How to Eat Healthy in a College Cafeteria

With limitless access to burgers and fries and no parental supervision, it's no surprise that many college students struggle to maintain a healthy diet. Although you can enjoy an occasional treat at the cafeteria, constant splurging will lead to more than just weight gain. Poor nutrition will make you feel lethargic and will make it difficult to concentrate on your studies, according to the Kids Health website. With a little planning, you can tackle the college cafeteria and emerge with a stomach full of healthy food.

Students enjoy their college cafeteria. (Image: Ridofranz/iStock/Getty Images)

Step 1

Calculate what you need. Calorie requirements for college students vary considerably because of differences in physical activity. A soccer player is going to need to eat a lot more than a bookworm. Rather than fret over calories, eat to appetite and make sure your diet is mostly whole foods including low-fat dairy, whole-grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and healthy oils.

Step 2

Avoid skipping breakfast. Many students get in the habit of staying up late, then rolling out of bed to rush to class. Without food to jump-start your metabolism, your energy levels will be low and you'll be ravenous -- and prone to overeat -- by lunch. Pop into the cafeteria and grab a piece of fruit, a granola bar, a hard-boiled egg and a carton of skim milk to-go.

Step 3

Make a plan. Most college cafeterias offer an assortment of healthy and unhealthy foods. Get familiar with the layout of your cafeteria and decide, before you walk through the doors, where you are headed. Walk straight to the salad bar, so you won't be tempted by the dessert table.

Step 4

Divide your plate. Instead of loading up a tray, limit yourself to a single dinner plate at meals. Use the USDA MyPlate graphic as a guide for good nutrition. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with whole grains and a quarter with lean protein. Have a serving of low-fat dairy on the side. For instance, you might have an orange, a piece of grilled chicken, brown rice, a tossed salad and a serving of low-fat yogurt.

Step 5

Look at the menu. You can't eat salads every night of your college career. Review the cafeteria's meal plan once a week and look for healthy, new foods to try. You might discover an ethnic cuisine station tucked somewhere in the cafeteria or learn that the college offers vegan and vegetarian options.


Most colleges have an on-staff dietitian or nutritionist. If you are feeling overwhelmed by options at the cafeteria, talk to a professional. A nutritionist may be able to help you devise a set meal plan.

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