Blog · Eat Smart

Secrets to a Balanced Dining Hall Meal

Photo: Meg Lane

This past summer, the USDA unveiled a new version of simplified nutritional guidelines to replace the complex food pyramid system. The initiative is called “My Plate,” and it includes a simple image with a sample plate divided into the proper portions of the five food groups, along with tips for healthy eating and the recommended amounts of each type of food per day as part of a 2,000 calorie daily food plan. It’s no secret that the dining hall is full of temptations – fried foods, pizza, and an endless selection of desserts often get the best of us, even when we’re trying to stay healthy and avoid the dreaded “freshman 15.” Counting calories can be tedious, time-consuming, and full of inaccuracies; instead of fretting about the numbers, just stick to the simple layout of “my plate” – every meal will curb your hunger while keeping you feeling happy and healthy!

Half of your plate should be filled with fruits and veggies. This seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes people forget to hit the salad bar! It doesn’t mean you have to face the dreaded platefuls of spinach and asparagus you avoided as a child; grab some raw cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, and baby carrots with lunch and top them with feta cheese for added flavor! At dinner, shoot for healthy starches like sweet potatoes and try a variety of cooked veggies like corn, carrots, and broccoli. These foods will fill you up, keep you hydrated, and they can be pretty tasty, too. Red grapes and pineapple are dining hall staples – they make for great snacks, but don’t forget to incorporate fruit into breakfast (cut up a banana on cereal or oatmeal, or section a grapefruit for breakfast) and even dessert (top a yogurt cup with some berries for a healthy, sweet treat)! Fruit juices are good options too, but be careful – they tend to be super-sweet and can lead you to a sugar high and subsequent crash later in the day.

The other half of your plate should consist of grains and protein. Shoot for whole grains – wheat bread, brown rice, and healthy cereals like cheerios are best. Protein can come from a variety of sources – if you’re a meat eater, shoot for lean meats and poultry like grilled chicken breast for dinner or a turkey sandwich for lunch. If not, try to incorporate nuts, beans, and eggs into your diet (a tablespoon of peanut butter on crackers or apple slices does wonders). A few walnuts and a hardboiled egg at lunch are the perfect protein-packed combo. Don’t forget about seafood, too – grilled salmon filets at dinner or tuna sandwiches at lunch are always an option.

A full serving of dairy at every meal is imperative to get the vitamins and calcium needed for strong bones and teeth! Skim milk is best, but if you’re not a milk drinker, yogurt and cheese are great alternatives. While ice cream isn’t exactly a healthful option, a small serving of frozen yogurt does have its benefits – as long as it’s kept in moderation.

While it’s possible, it’s not always practical to follow this plan 24/7. College is known for its deliciously greasy grub, and you only live once. So if you’re going to splurge for that slice at Varsity on a Friday night, go for it; just try to complement it with a balanced breakfast on Saturday morning. I always try to live by the 80/20 rule: stick to your healthy eating plan at least 80% of the time, and let yourself go for up to 20% of the time. Another way to think of it is to eat well during the week, and give yourself a little room to indulge on weekends. You’re young, and part of being healthy is achieving balance in life, so if going out with your girlfriends means having the occasional greasy meal, go for it! The fruits and veggies will still be there in the morning.