How to Avoid That Freshman 15 When Navigating the Dining Hall

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breakfast muffins

Whether you’re a freshman spending your first semester at a new school or a seasoned upperclassman returning for your final year, by now you’ve likely tackled some undergrad milestones that can only come with the college experience. Getting an A on an assignment you probably started way later than you should have, waking up for 8:30 AM classes with little-to-no sleep from the night before, even handling that sleazy jerk who’s far too into himself to be into you – basically, you’re, like, a pro. Of the many college challenges you’ve conquered with ease thus far, there’s one elusive aspect of the collegiate system you may have yet to master: navigating the dining hall.

Yes, the dining hall may seem like a safe space – that is, if you aren’t hiding from last night’s transgressions that take human form in Jack from the fifth floor – where virtually every meal you can imagine is at your fingertips and filling your plate comes at a minimal risk of judgement thanks to the football team carrying two trays per player. But one thing every college student can agree on is the fear and anxiety wrapped up in that one, three-word expression echoing through our minds at breakfast, lunch, and dinner: the freshman fifteen. As much as we’d love to believe, calories count regardless of the occasion, and no amount of post-hangover breakfast binges and sleep-deprived late night noshes will excuse the fact that adjusting to college life also means adjusting to a whole new diet. So in an effort to save your health and your waistline, here are some useful tips that will help you navigate the dining hall!

The Adjustment. As college students, we often get so consumed with getting acclimated to our new environment, new friends, and new-found freedom that we ignore the fact that our diet is also subject to change, requiring some adjusting of it’s own. Remember that home-cooked meals from M-O-M are far different in nutritional value than the fries and burgers from the grill line – especially when you’re stopping there three times a week. In general, sticking to healthier options will help cut back on added calories and fat.

DON’T “Diet”. The word “diet” should only ever be used as a way to describe what you eat on a daily or weekly basis. I’ve heard time and time again the whole “I’m-getting-salad-because-I’m-on-a-diet” spiel, since eating salad is just the cure-all weight loss plan, right? WRONG! Any “diet” of a limiting nature is just plain unhealthy, because more often than not it cuts out necessary nutrients you need to keep your body functioning properly. Fad diets are the worst, and are so hard to sustain in the long run. Instead of having the “diet mentality,” adopt a “healthy mentality” and work to include foods that will benefit your body, that you enjoy, and that will help you stay at a healthy weight in the long run, rather than starving yourself to lose a few pounds that will only come back with that post-hangover binge breakfast I mentioned earlier.

A Lesson on Metabolism. To understand how eating healthy can help you achieve the weight you want, or maintain the weight you’re at, a little lesson on the metabolism will be helpful. Leaving the biology to the lecture hall, let’s think back to that salad cure-all diet. Aside from the fact that eating only salad is depriving your body of the nutrients you need, the few “empty calories” you are consuming aren’t adding up to where your intake should actually be, and this actually slowing down your metabolism because you aren’t fueling it enough. Basically, when your body senses that it’s not getting the food it needs, it enters into storage mode thanks to good old evolution – this is why cavemen, never knowing when the next meal would come, were able to survive. Unlike our ancestors, however, we have plenty of food at our disposal, so when our body switches to food-storing mode because we’re eating virtually nothing as we “diet,” and then we fuel it with high-calorie meals thanks to our late-night noshing, we’re not burning any of it off, and it all goes to our [insert butt, hips, thighs, stomach etc. here]. Moral of the story: not eating right makes you gain weight.

Know What You Need. Understanding your caloric needs is one thing, actually getting the right portion size to give you that amount is another. Calculate your caloric needs here, but beware of apps that don’t pay enough attention to personalization: some apps are notorious for suggesting the same caloric needs to people who obviously have different lifestyles and require different intakes. The best way to know what you need is by visiting a registered dietitian! And as far as serving size is concerned, check out this video: you’ll most likely be mind blown, and think twice the next time you’re loading up your plate at the dining hall.

Plan Ahead. It’s always a good idea to be aware of the menu and know what is being served. Check out your campus’s dining website, most of them have menus and the nutritional information associated with the meals of the day. Aside from the general rules of thumb, having additional options that you can default to will help you avoid the cop-out beeline for the quick and greasy.

How To Eat Right at Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

At the foundation of “eating right” is the idea of balance: balance your meals to fuel your body, boost your metabolism and keep you at a weight that makes you healthy and happy. Everyone is different, and it’s hard to give general advice on something as specific as dietary requirements. But still, there are some guidelines that can be followed when trying to avoid the freshman 15 (or sophomore-junior-senior-15 for that matter), and keeping them in the back of your head while you traverse the dining hall will help you step in the right direction.

Check out this guide to eating right and navigating the stations of the dining hall:

So there you have it. Check off ‘Dining Hall Expert’ and ‘Freshman Fit-teen” off your hypothetical list of collegiate achievement. While these are to be though of as simply “guidelines” and can and should be tweaked to fit your lifestyle and your need, you now have a better idea of some tips and tricks to scour through the stations of your dining hall with ease, knowing exactly what to get for a healthy dish.

[Lead image via Dmitry Naumov/Shutterstock]

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