It’s back-to-school season, and you know what that means: college freshmen across the country will soon be faced with the daunting task of eating at the dining hall. “Daunting?” you might say. “Isn’t that a little overdramatic?”

To which I respond, "No, not at all."

Dining halls are difficult to navigate, especially as a new student on campus. With cafeterias notoriously ingrained in teenager’s minds as social death traps thanks to every movie about high school ever made (i.e. Mean Girls’ “You can’t sit with us” scene), freshmen might find themselves worried by the idea of them. And of course, there’s the food to figure out as well.

1. Find your comfort food.

By “comfort food” I don’t only mean cheesy, hot, rich foods that cheer you up when you’re sad. Find foods at your dining hall that put you at ease for one reason or another. Starting college is scary enough without trying every exotic dish in the dining hall. On a bad day, maybe that chicken that reminds you of your mom’s home-cooking is all you need.

2. Portion Control

Picture this: you walk into your new dining hall. You look around at the sandwich station, stir-fry station, salad bar, spaghetti and pizza station, ice cream bar and countless other options. You grab one of EVERYTHING just because you CAN. This, my friend, is a mistake. Don’t give in to the temptation to grab copious amounts of food; as tempting as it might seem, that fourth plate of chicken and rice won’t be worth the extra trips to the gym.

3. Salads can be your best friend.

Going into college, I hated salad. I scoffed at anyone who believed lettuce and some veggies tossed together was a meal. I was one of those people who was fond of saying “I’m not a rabbit” to anyone who asked why I didn’t like them. However, when I got to college, I found that while my dining hall had a solid salad bar, it often didn’t have simple cooked vegetables. Instead, you could find carrots sautéed with onions covered in spices, or odd squash dishes. As someone who likes plain, boiled vegetables, I turned to raw salads for nutritious side dishes instead of the overcooked or overseasoned options I was too often presented with. Needless to say, I'm now a proud salad-lover. 

4. Be nice to workers.

Whether the employees in your dining hall are students or adults, be pleasant and respectful to them. If you’ve had a rough day, don’t take it out on the people serving your food. They have to cook for massive amounts of people every day. If the employees are students, they could have had just as many stressful assignments or tests to get through that day as you did. I’m sure cleaning and running a dining hall is stressful enough without worrying about teenagers being mean-spirited and rude.

5. Treat yo’self.

Eat that cookie. Or that ice cream. Or that piece of pizza. With all the running around college students do, a treat every so often isn’t going to kill you.

6. Get creative.

Dining halls are tricky because you can’t put a specific snack on your dad’s shopping list and then see it sitting in the kitchen the next day. Some of the foods you’ve grown up eating will not be available, as unfortunate as that is. Therefore, creativity is a freshman’s best friend. Want a sandwich with a little pizzazz? Use a bagel instead of a roll. Want dessert but don’t feel like ice cream? Try vanilla yogurt with fruit. Don’t settle for the obvious every night for dinner.

7. Sitting alone is okay.

Sometimes your friends’ schedules just don’t match up with yours for meals. It happens. The stigma about sitting alone at the dining hall is completely unfounded. Nobody, I repeat, NOBODY, is going to judge you if you can’t or don’t want to eat with company.

8. Take the night off.

Even after all of these dining hall tricks, one fact remains – sometimes, the dining hall won’t have any options that appeal to you. The quality of food in dining halls across the country differs, but there’s bound to be a night when you crave food that you simply cannot get on campus. Don’t be afraid to take the night off from dining hall foods and go out to eat instead. Whether it be a Chipotle bowl or a fancy meal in the town nearest your campus, sometimes a break from dining hall food is necessary for your health.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to enjoy and appreciate my parent’s cooking while I’m still home. Best of luck, dining hall pioneers.

Lead Image Credit: Henrique Félix via Unsplash