By Laura Milligan
The college cafeteria can be your best friend or your worst nightmare. You can’t really control how yummy the food will be, but you can be smart about what you choose to eat. Here are 101 ways to hack your college cafeteria, from eating healthy to working the buffet to taking the goods home with you, all as you manage college classes, extracurriculars, and your social life.
Your college cafeteria certainly doesn’t pretend to be the finest dining spot in town, but you do need to be respectful of your fellow classmates and the cafeteria staff. Here are some valuable dining etiquette tips to consider.
- Don’t cut in line: Everyone’s hungry, stressed, tired and/or hungover, and cutting in line won’t make you feel any better.
- Say please and thank you: Always be respectful to the people who are serving you or swiping your card at the check-out line. Please and thank you go a long way, especially from college kids.
- Throw your trash away: It’s not a restaurant: pick up all of your trash and throw it away on your way out. Check your seat and table for crumbs or spills too.
- Don’t talk with your mouth full: People want to hear what you’re saying, not see what you’re eating. Take time to chew and swallow your food before jumping in the conversation.
- Clean up spills: If you drop your milk in the middle of the cereal station, get some napkins to start the clean-up process and alert staff if they need to bring in a mop or broom.
- Have your card ready: Don’t hold up the line by digging around in your bag for your meal card. Have it ready to swipe as soon as it’s your turn.
- Don’t be a mean girl: College is supposed to be more mellow than high school, so open up your lunch group to new friends.
- Accommodate guests: You’ll probably run into visiting parents, alumni and prospective students in the dining halls from time to time, and you should help them find food stations, let them go first, and generally be polite and respectful.
- Keep your conversation private: The cafeteria isn’t the library, but you don’t have to yell and scream either.
- Get dressed: On the weekends especially, you probably roll out of bed and head to the cafeteria, but make sure you’re not ruining others’ appetites with your appearance.
Here are tips to find the healthy options hidden around your college cafeteria and keep the extra weight off.
- Pick foods with nutritional value: Avoid empty calories from sugary snacks and drinks.
- Add fruit to your tray: Each time you hit the dining hall, pick up a piece of fruit to take with you when you get hungry.
- Eat breakfast: Eating a regular meal for breakfast each day improves focus, helps you maintain energy, and can prevent you from overeating later.
- Avoid fried: Ask for grilled chicken or fish instead of fried tenders.
- Know where to find fiber: Your body needs insoluble and soluble fiber to keep you regular, full, and focused. You can find it in whole grains and cereals, fruits, vegetables and beans.
- Find healthy substitutes: Opt for turkey burgers, veggie pizza and fat-free dressings when you can.
- Remember the food pyramid: Eat food from each food group every day.
- Be smart about calcium: Drink skim or low-fat milk, eat low-fat yogurt and cheese, and take a calcium supplement if needed.
- Get enough iron: Avoid anemia — which can make you distracted, listless and weak — by getting enough iron in your diet from raw spinach, fortified cereals, and lentils.
- Stay healthy with Vitamin C: Foods that contain Vitamin C — like grapefruit and red peppers — are generally healthy anyway, but they will also help your immune system.
Hitting the Buffet
Salad bars and overstuffed buffets are easy and provide lots of choices, but they can also kill your diet. Remember to use a smaller plate, pile on the veggies first, and wait 20 minutes before going back for seconds.
- Avoid the mayo: Salads and sides made with mayonnaise are loaded with fat.
- Get a salad plate: Use the salad plate as your main dinner plate to avoid overeating.
- Do a once-over: Scan the entire buffet to see what you really want, instead of piling everything on as you go.
- Watch out for extra toppings: Bacon bits, cheese and sour cream add lots of calories to your salad or potato.
- Fill your plate with healthy items first: Choose fresh vegetables, salad, fruit and lean meats when you first arrive, and then go back for a small portion of whole wheat bread or dessert when you’re already almost full.
- Follow the 20 minute rule: Eat more slowly and wait out the 20 minutes it should take you to finish a meal before going back for seconds.
- Know what to avoid: Cream-based sauces and soups, heavy dressings, and fried or crispy foods aren’t worth it.
- Try new things: Consider the buffet as an opportunity to try lots of different things instead of gorging on your favorites.
- Split dessert: Get one plate of dessert with friends instead of piling up a plate for each of you.
- Keep the buffet to once a week: Don’t visit the buffet for every meal, or even once a day. Keep it to once a week or less.
Mixing it Up
One of the biggest complaints among college students is that they get bored with their cafeteria food. But the choices are there-you just need to know how to mix it up.
- Look at everything: Make a point to try something at each station in each dining hall every semester.
- Keep a food journal: When it’s all written down in front of you, it’ll be easier to see which foods you’re not getting enough of.
