everything. This would be okay
if “a little bit of everything” meant fresh fruits, wholesome vegetables, and
lean protein options. However, this more often meant I could have one piece of
pizza, a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, sweet potato fries, macaroni and
cheese, some stir fry, and corn chowder all in one meal. And while it was bad
enough to have all this in my stomach, it was equally sinful of me to waste all
the food I didn’t eat (an environmental
of the all-you-can-eat system). My dad’s mantra of “waste not, want
not” could not be heard as I dumped half of my uneaten food into the food waste

When I visited my friend at a university that doesn’t do
all-you-can-eat dining, I found myself having to choose one menu option, a
side, and a drink. At the time, I felt sorry for Bryan’s misfortune. Then I
realized that not only was the food quality better at his dining hall, I didn’t
have the option (though I still had the temptation) to sample other foods which
protected me from the usual pitfalls of munching on unhealthy foods and wasting
the rest. This is not to say there were no unhealthy options in his dining
hall. It just meant I had to consciously choose what I wanted to eat, which
gave me time to really think about what I was putting into my body (and keeping
out of the waste bins!).

All things considered, I believe the biggest obstacle to
eating healthy I encountered freshman year was the dessert available after
every lunch and dinner. At home, I rarely ate dessert. I did not consider it a
part of my meal, especially if it wasn’t on hand. But show me brownies and a
soft serve machine at the end of the Bistro line? Why yes, don’t mind if I do (turns out, my body did mind, but more on that later).

The dining hall became one of my most frequented social
spots. Meals were the time I could hang out with my friends without feeling
like I should be studying instead. We would spend at least an hour every night
for dinner, which was enough time to convince me I could have a piece of toast,
some cereal, and ice cream after my main meal. However, always going to the
dining halls with friends sometimes meant that I had to go when they wanted to
go. Even if it was 5:15 PM. Even if I wasn’t hungry. You can imagine that this
led to some unnecessary meals, in addition to the now second dinner I craved
around 8 PM. But what was I supposed to do—go to the dining hall alone?  

Now that I’m about to be an ever-wise, all-knowing upperclassman,
I can look back on my freshman and even sophomore self and see that while I
didn’t gain the infamous Freshman 15, my eating habits did leave me with a few
extra pounds and some compromised health. This past year I watched as my freshman
friends fell into the same traps I did, most noticeably as they consumed an ice
cream cone after every meal. But this cycle can end, and I have gathered a few
tips since my underclassman days for navigating the dining halls and making
those healthy choices before you’re halfway through college.

My advice starts with one word: moderation. If you’re going
to eat ice cream, do it. But not every day. Pick one day a week when you eat
dessert (Friday’s are prime for this). I decided my favorite dining hall
dessert is the pound cake, so when they make it, that’s my dessert day. Lucky
for me it’s no more than once a week and sometimes not even that. On the other
days, yogurt and granola or cereal makes a great substitute if you’re craving
something sweet.

Moderation also works with your main meal. While I would say
try to avoid dishes that don’t have any lean meat or vegetable in them (like
mac and cheese), you can have a little and still fit into your jeans the next
day. Again, if this happens every day you might need to go clothes shopping,
but a piece of pizza once a week will not kill you. It’s college after all – your
self-restraint only goes as far as the junk food your friends are eating, and
boy can it look good. Practicing moderation will also help keep food out of the
food waste bins. Don’t take too much food the first round through: while you
can always go back if you’re hungry, you can’t put the food back once it’s on
your plate. You will also start to realize that your stomach needs a lot less
food than your brain thinks it wants, especially when you’re looking at those
tater tots at Sunday brunch.

Once you’ve realized that you don’t have to eat salad all
day every day, you can focus on making healthier substitutions for the majority
of your meals. Try to choose a lean protein option, like turkey, over those
chicken strips. Ditch the pancakes and French toast (they’re not really that
good anyways) for some cereal and toast. Without trying to sound like your mom,
make sure you’re getting enough vegetables. I know in my dining hall, this can
be difficult because they often mix vegetables with a lot of sauces and spices
that I don’t care for. I would rather just have some plain steamed broccoli
(yes, I’m a real person) or some cooked carrots. This is where my other one word
piece of advice comes in: creativity. You can steam your
own broccoli
by microwaving the salad bar broccoli in a bowl with some
water. You can also mix in a ton of vegetables into sandwiches or paninis. The
latter are especially useful in the dining halls because you can eat them for
lunch or dinner, and there’s a lot of room for variety by changing your protein
option, veggies, sauces, and cheese.

Creativity also means that eating healthy won’t get old. It
can be hard to tell yourself to have a salad with every meal. However, if you
change up what you put in the salad and try new flavor combinations, it becomes
much more manageable. For example, try cutting up some apple or pear and adding
it to your salad (fruits and veggies in one!). Also, instead of using the salad
dressings they offer, just pour a little bit of olive oil and balsamic
vinegarette over your salad, add a dash of salt and pepper if desired, and
voila! A much healthier, tasty option for salad dressing.

Lastly, what I have found to be most helpful is to listen to
my stomach, and by this I mean learn how to recognize when I’m actually hungry
versus just eating to be social or pass the time. It’s easy to go into the
dining hall and eat a large meal even when you’re not that hungry, because unlimited,
ready-to-eat food is hard to pass up. However, it’s generally better if you eat
multiple smaller meals throughout the day rather than a giant breakfast, lunch,
and dinner. I know that meal credits are highly coveted and you don’t want to
frequent the dining hall every other hour, this is easier said than done. If
your dining hall is like mine and you can take food to-go, grab some fruit or
cereal to take with you as a snack for later. Stock up on easy to keep healthy foods
like nuts and some multi-grain crackers–either from a grocery store or from
your campus market–to munch on during the day.

Kirsten Belinsky is a junior studying Linguistics at and
playing soccer for Brown University. A native of Los Altos, California, she has
volunteered in Panama and Honduras, bicycled through France, and explored the
countryside of Japan. This summer Kirsten is interning at ShopWell, a free website and
iPhone app that scans barcodes and scores foods on how well they meet your
unique dietary needs. ShopWell takes the work out of reading nutrition labels
so that you can focus on eating healthy as easily as possible.