October 3, 2016

Healthy Dining Hall Hacks + Free Meal Planning Printable!

Any ex-dieter knows that there are three stages of giving up on fad diets for good:

At first, you're still dieting, but just starting to realize how miserable and deprived you feel.

Then you make the decision to quit, and the world feels like your oyster. You eat everything unhealthy in sight, because for the first time in your life, you're allowed to. And after a couple weeks of eating this way, you might just gain a couple pounds. At first, this probably terrifies you - but once you're able to let go of your old, unhealthy attitudes toward food and your weight, you can finally free yourself from guilt about the food you choose to eat, not to mention the number on the scale.

And, most likely, a month or so after this state of zen, new cravings start to slide in, so sneakily you hardly realize it. You still want to eat Chipotle every night, don't get me wrong - but you've suddenly started to think obsessively about eating something else, too: devouring a big, crunchy, tart, tasty, deliciously tangy....salad?

That's right! The third stage of quitting dieting, at least for me, was that I actually found myself starting to crave healthy foods all the time. Maybe it was the three or four months of straight-up binging on Annie's Mac and Cheese and cookie dough ice cream that made my body desperate for some balance, but after awhile, I started to obsess over eating quinoa salads and healthy homemade taco bowls rather than overloading my body with processed junk.

One of the hardest things I dealt with when it came to eating at college was trying not to binge on foods that wouldn't make me feel good later. Of course, the key to a healthy lifestyle remains, of course, moderation - which means that on top of visiting the salad bar or eating a healthy meal of soup and crackers in my dorm room, I occasionally (okay, often) splurge on a pumpkin cupcake at the dining hall, or a cider doughnut from the local apple orchard when I'm home.

But the first month or so of college, I pretty much consistently ate crap. I was so overwhelmed by attempting to navigate the dozens of options in our huge dining hall that I gave up and started eating the first vegetarian thing I could find - until Ryan, my loving boyfriend, gave me a suggestion: why don't I start checking the menus and planning out my meals in advance?

At first, I had a strong "no" reaction to this proposal. Meal planning was something I strongly associated with the dieting industry, something that I remain vehemently opposed to even today. But after doing a quick Pinterest search on the theme in preparation for this post, I found out that the majority of bloggers posting about meal planning aren't fitness models - they're everyday moms just trying to simplify their lives and make healthy, cheap eating easier for them and their families.

So in the end, that's who I decided to model myself after when I started meal planning. I thought about the plan not in terms of a diet, but in terms of simplification and minimalism; of making my life 10 times easier. And yes, I still often diverge from my meal plan when I step into the dining hall and realize, oh joy, those vegan pumpkin parfaits are back! (It's fall, y'all - I'm all pumpkin, all day, every day.)

But in the end, my life is easier because I can walk into the dining hall with an objective, instead of leaving with a bunch of plates full of unhealthy foods I don't need to be putting into my body in the first place. When I go home at the end of a satisfying meal, I feel better knowing that the food I've eaten is going to help fuel my system with healthy, positive, nutritious energy, rather than drag me down and make me feel guilty about my choices.

So, here's the moral of the story: learning to navigate the many choices of the dining hall wasn't easy as first, but with a little advance planning, I learned how to best hack my options. Now, I'm going to share those hacks with you so you can learn all my dirty little secrets for eating healthy under tight conditions...oh, and stick it through to the very end of the post and you'll be rewarded with an awesome MEAL PLANNING PRINTABLE, courtesy of yours truly!

Ready? Let's do this!

Add, Don't Subtract

Remember that old phrase, "everything in moderation"? I'm sure I've said it once already in this post, and well, it'll get you further than any fad diet ever will. Healthy eating differs from dieting because rather than strictly limiting what you can and can't eat, you're allowed to have a little bit of everything - as long as you don't go overboard. 

Nutritionists say that making sure you're getting basic nutrients first is the most important party. The best way to do this is to focus on adding whole foods to your diet, rather than "subtracting" foods from your menu. Once you've added fruits, veggies, whole grains, and healthy proteins to your diet, you get a little bit of extra room to wiggle. That means you get to eat the sugars and fats you love and still stay healthy and happy - because you've still got vitamins A through K, and all the fiber you need. 

So go ahead: have the pasta with butter. Just have some broccoli on the side. Or, feel free to follow up your soup and salad lunch with a brownie and ice cream. Why not, when you're chock-full of nutrients already?

Steam Veggies in the Microwave

Here's a quick trick I learned from a nutrition major during my time in BU's community service program for first-years (check out my post about it here): if your dining hall has a microwave, then you can easily steam your own veggies. Just load up on broccoli, spinach, carrots - whatever vegetables you're craving - from the salad bar, cover your bowl with a plate, and microwave for 1-2 minutes. 

