HEALTHY LIVING
08/20/2013 08:44 am ET

7 Tips For Navigating The Dining Hall

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It's no surprise that when we leave our parents' houses and begin to cook for ourselves, we have more control over what we put in our bodies. Not that it's easy: Mom and Dad are no longer serving up the broccoli, meaning that college students have to begin thinking about nutrition for perhaps the first time. And while some decisions are easy to make -- Olive oil in that stir fry pan instead of butter? No problem -- others might require a couple of semesters to figure it out.

Even though we're technically adults, many college students are, at least for a time, at the mercy of the dining hall. An unlimited meal plan makes heading to the D-hall for every meal the most convenient and financially savvy move at most schools. But with so many food options along the rows of hot trays and salad bars, many of which are mysterious and unhealthy, it's important to know how to navigate the dining hall.

We asked nutrition experts for their advice on how to eat healthfully when you can't cook for yourself. Read on and tell us in the comments:

Load Up On Breakfast
granola and fruit

We know that breakfast is a necessary way to start our day, and skipping it has been linked to serious health issues.

Emily Dingmann of A Nutritionist Eats recommends an apple or a granola bar with peanut butter as great on-the-go breakfasts. "Even if you don't eat in the dining hall, studies show time and time again, that people who eat breakfast weigh less," she says. "If you skip breakfast completely, you'll overeat later in the day." Rochelle Sirota, MS, RD adds that it's important to plan breakfast in advance and to stick to options that are lower in sugar content and saturated fats.

The best part? It's actually fairly easy to eat a healthy and hearty breakfast at college dining halls, perhaps more so than other meals. Some great options are oatmeal mixed with fruit, yogurt with nuts, or dried fruit and granola, according to the experts. The good news: All these options are often faster than waiting in line for pancakes or a bacon, egg and cheese. Omelets are another great breakfast meal that most dining halls offer. After all, eggs are our nutritional powerhouses. Don't have time to wait for a hot, sit-down meal? Opt for a hard boiled egg or two.

Plan To Socialize With Friends Outside Of The Dining Hall

The dining hall is a social center -- the one place where all students unite to get their grub. It's fun to talk with friends and meet new people, but be careful to avoid social eating. It's easy to find yourself chatting for hours at the table with friends, unaware of your constant snacking. In her blog, UCLA Undergrad Julianna notes the common feeling of regret when missing out on an opportunity to hang with friends at the dining hall.

There's no reason to fall to the extremes of eating constantly at the dining hall or avoiding going all together out of fear of over-eating. Just try to find a happy medium that works for you. "I found that the best solution to this was to forget about wasting a swipe, go eat with my friends, and just have something small like a banana with peanut butter," Juliana wrote.

Try planning to socialize with friends outside of the dining hall. Go for a stroll, drive to the mall or watch a movie together. If you plan ahead to spend quality time with your friends at points other than meal times, you can grab a bite when you're hungry, and not stress about missing out on social time.

Don't Let Yourself Get Too Hungry
granola bar and banana

Snacking can be a helpful way to curb hunger and control portion sizes -- and to ensure you are less likely to binge during meal times. Nutritionist Rebecca Scritchfield, MA, RD, recommends healthy snacks for those who are busy and always on the go, just in case you can't make it back to the dining hall when you are hungry.

"You may think you don't have time to make healthy food choices, but you do!" Scritchfield says. Load up on healthy snacks that you can stuff in your backpack or store in your mini fridge to eat throughout the day.

Sirota also suggests keeping fresh fruit available "to avoid arriving at the dining hall famished."

Many times the unlimited meal plan leads to the "I need to get my swipe's worth of food right now" mentality, which can cause unhealthy habits. Try thinking about "getting your swipe's worth" in a different way -- grab some to-go foods when you swipe into the dining hall that you can eat throughout the day. Having snacks on hand to eat in your room and on your way to class can help you resist the late night allure of that vending machine candy bar.

Don't Be Afraid To Make Requests!

It's no secret that dining hall options aren't always ideal. Choices for vegans, vegetarians and those with allergies can be scarce, and it's important to speak up. Everyone deserves a shot at health. Don't be afraid to ask for help -- school nutritionists, dietitians and dining hall staff are there for you.

Even if you don't have an allergy or are on a special diet, you should still feel comfortable tailoring meals the way you like them. "Opt for sauces on the side," Sirota suggests.

Load Up On Veggies, But Always Think About Balance
salad bar

A good way to approach a meal sometimes is to think of it as less of a packaged deal, and more of an array of separate pieces. The new freedom of college life can be overwhelming, and it can be easy to stray from the balanced plate. "An ideal plate would look balanced in three sections of veggies/fruits, lean protein and carbohydrate-rich foods," Scritchfield adds.

Although some dining halls make it hard to stray from a meal combo, don't be afraid to mix and match side dishes for a balanced plate. "Choose one starch/carbohydrate (1/2 sandwich, 1 1/2 cups pasta or one slice of pizza) and fill the rest of your plate with vegetables and lean protein," suggests Dingmann.

Explore The Options And Get Creative

Dining hall meals are often scheduled in a rotation, meaning the options can get old. If you aren't proactive about being creative and switching it up, you could get quickly get very tired of the food. The same goes for the salad bar and healthy foods -- too many boring salads every night and you'll never want another in your life! Think of the dining hall as a game -- what's the most inventive meal you can create?

Julianna noted that exploration of the options is what really helped her to learn how to mix and match. "I found that walking around to each station and seeing what was available first really helped me," she said in a blog post. She wrote that she often would take bits and pieces from different stations to create a unique meal. Her favorite mix: a hot salad.

"I would pile on steamed veggies and tofu (or chicken) on a bed of spinach and top it with corn, rice, pesto sauce and cheese. Then I pop it in the microwave 'til the spinach is soft and I've got a filling and tasty meal!" she wrote.

Remember That Moderation Is Key

Don't beat yourself up if you splurge on ice cream one night, or you indulge in a big plate of pancakes for breakfast. It's important to remember that we're all human, and these tips are just tips -- not hard and fast rules.

"The less processed the better, but don't obsess over perfect food," Scritchfield says. "It's not realistic or normal to require every meal and snack is perfectly unprocessed."

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