How to Navigate the School Cafe

Over the years of teaching nutrition to college students, I always get students complaining that its hard to eat healthy in their dining hall. So one semester, I asked them to to show me exactly what they were eating. They took videos and pictures of their food and just what was being offered. I then complied a list of suggestions I thought that could help them navigate the situation a bit better based on what I saw.

(Note: college dining halls might vary, this is just what I saw at the school I teach, if you have any other suggestions, please share in comments! )

My advice:

In general, aim to fill half plate with veggies, then divide up rest of plate with appropriate amounts of carb/protein/fat that works for you. (low carb must supplement with more fat and vice versa). At least ¼ c protein. A good meal should have protein+fat+fiber to help keep you full and energize you for classes. 


  • Salad ideas: Base with greens (darker the better).
    • Chop up burger (w or w/o cheese), hot dog, hard boiled eggs, tuna or chicken salad, meat from carving station, bacon, chopped up deli meats…whatever you see around the cafe that appeals to you
    • Dressings: Avoid anything with sugar. Good options are ranch, blue cheese, any vinaigrette,
      • or make/bring your own: add some oil/vinegar and mix in some spices from the wok station.
    • Guacamole or hummus also good.
  • Sauté up some veggies from the wok station. Add whatever meat you see that appeals to from other parts of the cafe. Drizzle with olive oil or other (no sugar) dressings.
  • Smoothies:
    • Add a big handful of greens from salad bar.
    • ¼ cup fruit
    • Unsweetened yogurt ok
    • Tab nut butter (like peanut butter…could also bring in your own)
    • Unsweetened milk/nondairy milk or even one of the flavored waters
    • Optional: Bring your own protein powder to add in
    • Click here for help on making the proper Smoothie 


  • Eggs! Whatever you like! Omelet bar is good. Add some side salsa or guacamole to eggs or even tomatoes and peppers from salad bar.
  • A few slices of bacon or breakfast sausage is ok (moderation because it’s most likely processed)
  • Smoothie (see above).
  • Whole grain toast with pb or cream cheese, or avocado (or guacamole) if you have it!

Other tips:

  • Plain white rice and pasta is fine (just not entire plate). Fill up half plate with veggies. Make sure you add in a protein source. 
  • Side of potatoes or squash are good starchy carbs to eat.


  • Unsweetened milk/nondairy milk.
  • Flavored waters or seltzers
  • Unsweetened teas. (can add a tsp of sugar or honey if needed).
  • Avoid sodas (all, even diet, zero cal, etc.), Gatorade, and anything similar. Just too much sugar.

Vegetarian protein options:

  • Beans from salad bar. Can add to anything, like rice or even a salad. Can spruce up in the wok station with some spices.
  • Hummus
  • Eggs (if not vegan)
  • Veggie burger (can also add to salad, instead of just a plain burger).
  • Just make sure you include as much veggies as possible, because the fiber will help keep you full longer. Try not to overdo it on pasta, rice. and breads, which could make you sleepy (be mindful of type of day).


  • The desserts
  • Pudding, yogurt and ice cream bar
  • French fries
  • Anything with lots of sugar
  • Pizza
Tips from Fellow Students:
  • Learn to cook, even if just a few meals, especially if dorm room has a kitchen accessible. YouTube is great for this!
  • Only keep healthy (and filling) snacks in room, so you aren’t tempted.
  • Have a case of water or a Brita filter in room for easy access to water
  • Utilize the wok station!


Any other advice I missed! Please share!


On a college budget? I have some tips to food shop here! (It also includes a list of healthy, energizing snack ideas!)

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