College student life: The dreaded campus dining hall

College cafeteriaAhhh…the (dreaded) dining hall, a bane of college student life. In the past, this term conjured up images of stale pizza, mystery meat stews and salad bars that screamed salmonella. Today, campus dining halls offer everything from sushi  to vegan meal options. Haven’t been to your school’s cafeteria lately? Well, stop by and check it out. You may soon find that a campus meal plan is not only more affordable, but more delicious and healthy as well.

Seriously, lobster?

Okay, no — unless you happen to attend Bowdoin College or Virginia Tech, numbers one and two, respectively, on “The Top 10 College Dining Halls” ranked by Her Campus, you probably won’t be having surf and turf for dinner. But, you can still get above average fare at most universities. To find out what schools rank tops in different food categories, from “best quality food” to “healthiest dining options,” visit College Prowler‘s “College Rankings – Campus Dining.”

These days, campus dining is taking a turn for the better and offering healthier options and a larger variety of foods, including:

  • Local produce
  • Kosher meals
  • Vegan options
  • Vegetarian choices
  • Gluten-free foods
  • Meats raised humanely
  • Options to customize meals like pasta or stir-fry

Some dining halls even offer late night hours (for students who need a late night study snack) or are open 24-hours a day. According to a March 18, 2012 article in the Chicago Sun-Times by Kara Spak, “Campus dining halls offering world cuisine, emerging food trends,” students are not only looking for a great educational experience, but expect a more luxurious college lifestyle.

Meal plan options

If you do opt for the dining hall, then know that you will have different meal plan options available to you. Yes, most cafeterias will allow you to walk in and pay cash, but it might simply be more economical to pay for a plan up front, especially if you live in campus housing.

Most college dining plans are based on personal preference:

  • How much you eat (be honest)
  • How often you eat (be honest)
  • How often you plan on eating away from the dining hall (this includes going out with friends and/or heading home to have Mom do your laundry)

Based on your responses, you should be able to figure out which of your school’s dining options fits your needs. Of course, the more you munch, the higher the cost of the meal plan.

And, let’s face it, even if you get the meal plan with the most options, at some point during the term you will run out of food — those late night trips for a tacos really do catch up to you. If this happens, try to budget your food options wisely:

  • If you have cash on your meal card, consider using it for a smaller meal (pay cash for a breakfast bagel or a salad instead of burning an entire meal)
  • Stock up on cheap eats that can go a long way in your room (peanut butter, lunch meat, bread, Ramen noodles, cereal, mac and cheese, etc.) and eat there
  • Remember where you fell short and change your eating habits next term

For more tips and advice about college meal plans, check out OnlineUniversities.com‘s  “Surviving the College Dining Hall.”

Chowing down on healthy grub

Sure, dining halls may offer healthier options like soup and salad, but let’s be honest, most of us are going to hit the pizza buffet if given the opportunity. The trick here — especially if you are trying to avoid the notorious “freshman 15” — is to opt for better fare most days of the week and splurge on weekends. Easier said than done, follow these tips to keep your waistline in check, even during finals week:

  • Don’t overeat — eat only when you feel hungry and eat only until you feel full
  • Try not to skip meals and grab a snack every few hours — even it if means only having a yogurt for breakfast
  • Keep your vegetable and fruit intake high
  • Stay hydrated with water and avoid sugary beverages
  • Limit caffeine intake (sounds impossible, but it can be done!)
  • Opt for low-fat condiments, from sour cream to mustard, or omit them all together
  • If you order an entire plate of pasta, grab a take-home container and put half of your meal in there for tomorrow’s lunch (not only will this save you from a battle with the scale later, it will also give you an extra meal for when your plan is running low)

So, check out your campus dining hall to see what it has to offer. Not only might it save you money, it might also help you keep your physique in the shape you want! Happy eating!

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