Cafeteria Know-How

Featured Article, News and Advice, Nutrition, Weight Loss
on August 31, 2011

DEAR FFG: I was just wondering if you had any tips for college students who have to eat in the cafeteria. — Leigh

DEAR LEIGH: Your question had me reminiscing about my days in the caf. This was an old-style caf, basically a hot food line and some poor excuse for a salad bar (mostly used as a bunker during food fights, as it separated one half of the cavernous dining hall from the other). The hot food was the cliche slop–UFOs (Unidentified Fried Objects), vats of viscous stuff that could just as well be used as building material, pitifully anemic "green" beans that were so drained of color that they resembled penne pasta. You get my drift.

I don't remember actually eating anything there except on a dare (I would eat just about anything on a dare). My friends and I would take a lap through the line, just to look. We might point and ask, "What IS this stuff?"–a question that was usually meant with a very articulate, "I dunno." We'd look at each other, and say, way too loudly: PIZZA! After which, we’d jump in my roommate’s car and head for a place that sold the best deep-dish in down. (Obviously, this was pre-FFG days.)


Sorry. I'm not being helpful.

But to be truly helpful, I need to know what your caf is like. The last college cafeteria I went to was Stanford's back in ‘97 or ‘98. They had all these stations–fusion, Italian, barbecue. Their salad bar was amazing. They had low-fat brownies. I wanted to enroll on the spot.

But hey, that was California. I will imagine that since you are asking for help, you aren't living in FFG nirvana. So I will take my best shot:

  • Do a walk through. My friends and I were on the right track with this one. Any time you're faced with a buffet (even if it's just appetizers), do a dry run first. Scope out the scene. If you don’t know everything on the menu, you may put stuff on your tray not knowing there's a healthy choice down the line. And then … there's no going back without annoying the Lunch Lady (and you know how risky that is).
  • Come up with a plan. Try to find some source of protein that is a) not plastered with sauce or cheese; and b) not fried. Skip casseroles or anything that looks like it might have cream of mushroom soup in it (for obvious reasons). You need some protein to keep that feeling of fullness longer. Look for the most recognizable foods: The closer a food is to its natural state, the more likely it is not to make you put pounds on or get sick. Try to get at least one recognizable green vegetable. Go for a plain baked potato if they've got them. All a baked potato needs is a little salt, really, and it's pretty yummy.
  • Fill in the blanks with salad! I would try to fill more than half my plate with salad–and I mean lettuce and veggies, NOT croutons, cheese, bacon bits … all that stuff that negates the purpose. Salad offers the illusion that you're eating a lot when you're not eating a lot of calories. (I love that.) Now, I know people who do not like salad, to the point that they won't eat it at all. All I can say is … I didn't like salad either, until it I decided that it wasn’t an option to eat an entire meal of white food. You can reform your tastebuds–I did, completely. The only vegetables I would eat before, say, age 25 were corn and potatoes–and both had to be drenched in butter. Not any more.
  • Restrict yourself to only certain "stations" at your caf where you know you can get healthy food. Keep out of the areas where you know you are doomed (Italian Land, for me … all that saucy pasta and pizza and other cheesy, starchy stuff).
  • Make sure you treat yourself. This does NOT contradict what I just said. In fact, it’s not an option not to treat yourself. You can't become an FFG by going cold turkey. Set aside one dinner or lunch or whatever a week to do it up. And hey, if your caf food stinks, don't waste your treat night on it. Save it for when you go out and eat some real food.

I hope this helps. Now, I'm going to go see if Netflix has Animal House. I'm hungry for a food fight.