One of the biggest adjustments that comes with starting your first year of college is eating in the dining halls. It can be overwhelming to first walk in and see all of the different stations full of buffet-style meals. However, don’t let this new atmosphere get the best of you. In the first few weeks, eating in the dining halls can seem almost like a vacation. There’s no one telling you what not to eat, no obligation to cook or prepare anything yourself and no limit to your portion sizes. For many first-year college students, this can be a recipe for disaster when it comes to health. 

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The way in which the dining halls are laid out makes it easy for many people to be less mindful about what they are putting in their bodies. In fact, with almost every meal offered, some of the dining halls often serve a variety of unhealthy options like pizza, fries and some type of dessert. While these junk food favorites are great in moderation, most people can admit they didn’t eat them for every meal prior to coming to college. Yet the luxury of having food premade makes it easy for many students to fall under the trap of heading straight to the options they know they will enjoy, even if it’s not the most nutritious. 

The number of meal plan options also makes it easy for students to become less mindful of their portions. At UCSB, students can choose from 10, 14, 17 or unlimited swipes a week. I remember beginning my first year assuming that 14 swipes would be the perfect meal plan for me, as it meant I’d have two confirmed meals provided a day while also allowing me the freedom of eating out or snacking. But by the end of my first month, I was already looking to change my meal plan to the minimum option of 10. Although that may sound confusing, I was realistically ending each week with at least four extra swipes. Due to my busy schedule, I’d pretty much rely on packing healthy options on the go and going to the dining commons whenever I needed a substantial meal. With that being said, whatever dining plan option you choose is ultimately up to what fits your own eating schedule. 

For many people, the dining commons are a very useful source throughout the day and the 14 or 17 swipes meal plan may be suited for them. Many of the students who have extra meal swipes are familiar with the infamous “DLG Late Night.” The De La Guerra Dining Commons offers a late meal on weekdays between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., which is known for its small selection of everyone’s favorite junk foods. 

DLG Late Night can be a great experience with friends after a long night out or when you’re craving a midnight snack, but it can also be the culprit of some of the worst eating habits. Everything is great in moderation, but it’s important not to make eating large portions late at night a daily activity. Studies show that meals consumed after dinner and later into the night are less likely to be burned into energy and more likely to be stored as fat, leading to health consequences such as higher levels of blood sugar, which can raise the risk of chronic disease.

Unless you have admirable self control, I strongly advise against choosing the unlimited swipes meal plan if you are looking to maintain your current eating habits in college. The downside of the dining commons is it that although the meals are portioned out by each place, there’s also no limit on the amount of times students can go back for more. This environment is drastically different than what many students are used to and can sometimes get the better of them.

While the dining halls do make keeping consistent eating habits challenging, it is definitely possible to stay healthy. For one, I advise not becoming too overwhelmed by the plethora of junk food that is offered for each meal. It can be helpful to try and incorporate all or most of the major food groups onto your plate. This means getting enough proteins, carbohydrates and healthy fats so that you can remain energized and full throughout your day. Once you have enough nutritious value in your meal, then grabbing something a little less healthy is harmless. 

Another major asset in staying healthy in the dining commons is taking advantage of the salad bar. If you find plain salads boring, there are lots of fresh produce, grains and proteins offered that you can incorporate into any meal. This is also a great place to start in order to ensure you don’t fill up on unhealthy foods first. 

It’s also important to note that eating healthy in the dining halls does not mean you need to cut back on your servings or eat less than you did prior to starting school. It simply means not overdoing it when you see the vast amount of options offered. As long as you listen to your body and eat a balanced diet when you are hungry, it is completely possible to eat healthy in the dining commons.

While eating at the dining commons may seem intimidating at first, as long as you remain mindful and consistent, you won’t have a problem with maintaining a healthy and nutritious diet. It’s important to consider that if you don’t eat a certain way back home, then there’s no reason to eat that way in college. As long as you exercise and keep nutrition in mind, being healthy in college is completely doable.

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