College dining halls are the equivalent to visiting an all-you-can-eat buffet. Every. Single. Day. If given the option of waffles for breakfast, wings for lunch, and pasta for dinner, odds are you’re going to reach for it. Throw in the seemingly self-replenishing dessert bars, late-night taco Tuesdays, and breakfast-for-dinners and you’re as good as toast as far as maintaining a healthy weight is concerned.
Learning how not to overeat on an unlimited meal plan isn’t as difficult as it seems, and you don’t need to deprive yourself of your favorite foods, either. We consulted with Rebecca Scritchfield, registered dietician, nutritionist, and health fitness specialist, to map out some guidelines for navigating the dining hall and acquiring healthy eating habits so you can frequent the buffet and get your fill of nutrient-dense foods without packing on the pounds.
Graduated? These tips carry over in to the “real world,” too. So, take note whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, or 10+ years out of school.
Eat a bulked-up breakfast
Sure, breakfast is undeniably important. Eating a meal first thing in the morning may reduce your hunger throughout the day, which can prevent you from overeating, but there are tons of sugar traps lurking in your dining hall. Best-case scenario, you can hop on the omelet line, order, and sit down to a veggie-filled scramble. Worst-case scenario (a.k.a. reality), the omelet line is wrapped around the dining hall and you’ve got 20 minutes before your first class. What do you do?
It’s tempting to make a beeline for the baked goods table, cram five mini muffins into your backpack like a third grader, and choke down some berry-filled, frosting-coated pastry on the way out, but you’re better than that. Opt for other quick breakfasts that have a good mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrates instead. This way you won’t binge on non-nutritious foodstuffs, or go for a plate-sized waffle.
If you have 10 minutes, have yogurt with fresh fruit and granola for a boost of protein, vitamins and minerals; bonus points if you can get your hands on Greek yogurt and berries—they’re naturally filling. “Oatmeal is another great breakfast, and most dining halls usually have it prepared ahead of time,” Scritchfield says. “Add a scoop of peanut butter and sliced banana over the top to add flavor, potassium, and satisfying protein,” she adds. This is also something you can keep in your dorm room and throw together if you’re crunched for time. If you’re ravenously hungry, reach for whole wheat toast. Spread some peanut butter or cream cheese for some extra protein and fat to keep you full longer. Check out our list of five foods you should eliminate from breakfast if you need more guidance. (Spoiler alert: Anything cake-like drenched in syrup is a no-go.)
Swap out lousy lunches
Here’s an inevitable situation you’ll find yourself in week after week: You and your buddies meet, hunker down around a table, then fill it Thanksgiving-style with hot wings, dressings, sodas, and the like. We get it; after hours of class there’s nary a more beautiful site than a buffet of pizzas and fried food all toasty under heat lamps. But this type of eating will catch up to you real fast. Odds are, you’re not that hungry, but you’ll polish off what’s on your plate, according to scientists from the Cornell Food & Brand Lab. In their study of 1,180 adults across 8 countries, 92 percent of participants ate everything on their plates. So, put a reasonable amount of grub on your tray, eat it, then go back for if—and only if—you’re still hungry.
Lunch-wise, Scritchfield says a buffalo chicken wrap isn’t a bad choice—if you do it up right. Order a whole-wheat wrap with grilled chicken and hot sauce, then load up on veggies. “Add spinach, peppers, onions, and tomatoes to add a satisfying crunch and many essential nutrients,” Scritchfield says. “And for any other creamy addition to sandwiches and wraps, use dressings like hummus, guacamole, salsa, Greek yogurt, or olive oils and balsamic dressings,” she adds. These adds-ons are also great for bulking up other entrees. Hummus is loaded with fiber, can help lower cholesterol, and promotes good heart health; guacamole is packed with healthy fats that help you satisfied; salsa is a low-calorie, high-flavor condiment that offers a dose of vegetables; and Greek yogurt with a splash of lemon juice is a great way to bulk up salads with protein and calcium without adding a ton of fat or sugar.
Serve up correct portions for dinner
The same pitfalls from lunch apply to dinner. You’ve got at least a dozen different stations with hot foods ranging from pastas to pot pies, mock holiday meals to classic comfort dishes. It’s difficult to ignore your various cravings, and you don’t necessarily have to if you keep in mind what an actual serving is. “When opting for pasta, keep in mind that a serving size is one to two fists,” Scritchfield says. “Choose dishes with a colorful protein and veggie blend like chicken and broccoli, instead of ones covered in bland-colored creamy sauces.” Meals high in sugar and carbohydrates will send you crashing and reaching for more.
Here’s Scritchfield’s recommendation for putting together the perfect hunger-curbing meal: Once quarter of your plate should have starches like oatmeal, potatoes, or a healthy grain like whole-wheat pasta, bread, or something like brown rice or quinoa; another quarter should be protein like fish, eggs, or lean meat; half your plate should contain vegetables and fruits; and you can add a small handful of healthy fats like, avocado, olive oil, or cheese on top.
If you’re logging hours in the library and need something to tide you over before dinner, abide by these guidelines. “If you have the urge to snack while working, don’t focus on your obligations,” Scritchfield says. “Put down your phone, shut off your computer and just appreciate the food you’re eating to help prevent you from over-snacking.” Dunk fruit (you can stash an apple or banana in bag on your way out of the dining hall post-breakfast or lunch) in peanut butter (many dining halls have those tiny packages of PB you can also snag) and vegetables in hummus for a healthy dose of fiber and protein that’ll leave you feeling satisfied after the meal is finished. Plus, if someone brings along an entire package of Oreos, you won’t polish off the entire bag. It’s all about compromise.
To stave off extra pounds, you need to drink responsibly. We’re not talking about alcohol (unless you’re over 21, of course). “Drinks can be sneaky when it comes to how many calories they hold—especially because a bottle is often more than one serving size,” Scritchfield says. You’ve heard it a million times, but it really is best to drink as much water as possible. Carry around a refillable bottle to stay hydrated throughout the day (note that dehydration can make you feel tired and hungry, which can trigger you to overeat.) But if you’re in the mood for soda, Scritchfield suggests making a homemade spritzer out of seltzer water and a dash of your favorite fruit juice, instead.
“You should never feel like you have to trick your body into eating less but, that being said, you really do need to focus on your body’s natural hunger signals,” Scritchfield says.
1. Only eat when you’re hungry.
2. When you’re eating, only focus on eating. Distracted eating is a major cause of overeating
3. Chew slowly. This will help you feel more satisfied when you’re done with your snack or meal.