- Eat a variety for the sake of your diet: If you’re too strict, you’ll feel deprived and may end up bingeing later. Choose sensible options from a variety of stations.
- Try lots of different fruits and vegetables: When you get bored with your food choices, experiment with different salads, veggies or fruits before heading to the pizza station.
- Split with friends: Eat family style and pick up a couple of spreads of meats, veggies, pasta and other foods that you can split with friends.
- Mix up the sides: If you’re obsessed with your grilled chicken every night, switch up the sides every so often for more variety.
- Drink milk: An easy way to add vitamins and a new taste to your meal is to choose milk as your beverage.
- Eat pizza, just not all the time: Limit your pizza to once or twice a week.
- Switch dining halls: If you always eat at a certain dining hall for breakfast and a different one for dinner, switch it up.
- Eat out of order: Try pancakes for dinner if it’s available.
You need a lot of stamina for studying long hours, but it’s also tough to stop snacking when you’re stressed. Here are tips and ideas for finding the best study foods.
- Single-serving popcorn: Pop it before you head to the library and put it in a plastic bag.
- Don’t study in the dining hall: Manage portions by bringing a snack with you instead of eating within arm’s reach of every kind of food you might want.
- Water: Alternate between water and caffeine to keep yourself hydrated and alert.
- Nuts and seeds: Nuts and seeds can be good study foods, but make sure you measure out portions beforehand, or you’ll overdose on calories.
- Sensible cereal bars: Look for cereal bars with fiber, whole grains and fruit, rather than excess sugar, fat and calories.
- Only eat when you’re hungry: Don’t eat just because it’s study time. Save snacks for when you’re actually hungry.
- Fresh veggies: Rely on baby carrots and celery for when you fall victim to mindless munching.
- Cherry or grape tomatoes: These are packed with antioxidants and are fun to eat.
- Dried fruit: You can keep dried fruit in your bag overnight without it spoiling, but be careful of portion sizes.
- Mini cereal boxes: If your cafeteria serves dry cereal in the single-serving packs, take one of those with you to the library to snack on.
Your college cafeteria isn’t supposed to be a place where you go to eat alone. Here are several hacks for turning your campus dining experience into a real party.
- Hold group meetings: If you can’t find a place to host a club meeting on campus, save a table in the dining hall and hold a meeting over dinner.
- Use it for special occasions: You don’t have to go out for every special occasion in college. When you ace a test, want to celebrate a birthday or are finished with finals, invite all of your friends to eat dinner together for a change.
- Stock your dorm party: Use the juices and snacks from the dining hall for mixers and food to serve at your dorm party.
- Host a study break: Meet in the student center dining hall for a quick study break and to get more snacks.
- Practice interviews: Some interviews and networking events are conducted over meals, and you’ll need to know how to eat, talk, and make a good impression all at once. Practice in the dining hall with friends.
- Meet with professors: Invite a professor for coffee or lunch at a nearby dining hall if you want to discuss a project or internship, or just to chat.
- Throw a mixer: Contact residential life to see if you can sponsor an open party or mixer one night in the cafeteria.
- Host a movie night: Instead of the regular TV programming, ask permission to show a movie on the TV or on a projection screen.
- Go on a date: It’s not super lame if you treat it like a joke. Get dressed up and sit at your own table for a "date" at the cafeteria.
- Start your own breakfast club: Help yourself wake up by turning the normally quiet breakfast time into a social hour.
Getting the Most out of Your Meal Plan
While we don’t condone stealing, we do support the poor college student who has a right to every cent on the overpriced meal plan. Here’s how to make the most of your college dining resources.
- Napkins and plastic ware: Don’t be super obvious about it, and don’t swipe it on your way out. Put the extras you picked up with your food in your backpack to stock your dorm room.
- Bread: Get a roll on the side of your salad or meal, and then wrap it up and take it home to make a sandwich with the next day.
- Salad dressing: Get extra salad dressing or condiments to take back to your room.
- Finding a sugar daddy or mama: If you’re a big footballer whose already eaten your way through your meal plan before the semester’s up, ask students who still have lots of money left over if they’ll pay for your meal.
- Carry a shoulder bag, not a backpack: If you were going to sneak food out of the cafeteria, bring an open shoulder bag. It’s easier to throw food and drinks into it than a zippered backpack. Just make sure there aren’t any cameras around, and you toss a jacket over the opening when you check out.
Many colleges are responding to students’ requests to go green, even in the cafeteria. Here are hacks to support Fair Trade, recycling efforts, and more.
- Lobby for more sustainable products: Start a petition to get more sustainable trays and utensils in your cafeteria.
- Petition for Fair Trade coffee: Many college campuses have switched to providing Fair Trade coffee in cafes and dining halls because of student interest.
