Walking into an all-you-can-eat dining hall can make you feel like a kid in a candy store. There’s food from every region of the world, from sweet to spicy to salty to greasy. Whatever you want to eat, you can usually find it at a dining hall. It’s a great freedom, and sometimes it can even be a little too much. Walking, wide-eyed, into one of these massive rooms can be really exciting — unless you realize there’s a lot of it you can’t eat. With the increasing prevalence of food allergies, more and more students have to look out in their dining hall to make sure they avoid illness.
On top of allergies, many students have other dietary restrictions that can turn dining halls into mazes. Religion, culture, morals, environmental concerns, health or any number of other reasons cause people to eat a certain diet. Vegetarian, kosher, dairy-free, whatever it is. There are lots of great, valid reasons why people avoid certain foods, even when it makes it harder to eat.
Luckily, there are lots of ways to eat at college — in the dining hall, on a budget, happily and healthfully.
1. Talk to the staff.
The staff at your dining hall are there to make you food! They’re not your personal chefs, but they want you to be able to eat. Ask them about their allergen protocols or if there are specific areas for allergies or restrictions. There’s often specific sections for different dietary restrictions, but they’re back in weird corners or not well marked. You could go for months without realizing they’re there, and most students who don’t use the areas don’t know where they are. Don’t be afraid to ask for a manager, a lot of dining hall workers are students just trained to put food out and clean it up, and they’d rather you ask someone else too.
Tia Offner, a freshman at Cornell University, has Celiac Disease, so she cannot eat gluten: “I ask for gluten-free pasta almost every day at dinner. It’s my favorite food on campus.” While many people don’t have tastes as simple as plain pasta, it’s always okay to ask for substitutions.
2. Learn the menus.
Most dining halls have menus that rotate every couple of weeks, so you can start to understand their patterns. Many have theme days as well, making it even easier to know what to avoid. It’s also great to take note of which meals are best to eat. It can be hard to find vegan breakfast food, with all of the baked goods, eggs and breakfast meats, so that’s probably a good time to eat some fruit or granola in your dorm. If you have multiple dining halls on campus, some will have better options for you than others, so figure out which ones you find it easiest to eat at.
Rebecca Muffler, a freshman at Green Mountain College, praises her college’s options saying, “It’s very easy to find food, even being vegetarian and lactose intolerant, we always have vegetarian and vegan options.” Green Mountain College is a small liberal-arts college centered on sustainability, so it’s not surprising that it has more plant-based options. While you can find vegetarian or vegan options in almost any dining hall, they vary in quality and consistency.
3. Know what you’re eating.
Dining halls are stepping up their game, and sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what you’re eating. Lots of people don’t know what pilaf or ratatouille or Moussaka is, and all of them have been served in my dining hall in the last week. If you’re not sure what you’re about to pick up, ask, read the descriptions or give it a quick Google search on your phone. If you’re is going great lengths to avoid a particular food, you have a good reason for it. Making sure you don’t eat it by accident is a really important part of eating in dining halls.
Offner says, “All of our food is labeled with major allergens and just about all I can do is read the cards and avoid the ones that say ‘gluten.’”
4. Explore your options outside of the dining halls.
If the dining hall starts feeling like a minefield, it’s probably time to get acquainted with your dorm kitchen. If your dorm has a community kitchen, it’s a great opportunity to make meals that suit you. You don’t have to settle for whatever the dining hall is serving or eat the same gluten-free option for the 4th time this week.
Leora Matalon is a sophomore at The City College of New York, where there is no meal plan, only an expensive a-la-carte cafeteria. She makes her vegetarian meals in the kitchen in her dorm suite. “I do most of my shopping at Trader Joe’s,” she says, “I buy a bunch of microwaveable vegetarian foods which are a bit rough on a college budget.” She still thinks that the meals aren’t as expensive as they are at most grocery stores with the commitment to quality that Trader Joe’s has.
5. Plan your meals.
There’s a lot of planning you have to do in school, so adding another aspect you have to plan for is not fun. However, planning for your meals in advance will make it a lot easier to find meals you’ll enjoy. If you’re lactose-intolerant, you might want to make other dinner plans on quesadilla night. Even better, you can make these plans with your friends. If you want to get away from quesadilla night, but really like the 25¢ wings downtown on Tuesday, see if your friends want to make it your night out. Have a potluck, cook a stew together or go buy the weirdest food you can find and give it a try. Turn food into a fun challenge instead of a stressful event.
Eating is incredibly important. That seems like a simple thing, but it’s easy to forget that when you don’t want to work for food. It’s so easy to skip a meal or only eat french fries or spinach when so many options are off limits. Finding foods that you like and are healthy for you to eat can be very difficult, but they are out there. Commit yourself to your health, make food fun and never be afraid to ask for help getting the food you need.
Lead Image Credit: Sasha Zvereva via Unsplash