The first time in a dining hall is as iconic to the college freshman experience as the first frat party or all-nighter. After swiping your Penn card, you faced a blissful array of food all up for taking. You piled on the pizza, fries, burgers, ice cream, and chocolate milk, thinking “all you can eat” is the best concept ever. Yet halfway through your meal, your stomach felt like exploding and you guiltily dumped half the plate in the already overflowing trash cans. Mastering the dining hall is what Dan Connolly, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Bon Appétit at Penn, considers another adjustment freshmen face upon entering college. Here is his advice for making the most of your meal, without wasting food or a swipe.
- Plan ahead: While checking out the menu before heading out for food seems like a no-brainer, many students neglect to do so, possibly swiping into a hall only to discover there is nothing they find appetizing. To avoid wasting a swipe, Connolly recommends comparing the dining halls’ different menus on the Penn Dining website. Once at the hall of your choice, still survey everything offered before filling your plate. “We eat with our eyes, right?” Connolly said. “Sometimes something can sound good on paper, but when you actually see it, you don’t like it.” These extra steps only take a few seconds but can save you from impulse choices that leave you unsatisfied.
- Taste it, don’t waste it: We do it all the time. We go into the dining hall and load up plates with every item we might eat, from salad, to dinner, to dessert, before sitting down and actually having a taste. "For some reason, students have the misconception that they have to get all their food at once,” he said. “Overeating in general is getting a full plate and thinking you have to eat everything.” This is not to say feel free to toss your food. Instead, Connolly suggests starting out with smaller portions and getting more if still hungry. It takes about 20 minutes for the brain to tell the body it’s full, so only by pacing yourself will you discover if you actually need that second helping. And if you don’t like what you took? Smaller portions mean less to throw away.
- Invest: With the restrictions of classes and dining plans, most students find they can only squeeze three meals into their schedule, if even that many. To go from breakfast to lunch to dinner, Connolly recommends loading up on food, whether in the dining hall or supermarket, that keeps you full longer, like lean protein and high fiber. Toss some beans on your salad, grab an apple, and go for whole grains.
- Do you: Despite what you may have heard before, Connolly said there is no one right way to watch what you are eating. “I tend to look at food groups because in the dining halls it can be difficult to guess portion size and add up calories,” he said. “But please do what works for you.” Whether it’s using a food tracker app or counting calories, it is important to not munch carelessly because the dining halls do pack some temptations. “Pizza, burgers, French fries, soda…they are always in demand, so we couldn’t get rid of them,” Connolly said. A good starting point is aiming to eat from all six food groups in the portions recommend for your lifestyle by MyPlate. “If it doesn’t fit into a food group, then you probably shouldn’t eat it,” Connolly said.
- Be realistic: Who doesn’t feel healthy stocking up on fruits, whole grain bread, and Greek yogurt at FroGro? Yet even with your mini-fridge, produce, bread, and dairy can go bad, and wasting money and food never feels good. So be realistic and buy only what you have time to eat in your routine. Additionally, go for healthy alternatives that last longer, like frozen fruit or nuts. As the saying goes, don’t bite off more than you can chew.