- Recycle: Most college campuses today have ample recycling stations, so throw cans and paper goods in the proper receptacles as you leave the cafeteria.
- Reuse your water bottle: Most scientists believe it’s still safe to reuse your water bottle a few times, especially if it hasn’t been left out in the sun or heat.
- Eat in season: Eat fruits and vegetables that are in season, as they’re most likely the freshest and used less packaging in their transport.
Make your own meals with cafeteria food by following these tips.
- Go grocery shopping: Shop your dining halls by visiting different stations and cafeterias to find the ingredients you like best.
- Make your own sandwich or pizza: Sandwich and pizza stations usually let you make your own instead of adhering to the offerings on the menu.
- Head to recipe websites: Browse easy recipes with minimal prep and simple ingredients for ideas of meals to make and assemble in the dining hall or your dorm room.
- Chicken tenders = chicken salad: Bring leftover chicken fingers home to throw on top of raw spinach and other salad ingredients you may have picked up.
- Visit different stations to make one meal: Visit the pasta station, salad bar and comfort food station to collect different items that you can throw together for a customized meal.
- Bring home the basics: Spices and other dry goods are good to stock in your room and will save money if you want to go to the grocery store for other ingredients.
- Use the microwave: Put cheese from the salad bar on top of a pita, salad or chips, then head to the microwave to make a hot sandwich or Mexican-inspired dish.
- Create your own sundae: Go back to the fruit salad or cereal after getting fro yo to pile on your own healthy toppings.
- Mix drinks: At the coffee or soda fountain station, mix drinks for a yummy signature drink.
- Spice up your soup: Get a simple cup of soup from the soup bar, and then go back to get chicken, fish or veggies to mix in.
Eating on Schedule
One of the toughest diet and nutrition challenges for college students is eating on schedule. Between classes, weird sleep schedules, study groups, extracurriculars, and studying, it can be a challenge to eat at regular times. Here are tips for making it work.
- Plan ahead: Don’t just hit the cafeteria for snacks and meals whenever you’re hungry. Come up with a plan for eating, including times and what you’ll eat, to stay on track with your diet.
- Consider your friends’ schedule: If you want to eat with friends, but they don’t get out of class until after you, eat a small snack to tide you over instead of eating two meals.
- Don’t skip meals: If you don’t have time to sit down for a meal, pick up portable snacks from the cafeteria to eat on the go.
- Plan around your new schedule: Your college schedule will change from semester to semester, and is drastically different from when you ate at home in high school. Prepare for the new changes by figuring out when you’ll be able to eat meals and which dining halls are closest to you.
- Bring snacks to class: Bring inconspicuous snacks to class if your teacher doesn’t mind to help your body stay nourished.
- Stay busy: Avoid eating off schedule because you’re bored or stressed by staying busy.
- Eat frequently: Eat more, but eat less at each "meal."
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule, too: Waking up and going to bed at the same time will help your stomach regulate its cravings.
- Avoid the late night snacks: The later you stay up, the more you’ll be tempted to eat late at night. Stick to lower calorie, lighter snacks that are easier to digest, and don’t keep junk food in your dorm room.
The following list shares hacks for finding the best deals on your meal plan.
- Go vegetarian: Save money by eating a meal that’s all vegetarian, like a pita with hummus.
- Choose the right meal plan: Really evaluate your eating habits and decide on a meal plan that works with your upcoming schedule, work outs and activities, and appetite.
- Eat foods that keep you full: Avoid going back and spending money on snacks by eating foods that keep you satisfied longer, like peanut butter, almonds, salads and avocados.
- Eat before you get super hungry: If you wait until you’re absolutely starving to head to the cafeteria, you’ll buy everything in sight, and probably won’t be able to finish it.
- Buy foods that can be saved for later: Be strategic about buying foods that can be saved for later if you’re not sure you can finish it in one sitting.
When the Cafeteria’s Closed
Sometimes your dining hall will close, leaving you to your own devices to forage for food. Here are hacks for figuring out what to do when you’re caught off guard.
- Familiarize yourself with dining hall hours: If your campus has more than one dining hall, then the cafeterias most likely have different hours.
- Check for holiday closings: Even over short holidays like Labor Day or Easter, certain dining halls may close early or completely.
- Buy ramen: Keep ramen noodles on hand to heat up when you’re craving comfort food.
- Keep your dorm room stocked: Keep cereal bars and other snacks in your dorm room in case you forget about a cafeteria closing.
- Make the extra effort: Even if the other dining hall is really far away, making the extra effort to visit is better than blowing your money at the vending machine.
- Stock up beforehand: If you’re going to be stranded during the holidays, stock up on foods from the dining hall that you can use later, cutting down on trips to the grocery store or restaurants.
- Find free food: Club meetings, art openings, and study breaks are popular places to find free food.