Whether you’re a first year student living in the dorms or an upperclassman with a meal plan, navigating the dining halls can be daunting at times. There’s so much food, some of it may be unfamiliar-looking, and there’s no one to stop you from eating just cookies for dinner. Your parents aren’t here to make sure you eat a balanced meal, and there’s a tray of French fries and hamburgers beckoning you. Sound familiar?

Many students swipe into the dining hall with good intentions, and they know eating healthily is a vital component of fueling their minds and bodies and being a responsible quasi-adult. The hard part seems to be maximizing resources and planning ahead in an environment with so many choices.

Since 2012, a lot has changed with University Housing’s dining. The newly renovated South Quad and East Quad dining halls offer a new ambiance and increased options, while the elimination of trays and single-serving sizes of meals bring more portion control into daily eating.

As I sat down with Director of Dining Steve Mangan and Lindsay Haas, culinary and nutrition support specialist at the University, I discovered ways in which students living on and off campus could using campus dining halls as a means — rather than a barrier — to healthy decision-making.

1. A little planning goes a long way

Quick. Do the math.

The FDA-recommended 2,000 calories can add up quickly when there’s an endless amount of pizza, French fries and ice cream in front of you every day and your mom and dad aren’t around to make you eat your veggies. On the other hand, hitting the suggested daily consumption volumes for vitamins and proteins can be challenging. MyNutrition, in some ways, is a solution.

MyNutrition, an interactive online food search tool hosted on the University Housing website, gives students the ability to search and select their meals before going to the dining hall. By adding filters for nutrition, dietary preferences or allergens, it’s easy to pick out a subset of healthy foods from the array of culinary options offered in each of the University’s dining facilities.

Mangan suggested that students also use MyPlate as a guide to ensure they’re eating a healthy, balanced diet. MyPlate, a nutritional guide instituted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, replaced the popular pyramid structure for food intake in 2011.

MyPlate, as the name suggests, splits a meal off into nutritional categories by sectioning a standard plate. The tool suggests eating approximately 30 percent grains, 40 percent vegetables, 10 percent fruits and 20 percent protein. A smaller circle off to the side represents dairy intake, according to PRWeb.com.

Source: PRWeb.com

Though the process of healthy eating can’t be generalized, Haas described good decision-making in dining halls as a two-step process.

“The first thing you need to consider is ‘what are my health goals, what do I want my diet to look like, and how do I want to perform physically and mentally,’ ” Haas said, explaining that athletes on campus have significantly different health needs compared to an academically focused students.

The next step, she said, was to decide what to eat before entering a dining hall using MyNutrition as well as the nutrition kiosks and menus at the entrance of dining facilities.

“A little fore-planning goes a long way; maybe browsing over the menus before you walk through the dining hall, or having a game plan,” she said. “So let’s say you’re trying to get more fruits and vegetables into your diet; thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll hit the salad bar first, grab that, and then walk around to see what other entrees I can add to my salad,’ that’s a really general example but I think for most people, that kind of planning works.”

Mangan added that it was important for students to eat sufficiently and not to let stress dictate their eating habits.

“Our demographic of students, (ages) 18 to 20, tend to ignore the reality of the issues that come with not eating right,” Mangan said, stressing that healthy eating has been a strategic focus for University Dining. “The old cliche, ‘we are what we eat,’ is true.”

“For maximal performance, if you pay a little attention to the foods you eat, better for you, better prepared, fresh foods, less salt, less fat, and balance your menu, your body is going to perform better,” he said. “And if you combine that with some physical activity you’re going to be in much better shape to perform well as a student, to be able to manage your time when you are studying, make it effective, energized study time, instead of just stumbling through it.”

2. Understand choice

On average, 30 percent of dishes served in the dining halls are classified as “MHealthy” — and that’s not including the salad bar and the made-to-order deli sandwiches, stir fry and burritos, according to Student Life, an organization dedicated to helping University students make campus their own. Labeled with a blue block ‘M’, these menu items offer a quick way to identify healthier alternatives for those looking to improve their diet.

At dining halls, we have more food options than most of us have ever had at home and no one to force us to stay on the right path nutritionally. With that choice, however, also comes the need to strike a balance between thoughtful and sumptuous eating.

Haas said by scaling down the portion sizes and trays, Student Life gave students more opportunity to try several different offerings during each visit and encouraged dietary variety. Though the quantity of waste produced was difficult to measure, Haas said she had noticed student consumption patterns change to include more types of foods after the change.

Hass and Magnan both agreed that University dining is what students choose to make it. Instead of being disgruntled by the difficulties this newfound freedom may bring, students are encouraged to consider dining halls an opportunity to explore foods they may not be familiar with and to vary their diets with the selections provided. One way to do this is to pair each of your favorite foods with a healthier option to round out your meal every time you swipe in.

“We can’t go in a dining hall and not have a hamburger or a piece of pizza. We have the good with the bad, and its up to the student to learn how to manage their dietary needs,” Mangan said. “This needs to be an educational and learning process for our students, and they have an opportunity to explore dietary preferences.”

“We hope to provide information to them, tools to use, but at the end of the day, it’s still their responsibility,” he added.

3. Create a two-way conversation

Mangan said the dining halls exist to serve students, and the only way they can do that is if they know what students want.

Dining generally receives feedback on its service and food through its online feedback form, comment cards in dining facilities and Twitter account.

Haas said when students contact dining about not being satisfied with a meal — whether it be for health or quality reasons — she meets with them directly to address the situation. However, when contact information is unavailable, she said Student Life addresses it internally.

With the renovation of dining facilities across campus and new features on the menu, Haas said Student Life received more feedback this year. Also, dietitians like herself across campus work with students directly to make sure the dining halls best fit everyone’s culinary needs.

“I think we’re also getting more feedback since it’s easier for students for get in contact with us through our social media outlets as well as through the online forms and comment cards,” she said. “I think now we’ve come to the point where we can have a two-way conversation with students.”

While smaller changes like featuring a dish more or less in a menu cycle were easier to implement, Mangan said he looked into more strategic ways for students’ input to be taken into account for larger changes.

“Dining on campus is always a give and take,” Mangan said. “You walk down the middle and you try to please as many people as you can, and listen.”

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