Caution! 5 Dining Hall Food Traps to Watch Out For

This post provided by college nutritionist, author, and all around excellent source of healthful info, Melanie Jatsek.

Campus dining halls are amazing places.  Besides a Las Vegas buffet, where else can you find Chinese food, Mexican food, and a pasta, deli, salad and dessert bar all in one room?  They are amazing, but amazing doesn’t always equal good for you.  Sometimes it can be down right challenging to navigate through the lines and find something that isn’t fried or covered in some sort of sauce.  To make it easy for you, here are the top 5 dining hall food traps to watch out for. Some may surprise you!

Wraps or Burritos:

You’re probably wondering why.  Most tortillas used to make wraps and burritos contain trans fats (trans fatty acids), which are even worse for you than saturated fats!  The scary thing about them is, they make their way into your brain and disrupt communication between your brain cells.  It’s sort of like when you use your cell phone to call your friend’s cell phone and the two of you keep dropping the call – you can’t seem to make a connection!  The only way to tell for sure if a tortilla contains trans fats is by looking at the nutrition facts label on the package for the words “partially hydrogenated oils.”  Obviously you can’t do this in your dining hall, so you may want to ask the food service staff to take a peak for you.

Breaded Foods:

Breaded usually means fried and fried always means fatty and higher calorie!  Check this out- a chicken sandwich made with grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise has 420 calories and 10 grams of fat.  The same sandwich made with breaded (otherwise known as “crispy”) chicken has 530 calories and 20 grams of fat!

I know what you’re thinking…”but crispy taste so much better!”  It all depends on how you are used to eating.  If you always choose breaded and fried foods, they probably do taste better to you than the un-breaded and baked ones.  If your goal is to make some changes towards a healthier lifestyle in college, you might want to consider giving the un-breaded option a shot!  Your taste buds will quickly learn to prefer it over time.

Watch out for specific menu terms that translate into “fried”:  crispy, deep fried, battered and breaded.  Choose more:  baked, braised, broiled, grilled, poached, roasted, steamed and stir-fried.

The Salad Bar:

This can be your best friend or worst enemy.  Creamy dressings, cheeses, croutons, bacon bits, pasta salads with chunks of pepperoni and gelatins mixed with whipped cream are just a few of the salad bar options that can spell disaster for even the most well-intentioned salad.  The final “masterpiece” could easily add up to 800 calories or more!

Choose romaine lettuce or spinach and top it with beans, a sprinkle of cheese, hard-boiled egg, fresh fruit, tuna fish or baked chicken, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, and an oil-based salad dressing like balsamic vinaigrette or Italian.  Oil-based dressings spread easier than creamy dressing, so you won’t use as much.

Gravies and Sauces:

Some sauces aren’t so bad, like marinara sauce or a small amount of garlic and olive oil, but then there are the “nightmare” sauces.  You know the ones – creamy, cheesy sauces that seem to harden your arteries just at the sight of them.  Some other sauces, like soy sauce and teriyaki sauce are very high in sodium-1000 mg for 1 tablespoon of soy sauce (that’s about 40% of your sodium limit for the entire day!).

So what should you do?  Go naked if you can!  Try getting in the habit of ordering or preparing food without salty sauces or seasonings.  For foods that you are supposed to order with sauce, like spaghetti, always opt for “red” versus “white” and shave up to 160 calories and 23 grams of fat off of your meal!

“Super-size” Portions:

Your stomach on “empty” is the size of your fist.  However, it can stretch to hold 128 ounces.  That’s a gallon!  No one needs that much food at one sitting.  Unfortunately, serving sizes seems to be growing at a ridiculous rate!  Did you know that a portion size for a bagel is 1 ounce?  That’s the size of a hockey puck and is about half of a medium bagel.  Those monstrous bagels at Panera Bread are actually 4 servings in one!

The good news is if you know what a standard serving size looks like, it will be much easier to spot “super-size” portions.  The following chart will help you make sense out of portions.

A serving of:

Cooked pasta, rice, or hot cereal = ½ cup- the size of a tennis ball
Dry cereal, fruits and vegetables = 1 cup- the size of a baseball
Pancakes, waffles = 1 ounce- the size of a CD
Beef, chicken or fish = 3 ounces- the size of an iPhone
Baked potato = size of a computer mouse
Cheese = 1 ounce- the size of 4 stacked dice
Ice cream = ½ cup- the size of a tennis ball

Yes, I know…a ½ cup of pasta is a ridiculously small amount!  You can certainly have more if you want to, just know that if you fill your entire plate with pasta at lunch, you are probably about to eat 4 or 5 servings.  That’s ok- just choose a higher protein meal at dinner and take it easy on the carbs!  It’s all about balance.

Only you can make your dining hall a healthier place to eat.  The greasy, fried, gravy-covered foods will still be there (and plentiful), but you have the freedom to “just say no” and opt for the un-breaded, greener, “naked” and portion-controlled ones.  You can do this!

[Melanie Jatsek is a speaker, author and registered dietitian who teaches college students how to eat to look better, feel better, think better and stress less!  Send her an email at or connect with her on her new Facebook page for college students: “The Healthy Campus Project”]



    1. Megan says:

      This is awesome! Definitely something to think about for us college students

    2. misnomer says:

      If something you like or that you think would be better, ask if it could be made. It might not be available for a few days, and they might not do special orders, but it never hurts to ask.

    3. Danielle says:

      Ugh. I hate the salad dressings they have at colleges. It seems like they just pour a bunch of oil and water in it to make it last longer.

    4. Kim T says:

      I bring my own dressing and hot sauce with me when I'm on campus. Started doing it in high school when I realized its better to just bring my own stuff when I'm out with friends instead of having a server have to write down a complicated order.

    5. […] * Speaking of college and appreciating everything, I plead to alter my previous statement.  Ok, appreciate everything besides these dining hall food traps. […]

    6. […] Go during finals week, eat lunch, sit around and study while grazing on snacks, and then eat a full-on dinner a few hours later.  Just make sure you have a pair of oversized sweatpants on hand for the next […]

    7. […] Go during finals week, eat lunch, sit around and study while grazing on snacks, and then eat a full-on dinner a few hours later.  Just make sure you have a pair of oversized sweatpants on hand for the next […]

    8. […] abnormal and worthy of attention on its own. Our campuses are equipped to fight our appetites with buffet-style dining halls filled with low-quality options, and our kitchens are stocked with frozen pizzas, chips and Cup of […]

    9. […] want to befriend. Feeling the stage fright, you’ve been unable to go for days and, between the cafeteria salad bar (roughage!) and the frat party jungle juice, it’s been rather […]

    10. […] Be Careful at the Cafeteria. There are many rumors that most college cafeterias lace their foods with laxatives. Although this has never been proven, it’s probably not true. Usually, an upset stomach after a visit to your caf is due to overeating. Just because your meal plan guarantees a never-ending buffet doesn’t mean you should take it to the limit every meal. […]

    11. […] choices on rotation over and over and over again it really is time for a change. Plus, dining halls aren’t exactly known for having the healthiest dining options. That personal trainer I’ve been meaning to get will appreciate my sacrifice of no longer eating […]

    12. Sara says:

      Where did you get the information about trans fats interfering with your brains ability to communicate? I’ve never encountered that information about trans fats.

      I know MSG causes the neurons in your brain to start firing more rapidly which makes a person crave and eat more.

      If you have the evidence for trans fats I’d be interested in seeing it. Thanks so much.

    13. All my favorite foods are in your list. I must have had a very unhealthy college life when it came to nutrition. At work, I still eat the same but I feel great.

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