Making the transition from home cooked meals to college cafeteria dining can be a challenge, especially for vegetarians, vegans, or gluten-free diners, who must choose from a repetitive, small selection of options. College can be a tricky place for students with any specific dietary needs and restrictions, and it is easy to fall into the trap of eating for convenience rather than nutritional balance.
I remember scanning the small vegan room in the corner of the cafeteria my freshman year. After about three weeks into the school year, I was sick and tired of eating poorly cooked vegetables and potatoes, and for a while found myself preferring to live off of cereal, fruit, and peanut butter. I had to learn how to get creative with my food, to keep things interesting and tasty. Here are some tips for cafeteria diners:
1. If you are a veggie guy or gal, you probably love salad as much as I do. Dressing up your ordinary salads is a great way to fit a solid combination of vegetables and protein sources into your diet.
Most college cafeterias have installed salad bars, and this is an opportunity to get pretty inventive. Some advice: spinach greens have the most calcium and nutritional density. General rule for veggies is – the greener the healthier, but it is best to have an overall colorful salad. To pack on some protein and make a salad more substantial, try adding some tofu, seitan, beans, nuts, or seeds. To jazz things up, try adding craisins, raisins, sunflower seeds, or switching up your dressing. You can even top things off by adding some tabouli or grains to your salad to make your meals more filling and satisfying.
2. For vegetarians/vegans/ anyone who doesn’t certain animal products, be mindful of not forgetting to add a little protein to your veggies and carbs.
Good sources of vegetarian protein include dairy such as yogurt, milk, and cheese, as well as eggs, nuts, nut butters, beans, or whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice (which are gluten free for those who don’t or cannot consume wheat). Other options include veggie burgers, tofu, tempeh, soymilk, and various other soy products!
3. For gluten-frees, balanced meals can prove to be a challenge.
First off, if available, look out for a gluten-free section, which I’ve seen more and more at several cafs. Even if not, there are luckily many foods in college cafeterias that are naturally gluten-free. Look for sources of carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, or oats. Those with Celiacs disease need to be careful to not consume foods that might’ve been cooked in the same utensils as gluten products because this can elicit an allergic reaction. Be mindful and ask your cafeteria servers!
4. For vegans, the college caf can be especially daunting, since dairy and eggs are a no-go.
Try to get crafty with paring side dishes to create an optimally balanced plate. Pair up a veggie-packed salad with lentil soup. Add some tofu to your minestrone. Try using peanut butter on toast or waffles instead of just using plain butter. Add a glass of soymilk, if available, or ask your cafeteria staff if they could add it to the mix. Try snacks like carrots with peanut butter, and add nuts to your plain oatmeal or salads.
Additionally, another thing to keep in mind is that you as a student may have some say in making positive changes and adding food options and accommodations to your school. If you cafeteria does not already provide an adequate mixture of options, try advocating for change, making suggestions to meal staff and spreading the word. Wherever you go to school, you will find like-minded eaters, and the more that trends continue to grow and diets evolve, the more schools will need to adjust their dining options.
5. A final tip: Any balanced meal should include non-refined carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits, a source of protein, as well as a source of healthy fats such as omega 3s (which can be found in items such as walnuts, olives, and avocados).
Try to include these elements in all of your meals, if possible. In addition, if you are dealing with a seriously limited cafeteria, or a restricted meal plan, make sure you stock up on healthy snacks and fuel yourself throughout the day so you don’t get hungry if you cannot manage to satisfy your cravings for three meals every day.