If you’re the typical college student, cafeterias are a part of your everyday existence. While definitely not the peak of fine dining, cafeterias do provide a valuable commodity to busy, stressed students: sustenance. Unfortunately, cafeterias seem to value quantity over quality, although they generally have improved since our parents were in college.
Still, some days the chicken pot pie is a little too green, or the pork chops have more in common with hockey pucks than savory protein. But usually there’s something acceptable if you turn your expectations down a notch or two. Cafeterias are part of the college’s draw for current and prospective students, so they try. They really do. And we Millennials expect our comfort food and ethnic cuisine.
Now palatability and healthfulness are two different qualities that, while not mutually exclusive, are difficult to find together in a cafeteria. Thankfully, along with pandering to our tall-white-chocolate-soy-no-whip-double-espresso-mocha-latte sensibilities, cafeterias have also started to reflect the multitudinous trendy diets by catering to vegetarians, gluten-frees, lactose-intolerants, and more. As a nutrition nerd, I’m really excited about the options coming available in cafeterias that can fit into a healthy diet.
While your cafeteria may fall anywhere along the quality spectrum, I have several tips to squeeze out the most nutrition possible:
- Make half your plate vegetables. This can be an adjustment for anybody, and sometimes the vegetable options in a cafeteria are slim. And then they’re breaded, boiled, or fried beyond recognition. Such is the fate of many cafeteria vegetables. If you can find it, steamed or roasted is the way to go. If you have a salad bar, take advantage of fresh greens, but don’t drown the healthy in cheese and croutons.
- Fresh is best. In addition to the aforementioned salad bar, keep an eye out for fresh fruit and vegetables whenever you can. If it’s fresh, you know it hasn’t been doused in butter or salt or whatever else they could contrive back in the kitchen to undermine the good nutrition.
- Find the whole grains. Whole grains are a rare species in the cafeteria. Sometimes you’ll be able to find brown rice or quinoa, but cafeterias like their white hamburger buns and enriched spaghetti. Take what you can get. Look for whole grain breads in the sandwich line or whole grains on the cereal bar.
- Limit the fried/breaded/greasy stuff. Now I realize that it’s impractical to never eat a French fry ever again. (And I know what you’re thinking, but nice try. French fries don’t count as vegetables). Some days you just need a slice of pizza. Just don’t make it a habit (and this is hard coming from the girl who could eat pizza every meal of the day and snacks in between). Stick to lean meats and good fats, like baked chicken breast and peanut butter. Maybe just not together.
- Keep the sugary and salty stuff to a minimum. Again, it’s impossible to completely eliminate brownies from your life (and let’s be real, what kind of life would that be without brownies?) It’s hard especially when desserts are at every single meal. But don’t get addicted. Resist temptation!
- Think about your drink. Along with endless sweets, soda fountains are a cafeteria staple. Sodas, juices, sports drinks all equal one thing: sugar. Sugar isn’t evil, but too much is, and when it’s in liquid form it’s hard to keep track of how much you’re drinking. Stick to water and milk most of the time.
- Have a backup plan. Sometimes the cafeteria’s best is just the worst. If this happens, be prepared. Check out my blog post on dorm room meals here.
- Be the change. Cafeterias have room for improvement. And as the customer, you have first-hand experience with those areas in need of improving. So let them know. Find a comment card, an email address, an online survey, or a dining committee. Just please, be respectful and helpful. You are the customer, and their goal is to keep you satisfied, so they’ll listen. At least in theory.
So those are some hacks to help you get the most out of your cafeteria. Just know it’s about balance, thankfulness, discipline, and glorifying Him.
And just for fun and curiosity’s sake: What was your worst cafeteria experience? Let me know in a comment!