A few years ago I lived in a dorm at University of Illinois for a week as an artist-in-residence. At breakfast there was french toast. At lunch and dinner dessert. I think I put on 5 pounds that week. It’s not easy to eat healthy in college.
Besides, buffet-related eating issues, someone in your dorm is always looking for someone to go in on a late night pizza. My dad put on the freshman 60! He played point guard on the basketball team at Tiffin University, and pretty much fueled himself on donuts and beer, so the legend goes.
I asked my friend, Claire Moorman, a dietetics major at University of Cincinnati, to offer some tips on eating while in college. Please share with any students you know, and also point them to Claire’s blog EatingCollege.
By Claire Moorman
Everyone’s situation is unique. So my advice is attempting to aim towards all situations within the college dining experience. I have spent over a year researching and writing about the college dining system and culture and intend to help others in similar situations as well as cause change.
Opt out of the meal plan if you can and want to
If your concerns are for your health, financial situation, religious, spiritual, or environmental beliefs and you believe you can handle sourcing, preparing, and planning food on your own, opting out of the meal plan may be a good option. However, to preface this process, it may not be easy depending on your school and or its policies on the meal plan. Some universities are now dropping the meal plan requirement for freshmen, but it is not a widespread practice and most schools are extremely strict about the requirement. I believe that through a widespread fight against this requirement in the voices of students, parents, and alumni, this requirement will be dropped eventually across schools.
How to Opt Out
Most of this process requires your persistence. The universities that require the meal plan do not openly advertise how to fight it. However, if you do not want the meal plan or need to opt out because of medical or religious reasons, I recommend that you investigate the school’s policies on meal plans and contact the dining services to fight the requirement. I know a couple of people who have been able to drop out of the meal plan because of medical or religious reasons, and, most of the time, there is an application and the medical or religious reason needs corroboration from an affiliated party such as a doctor or religion leader.
If You Couldn’t Opt Out, Start with the Good Stuff
Get fruit, a salad, and water on your first trip. After that, you’ve had a serving or so of fruit, vegetables, so the original instinct to grab fries, cake, and pizza may have been reduced slightly. Even if you still go for pizza every single time after you eat fruit and a salad, you’re still adding more fruit and vegetables into your diet than you may have before.
Dessert is okay. But not all the time
Don’t spend your whole time in the dining hall avoiding sweets, but instead choose when to eat the ice cream, cookies, or other dessert options.
Supplement on the side in your dorm
The dining halls lack in many areas and, as a starving college student, you will learn that dorm snacks are essential. What types of snacks you keep in your room is crucial. I recommend keeping a range of foods that may cover the bases the dining hall lacks. I keep fruit (apples and bananas usually taken from the dining hall, strawberries, oranges, etc.), vegetables (salad from one of the places I can use a meal swipe at lunch, cucumbers, carrots, etc.), grains (bread, chips, popcorn), and usually a couple treats like candy or ice cream just for fun. If you keep some healthy fruits, vegetables, simple snacks, etc. in your room, you will more likely consume fruits and vegetables as well as curb your hunger to avoid crazy sugar, fat, and salt binges that happen so easily in the dining halls.
One interesting experience I have had this year with the dining halls I did not expect was the extensive allergy and dietary restriction issues. I of course was already aware and frustrated with the limited availability of accommodations for people with food allergies or people with dietary restrictions such as vegans, vegetarians, etc., but being in dietetics where many of the students have dietary restrictions in one way or another, gave me an even more extensive experience.
I don’t have any food allergies but I do react slightly to dairy sometimes so I am lucky when it comes to food because I don’t have to avoid entire dishes because of one ingredient. One of my friends has both celiac disease and a shrimp allergy that she discovered this year while eating at the dining hall. Her reactions started when they were serving steak and shrimp side by side in the dining hall, and, although she did not eat the shrimp, she began to have allergic reactions (tight throat, hives, etc.) for which she ended up in the emergency room, doctor’s office, an allergist, and still had the reactions for a month. She is currently talking to dining services to try to get at least some of the meal plan cost back so that she can pay for the medical bills because of the allergic reactions. However, this could have been avoided.
Already having a dietary restriction, the dining hall has been a rocky road for my friend. There’s also the abnormal exposure to shrimp, the continuous reactions, and doctor bills. One of the biggest problems with large, highly-trafficked food sources like college dining halls is that they do not account for each individual food allergy, intolerance, preference, restriction, and practice. Cross contamination may mean an unnoticeable mishap to one student whereas to another, it means an ER visit, frustration, fear, and exhaustion for months. No matter how much dining halls evolve to “fit student needs,” they will always be missing countless details that are essential to some.
Being a Voice for Change
Surveys are a popular way in college to receive feedback and the opinions of many when there are 40,000 students spread across many different avenues. If your university offers dining service feedback surveys to students, fill them out. Be honest, and maybe it’ll change something. They may also offer in-person feedback groups. For example, at the University of Cincinnati, there is a food focus meeting each month where students can voice their positive/negative opinions on the dining experience. I went, and even if they did not listen to all my suggestions (i.e. I’m guessing they are not going to drop the meal plan requirement for freshman quite yet), they were heard and if you don’t try to voice your opinion, there is no possibility you will be heard.
If Its Broke, Fix it
In my now over year-long research into campus dining services, I’ve reaffirmed my distaste for the widespread meal plan requirement for freshman and learned more about the college dining culture. The biggest conclusion I’ve seen is that the college dining culture not only creates but encourages bad eating habits and not only are the students paying the monetary upfront price of approximately $4000, they are paying the price in the long run for the convenient, cheap, and quick meals.
The system is broken and detrimental to both students and our society in the long run. I intend to be a part of the change and will continue to write and disrupt the cycle that is college dining and the American food culture.