If you’ve been accustomed to the bland fare served at public high school cafeterias then you’re in for a treat. Most colleges now have dining halls that resemble your favorite down-home buffet restaurant. With all-you-can-eat meal plans and so many choices at their disposal, it’s little wonder that incoming freshmen tend to put on a few pounds.

Sure, you can opt for the salad bar, but on a rainy day when you’re overtired and you just did poorly on a quiz, a made-to-order burger with fries sounds more comforting, right? And while you’re at it, a cupcake and some pudding to take back to your room sound pretty good too.

Combine these high-fat options with the fact that nobody is looking over your shoulder anymore to caution you about healthy eating habits. This recipe for disaster makes it all too easy to slip into undisciplined patterns. Mom’s not giving you any flack about that second bowl of ice cream, and even your best friend isn’t there to give you the raised eyebrow on your choice to go with meatloaf instead of tilapia.

With Great Food Freedom Comes Great Responsibility

The truth is that for many students, one of the first newfound freedoms they realize is that they can eat whatever they want, whenever they want, and nobody will stop them. Remember when you were ten years old and you vowed that when you grew up you would eat fruit loops for every meal? Your time has arrived at last.

So, eat your way through your favorites at the dining hall. Get all your food rebellion out of your system, because for you, my friend, a reckoning is coming.  It may come in the form of a tummy ache and a bottle of Tums, or it may make a more dramatic entrance when you can no longer fit into your favorite sexy jeans. Either way, you’re going to pay the piper.

At some point, you will come to your senses and realize that although you can eat whatever you want, you probably should not. You will realize that Mom was right and all those things about moderation might actually hold some truth. Most of all, you are probably going to start feeling pretty crappy and decide that you need some dietary changes—and fast.

Eating Healthy in the Dining Hall

Although you will find plenty of unhealthy choices and temptations at your school’s cafeteria, it’s likely you will uncover just as many healthy and nutritious options available as well. It’s all about knowing where to look and making the best choices. 

In the next part of this article, we will uncover those top choices so you can start eating better and feeling better.

Start With a Light and Nutritious Breakfast

It’s tempting to skip breakfast, and many people don’t have the stomach for eating too early in the morning. If this is you, know that you are going to be hungry by mid-morning and are likely to grab something sugary and unhealthy. Stop by the cafeteria on your way to class and pick up a granola bar, some yogurt, or a banana. If you can’t eat it right away, bring it to class and scoff it down when hunger hits.

On the days you are up to a good breakfast, opt for oatmeal with fruit, plant-based milk, eggs, and whole-grain toast with nut butter.

Understand the Main Players at the Salad Bar

So you want to eat healthy. No problem. You can head to the salad bar, right? Well, yes and no. While salad bars are the ideal spot to find good-for-you ingredients, they can also represent a potential land-mine of high-fat choices. Here’s what to load up on and what to avoid:


Creamy salad dressings:

That delicious blue cheese might be great with wings but if you smother your greens in it you will undo any low-fat potential you would have had otherwise. An ounce contains over 75 calories and at least eight grams of fat. The same goes for ranch dressing, which contains almost the same amount of fat and calories by comparison.

Instead, opt for a balsamic vinaigrette, or light Italian. For the best option, drizzle your salad with a moderate amount of olive oil and vinegar.


While croutons add crunch and flavor to salads, they also can add up to 100 calories and several hundred grams of sodium. If you want something crunchy, opt for shredded carrots or celery.


A small amount of cheese can add protein and brighten up an otherwise dull salad. However, be aware that cheese is loaded with saturated fat and calories. If you must have a little cheese, do so in moderation. Small amounts of feta or parmesan have a strong flavor that goes a long way without needing to add large amounts.

Bacon bits:

Yes, everyone—even you—loves bacon. So what could the harm be in adding some delicious bacon bits to your salad? They are notoriously full of chemicals, sodium, and empty calories that contribute to swelling and inflammation. If you must have the smoky taste of ham, throw in just a few cubes and call it good.


Why is this ever on a salad bar? We don’t know. But you were smart enough to make it to college, so you know that Jell-O is not a vegetable. While it’s not the worst thing you could eat, it’s not the best either. Filled with artificial dyes, flavors, and lots of sugar, its best avoided.


Lettuce and greens

Iceberg lettuce itself has very little nutritional value so look for greens like spinach, romaine, and kale, which are loaded with vitamins and powerful antioxidants


No vegetable is off limits, unless it has been marinated in oil or dressing. Pile on the peppers, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, corn, cabbage, and snow peas.


The same goes for fruit. Unless it has been bathed in heavy sweet syrups, feel free to add as many pieces of watermelon, orange slices, or strawberries as you want. In fact, the more berries, the merrier. High in antioxidants and healing properties, berries are always the right choice.


Make sure you add some protein to every salad, even if it’s just a small amount. Tofu, chicken, hard-boiled eggs, beans, and lentils are all great options that are filling and worth every bit of their weight in calories.

Nuts, seeds, and healthy fats

Look for raw nuts like walnuts, pistachios, almonds, and sunflower seeds that contain healthy omega-three fatty acids. The same goes for avocados, which are considered one of the best superfoods you can eat.

The Main Course

It’s hard to stay away from creamy macaroni and cheese and comfort foods like chicken pot-pie and meatloaf, but when it comes to the main course, less dressed is best. That is to say, that simply prepared ingredients with minimal processing will be your best option.

Baked potato, salmon, and steamed broccoli is going to provide much better overall nutrition than lasagna. A simple piece of broiled chicken and brown rice or quinoa should trump that pizza you are eyeing. If your school offers plant-based butter and other vegan options, take advantage of these.

Make Special Requests and Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

As long as you are kind and polite, the cooking staff will generally be willing to accommodate any specific needs you have. Maybe you could take some of the brown rice and a few raw veggies from the salad bar and request they sauté it into a simple stir fry for you.

Most schools have a nutritionist on staff who can help you if you are feeling frustrated by your food options at the cafeteria. This person may have a little pull beyond the norm to help you get your needs met, particularly if you have dietary requirements that are not being met by the traditional meal plan.


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