A few things come to mind when I think about my freshman college experience. One, late-night studying and partying. Two, the stress of midterms and finals. Three, and by far the most important, access to an all-you-can-eat buffet-style dining hall.
Without my mom there to insist I eat my fruits and veggies, coupled with the temptation to go back for seconds in the cafeteria with my unlimited meal plan, it was inevitable that I’d set myself up for food failure and gain the dreaded Freshman Fifteen. Only in my case, it didn’t stop at just 15 pounds my first semester… after a 25-pound weight gain, I knew I had to do something. I decided to make smarter choices my second semester freshman year, all without wasting the money spent on my purchased meal plan. And I have Tupperware containers, paper cups, the salad bar, and some lackadaisical cafeteria workers to thank for my healthier dorm-dwelling diet.
Instead of letting your unlimited meal plan be your own worst enemy, here’s how you can use the campus cafeteria and your prepaid meal plan to your advantage during exams and throughout the rest of the academic year.
1. Snag a couple pieces of whole fruit on your way out.
First, let me just say, I’d never encourage anyone to steal anything, let alone food. But in this case, smuggling healthy goods you’ve already paid for is not so bad. Now, I’m sure taking food to-go is just as frowned upon today as it was when I was a freshman (let’s just not worry about how many years ago that was), but that basket of fruit hanging at the entrance and exit of the cafeteria was always there, just begging me to stuff apples in my backpack…
If your college dining hall has a similar fruit display with fresh healthy snacks up for grabs, I would suggest grabbing a couple pieces for later. Trust me, when the late-night munchies kick in after a cramming session, you’ll be grateful for that apple, orange, or banana you took instead of feeling the need to hit the vending machine for a bag of Cheez-Its. Apples and oranges are completely worth the risk of a cafeteria worker giving you an accusing look because they can be kept in your mini-fridge, or even on your doom room desk, for up to two weeks. Think of it this way: Every time you ignore the fruit basket, it’s like leaving groceries you’ve already paid for back at the store. So do your body a favor, and take a piece of fruit.
2. Invest in some plastic containers.
When it comes to transporting other healthy foods that aren’t as easily sneak-able as an apple or an orange, it gets a little tricky. This is where plastic containers and a bit of willpower come in handy. My secret plan of attack usually involved me making a beeline for the salad bar, bypassing the pizza, grilled cheese station, and hot bar. At the salad bar, I’d pile my plate high with fresh ingredients, and when I returned to the table, I’d divvy up my eats in those separate plastic containers I packed up along with my books.
By the time I returned back to my dorm room, I had a bounty of fresh, pre-cut veggies from the salad bar that I could eat raw or throw in the microwave with my Ramen Noodles. Granted, instant noodles are pretty bad in terms of nutrition, but at least using fresh vegetables to add flavor instead of the pre-packaged seasoning or sauce mixes didn’t completely blow my diet.
3. Don’t underestimate the power of a paper cup.
As far as larger volumes of food, paper cups with the lids on them are the best. You can dump or stack anything in them ( peanut butter, granola, nuts, multi-grain crackers, banana chips, etc.), and the cafeteria workers will be none the wiser because it’ll look like you’re just taking water or soda to go.
The biggest takeaway here is that just because you’re living on-campus with an unlimited meal plan doesn’t mean you have to totally give up on eating healthy. I fully understand how hard it is to be on your own for the first time surrounded by all the tempting snacks, desserts, fattening meals, and delivery, not to mention not exactly having the proper equipment in your dorm room to cook nutritious meals. But college is often the place where many of us find ourselves, and where we start to establish our own healthy eating habits (and break bad ones, too). Use these grab-and-go tips to stock up on healthy munching staples from the dining hall, and go forth with good fuel to attempt figuring out the whole studying thing.