Eating healthy in a college dining hall

As I’ve mentioned before, I work at a university. I have a group of students who help out the RAs with the programming they have to do, so we start training in the beginning of August each year. During the three weeks of training, we eat lunch every day in the dining halls on campus.

I searched for “college dining hall” on Google images and this picture came up. Look familiar? Isn’t that the weirdest thing? So although it has nothing to do with my post today, I’m going to keep it in here 🙂

The food on our campus is great, but sometimes there aren’t that many options for healthy balanced meals that are gluten-free, other than a salad day after day! Also, the unhealthy options are so much more enticing when you see them laid out for you on the buffet. I haven’t really craved bread or wheat-filled cookies since I went Gluten-Free in February, but seeing them in the dining halls makes me want them so badly! I have to make a very conscious effort to pick the healthy foods every time I go to lunch.

Luckily, the dining hall we’ve been eating in this week has a GF station!! Lots of brown rice, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin apple cinnamon muffins!

If you’re like me and you have to eat in some sort of dining hall or cafeteria, here are some things to consider and tips to eating healthy:

The most important thing is to make sure you get a balance of protein, fats and carbs. In order to do that, you’ll need to determine what the options are each day. Some days the protein is baked chicken, but other days it is fried chicken! It is important to scope it out before making your final decision.

Things I’ve done to eat healthy in a college dining hall:

1. Start with a salad- usually the salad bars have lots of options, so you can switch it up every day so you don’t get bored! Plus, filling up on the fresh veggies first will make sure you get the nutrients you need.

2. Check out the soup options- I know it is the middle of summer, but the dining hall is always freezing! A few good soups I have seen are beef vegetable, cream of tomato, vegetable lentil, beefy chili, turkey and rice, and chicken noodle (I can’t have that one, but it is always a good option!)

3. When in doubt, go with fruit and yogurt- we are fortunate that we always have fresh fruit available.

4. Don’t be afraid to wander around- seeing what all is available first will help you pick out the healthiest options

5. Mix and match foods from the different stations- just because the chicken is served next to the onion rings doesn’t mean you have to get them together. The other day, the main meals were just not appetizing and a lot of them were not gluten-free. I checked out all of the options and ended up making my own concoction: brown rice from the vegetarian station, marinara sauce and Parmesan cheese from the pasta station, and steamed broccoli from next to the fried chicken. It wasn’t completely balanced, but it was a good amount of veggies, plus I started out the meal with a salad topped with two hard-boiled eggs as my protein.

6. Stick to a simple dessert- because I love to have something sweet at the end of a meal, I will often have a small bowl of frozen yogurt or ice cream. Or sometimes I just have a banana! Since most of the desserts have wheat in them, it is easy for me to make this decision. If you’re tempted by the cookies and cakes, stick to just one and savor it.

7. Don’t drink your calories- our dining halls now have naturally flavored water with orange or lemon slices, so if you are tired of plain water, seek out something like that. Remember the juices and sodas are loaded with empty calories, so drinking water is a much better option!

8. Do a little extra exercise- no matter how healthy you choose in the dining hall, chances are you’ll eat a little extra simply because it is there. I’ve been walking nearly a mile to get to the dining hall each day this week, which really helps!


I’ll still be eating in the dining hall a few days next week, but I’m excited to pack my own lunch on Monday! Although, I will miss the free meals 🙂


Do you ever have to eat in a cafeteria or dining hall? What do you do to eat healthy there?


About eat healthy. be happy. live well.

A 20-something farmer's wife who has finally learned to eat healthy, be happy and live well!

14 responses »

  1. Great post! These are really good tips for people, students especially, who have to face this daily!

    I work at a high school & could get lunch in the cafeteria, but I always pack from home!

  2. In college I ate at the dining hall for about 3 years. I tried my best to fill up on salads and fresh fruit, not keeping anything extra in the room! This worked out best for me. Luckily the exercise part is pretty easy considering how much you can walk around campus!

  3. Good tips! I especially like the don’t drink your calories. Those tend to be so sneaky and really add up!
    I used to work in a hospital and the food was less that par but I stuck to the salad bar as much as possible.

  4. I was lucky enough to never have to live in a dorm so I never had to do the dining hall thing, only on occasion would I have to eat dining hall food. –I can’t believe that picture popped up! SO COOL! 🙂
    I work at an elementary school and simply can’t eat the food there, I would gain at least 20 lbs no matter how hard I would work out! I bring my own, every single day…. These tips are winners for sure! I like the wandering around one. That one would really help me out!

  5. Great tips! I’m a Carolina grad and remember my freshman year, my parents got me the meal plan. The food selection wasn’t the healthiest, but I do remember smuggling out alot of Cracklin Oat Bran from the cereal canisters!

  6. Great tips! At UGA we had a fabulous dining hall that had unique stations like ‘make your own stir-fry’ so it was easy to control what went into your meal. And you’re right, the salad bar usually has so many veggies that it’s easy to eat a salad everyday and not be bored 🙂

  7. At my school cafeteria there’s an asian line where you can get rice or noodles, chicken or beef, and veggies, which are surprisingly really good, and sauces. I wish we had a gluten free line! 🙂


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