Dining Hall Survival Guide

Navigate the college cafeteria like a pro with these tips and ways to approach each meal.
Published May 7, 2018

As a college student, you have the freedom to make your own choices, including picking what you eat. With limitless pizza and fries available at your fingertips, choosing the healthy option in the dining hall can be overwhelming. You can survive on fries, right?

If you’re used to eating home-cooked meals every night, selecting a meal that will keep you energized and satisfied is likely new territory. Use this guide to help you navigate your campus’ dining halls because, unfortunately, you just can’t survive on fries.


4 Tips to Eating in the Dining Hall


1. Know your options.

Before you step into the dining hall for that first meal, do your research. Most universities have multiple dining halls that offer different types of food. Maybe the one next to your dorm has better chicken sandwiches, but the one across campus has the nicer salad bar.

Knowing what your options are, and more important, where they are, will give you a variety of choices so you don’t feel limited.


2. Give yourself a tour.

Once you’ve figured out which dining halls work best for you, take a tour to see where the healthy choices are.

If you know where to look, you can make a beeline toward the better-for-you options instead of getting stuck at the pizza station that’s right in front of the door.


3. Follow the combination formula.

Choosing a combination of a whole grain, vegetable, fruit, and (ideally lean) protein like beans, chicken, or fish is an easy formula to follow that can be applied to every meal, says Natalie Rella, MPH, CPH, a health promotions specialist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL. “As a college student, you’re really building your intellectual capital. And it matters…what you’re putting in your body,” says Rella. “That combination of nutrient-dense foods from whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and protein food sources will give you the energy you need to get through classes to that next mealtime.”

RELATED: A Weekly Meal Could Help You Reach Your Goals


4. Take action.

Can’t find any choices that’ll get you closer to goal? Remember that you are the consumer and the dining halls exist because you exist. Be empowered to give feedback and ask for change.

Now that you have the basics down, here are some tips to guide you through each meal.


Dining Hall Meal Guide

Use these meal-specific tips to help you navigate your food choices.


  • Don’t skip it. You’ve heard it a million times, but breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, says Wendy Dahl, Ph.D., an associate professor in nutrition at the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL.
  • Make sure you leave enough time to eat before you head out for a long day of classes and keep that combination formula in mind.
  • If you’re someone who can’t resist the waffle station, eat the waffle but consider adding a fresh fruit on top instead of loading up on syrup to help balance the meal and reduce sugar intake, says Rella. 
  • Keep your coffee simple. Be mindful of what’s in it. Downing a premade iced coffee with whipped cream and caramel could mean a cup of empty calories in the form of sugar that’s going to spike your blood sugar and then send it plummeting, says Rella. Rely on the natural sweetness of milk (including nut milks) and skip the second squirt of sugary flavoring.



  • Add vegetables. “You can never have too many vegetables,” says Rella. Filling your plate with fresh vegetables will help give you those quality nutrients to keep you satisfied so you don’t reach for a bag of chips in an hour.
  • Take a to-go box. After you’ve eaten, get a to-go box and pack yourself a healthy dinner. Since you’re already full, you’ll be less likely to just grab the first thing you see and can focus on building a balanced and nutritious meal.



  • Avoid vending machines. “There are levels of unhealthy foods in the vending machine, some are healthier than others, but they’re all pretty much unhealthy,” says Rella. Take advantage of the produce available in the dining hall, and grab a piece of fresh fruit on your way out to snack on later. Apples, oranges, and bananas are packaged by nature for on-the-go students!
  • Eliminate distractions. With endless amounts of food in the dining hall, it becomes much easier to mindlessly overeat. Put away your notes, laptop, and cell phone and take the time to enjoy your food. Plus, taking a break during your busy day will help you to be more productive.

RELATED: Why Distraction-Free Eating Should be a Thing



  • Opt for healthy more than the unhealthy. “Don’t restrict from your diet things that bring you joy, but learn to limit that in the dining hall,” Rella says. It’s okay to indulge, but choosing the healthier options more than the unhealthier ones in the dining hall will help make it a habit.
  • Practice self-awareness. It’s important to eat mindfully by listening to your body and being aware of your hunger cues. Determine how hungry you are before you start filling your plate and take portions that match your level of hunger. A good rule to follow: eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.

Once you get into your groove, the dining hall will become a normal part of your daily routine and not a scary breeding ground for poor food decisions. Take a deep breath in and out—you’ve got this.

RELATED: 7 Secrets to Fighting the Freshman 15