3 Tips on Healthy Meal Plans
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For many of you, your living arrangement for your first year or so of college will entail a meal plan that on paper looks like a humongous rip-off. Potentially thousands of dollars can go into a debit card of sorts that only has purchasing power at a super limited number of sanctioned spots on campus.

You may be asking: Did I really just blindly purchase something that can be likened to a $2500 Panda Express gift card when I signed my college and housing contracts?

If you can’t cook or didn’t read the fine print, then you probably did or had to force yourself to. Don’t feel bad or resign yourself to an uneventful year of consuming pizza, fries, and soda three meals a day for one year because for all you know that’s all dining halls have been good for since elementary school. If you follow these simple tips, not only will you appreciate your meal plan a bit more, but you may also be well on your way to being a healthy college freshman (making the “Freshman 15″ a non-issue)!

1) Know what’s on your meal plan, where you can use it, and what you can buy with it.

The overwhelming majority of college freshmen purchase meal plans because let’s face it, they probably don’t know how to nor want to cook or wash dishes, and just want to get their three squares meals a day in the most pain-free way available to them. Most residential halls are set up to be close neighbors to a dining hall(s) to satisfy that exact want. However, eating the same foods from the same place day in and day out gets old fast – I’d give it a week a most for students to get sick of their local dining hall’s offerings.

Traditionally, meal points can only be used in dining halls, but more and more universities are partnering up with local restaurants and convenience stores to make meal plans more versatile, more convenient, and overall more attractive. Taking advantage of the myriad of uses for your meal points can do two main things:

– Introduce novelty to an otherwise mundane-sounding system and reanimate your taste buds. Imagine a food court with just a Chinese place. Now imagine one with a Chinese place, a Korean place, a sandwich place, a burrito place, a coffee place, a juice place, a clam chowder place, a pho place, a Japanese place, a vegetarian place… you get the idea.
– Allow you to flex your dollar (point). You’re craving a roast beef sandwich at 8:47 PM after finishing your IM ultimate frisbee practice. Just the sandwich, nothing else. You can either a) pay the price for a full dinner at the dining hall and get your sandwich made at the sandwich station, or b) pay half that amount for a roast beef sandwich at a sandwich shop that accepts meal points.

Sit next to where the healthy stuff is, always.

– Almost all dining halls are buffet-style, and for many it’ll be a first to see the dessert and pastry bar, ice cream machine, and soda machine all conveniently located next to each other.

– SWEET! OMGYES UNLIMITED DESSERT, some of you may feel, until you realize that you’ve been sitting next to this oasis of sugary madness and have made six ice cream cones and five Cokes mixed with Fanta and Sprite staples to your daily diet for six weeks and counting.

– It’s just so easy to pick up this habit out of the initial excitement alone, and that’s why it’s important that you do everything you can to prevent this from happening. The cool thing is this “everything” isn’t hard at all! Whether you’re going to a dining hall with friends or by yourself, sit close to the healthier food stations. It will help encourage you to eat healthier. Allow me to expound.

– If you’re sitting with friends – the more there are, the higher the probability that one of them eats relatively healthier than the rest, which can get the healthy-food-consumption conversation going. This can in turn “peer pressurize” other people in the group (and hopefully you) to at least try out the healthier food items. With enough of these group gatherings next to the salad bar, chances are good that you will begin to introduce healthier food items into your diet and eventually adopt smarter eating practices.

– If you’re sitting alone – you’d want to be located close to where you usually get additional servings of food to save your seat, watch over your expensive laptop, minimize your chances of dropping your tray on the way back to your seat (and the obligatory sea of applause that ensues), and if you’re self-conscious like me, minimize those one-person marches around the dining hall to get that one chicken breast and plate of fries while trying to play it off like you came to the dining hall with somebody.

3) Deconstructed foods, the fad, the diet.

– Dining halls are breaking down their dishes into their core components to combat waste and promote smarter eating, among other forward-thinking reasons. Breaking down into core components means meatballs, sauce, and spaghetti are placed separately, and burger meat, buns, cheese, and veggies are in their own individual trays. To the casual observer or diner, this breaking down of dishes may seem like a hindrance to food service efficiency, but the benefits are plenty and do plenty of good.

– The deconstruction of dishes in the dining halls, combined with a basic knowledge of the food pyramid and nutrition, can empower you to choose only the healthier parts of dishes for your meals, leading to a better diet. It teaches you that it’s okay to pass on the mound of noodles and sauce with your meatballs, the two slices of cheese and bacon on your burger, and the whipped cream and powdered sugar with your cherry pie. This is one edge I feel that dining halls can legitimately claim over mainstream eateries and restaurants, whose business models are built on charging customers for ingredients or dishes that they don’t necessarily need.

– My favorite station at UC Berkeley’s Crossroads dining hall was the sandwich bar, where I frequently loaded my plate up with light tuna salad and a mound of olives, all sitting on slices of tomatoes. I call it my California Low-Carb, Protein and Monosaturated Fat-ilicious Deconstructed Sandwich.