Steaming your own vegetables preserves more of the vital nutrients in raw veggies than other methods of cooking - not to mention that it saves you from eating all of those unnecessary salts, fats, and seasonings that they add to the dining hall broccoli. (I mean, come on - do green beans really need that much butter?) Plus, if you still want oil, salt, or even a bit of butter, you can add your own in less conservative portions than what they would be handing out from the dining hall stations. It's a simple and quick, yet still effective trick for boosting the health factor of your college diet. 

Combine Foods From Different Stations

Speaking of dining hall stations, have you ever noticed that one station sometimes offers two or three different components of a meal? For example, you might have roasted sweet potatoes, brown rice, and pulled pork. Or, you might have mashed potatoes, green beans, and roasted turkey with gravy. Well, oftentimes, if you're just looking for the rice and veggies, but not the greasy meat - or the turkey and green beans, but not the starchy potatoes or sticky gravy - all you have to do is ask the dining hall staff. Usually, they are more than happy to accommodate requests!

Another trick I'd recommend when it comes to combining food from different areas of the dining hall is to simply keep an eye out for what's around you, and start thinking about what might pair well with what. For example, at the Warren Towers dining hall (located inside the building where I live), there's always pasta in the back of the room. If I'm craving pasta, yes, I could just eat a big ol' bowl of carbs and sauce (and probably have before), but a healthier choice is to toss it with some steamed broccoli and olive oil derived from the salad bar. Another thing I do, specifically at breakfast, is put honey from the section with the tea and coffee on top of my yogurt, and eat it with a little bit of granola from the cereal section. Or, I'll have an apple with peanut butter from the sandwich/toast station - and I'm sure if I ever wanted to I could go ahead and have a peanut butter and banana from the same section. The possibilities are truly endless!

Eating at a big dining hall can be scary at first, but once you figure out the ins and outs of your particular school's options, then you can start thinking creatively about how you might be able to craft something a little more tasty than the boring meals your school is giving you. 

Keep an Eye Out for Lighter Options

At my school, we have something called Sargent Choice (named for the College of Health Sciences) meals. Basically, any meal that's considered a more nutritious option gets the Sargent Choice seal of approval. This symbol is an easy visual that lets me know when something might be a healthier choice for me - for example, the other day I had Sargent Choice pizza. It had fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil on a whole wheat pizza crust - and was probably my favorite thing I've eaten here all year! So, don't be afraid to try your school's healthy options. They're probably not as bad as you think they are.

Another way I try to pursue healthier options is to keep an eye out for desserts that might be less heavy than others offered on the menu. I have a huge sweet tooth, so eliminating dessert altogether simply isn't an option for me. Instead, I look out for vegan dessert options, which won't contain unhealthy fats like butter, or lighter choices like fruit and granola parfaits. Granted, all desserts still contain sugar, and making something "vegan" won't automatically make it healthy - but if you're like me and you just can't say no, keep an eye out for these better choices.

Take Advantage of "Create Your Own" Stations

Boston University is all about that "make your own" life in the dining halls. There are build your own quesadillas, make your own stir fry concoction, create your own vegan bowls...the possibilities are endless. 

If your school offers these options, you can easily customize your dinner to be healthier than what they might serve you otherwise. For example, at the stir fry station, load up on veggies with a little bit of rice, and go for a dash of soy sauce instead of sugary flavors like teriyaki. Or, at the vegan bowl station, choose the quinoa, sweet potatoes, and plain grilled tofu instead of white rice and sticky Asian tofu. 

Even if your school doesn't have a "create your own" station, per say, you can probably still find ways to customize your food. For example, most schools have a salad bar, which lets you "create your own" healthy bowl in a way! But if you're seriously concerned that you're not getting enough healthy options at your school, you can always talk to the dining hall staff for more ways to fill your plate with nutritious choices. They might offer you ways to customize your food that you might not even have heard of. 

Snag Healthy Snacks For Your Dorm Room

Now, I'm not saying you should steal (wink wink, nudge nudge), but snagging fruits, veggies, and even condiments from the dining hall is a sneaky way to get some extra nutrition in your diet, and make the most of those meal swipes!

My dining hall allows students to take up to one piece of fruit with them, and that's it. But I've easily seen students leave the dining hall with an armful of bananas - and they usually don't see any penalties. Me myself, I've even brought Tupperware into the dining hall and filled it with peanut butter to eat with apple slices for a snack in my dorm room later that night. My dining hall also offers whole grain Goldfish for a snack that would be easy to slip into a plastic Ziploc baggie and take with you on the go. And like I said before, the dining hall staff usually doesn't see a thing. 

My theory is that they know we're poor college students - so why not let us make the most of what we've got? In college, you have got to be crafty to make the most of your funds! Snagging fruit and other snacks from the dining hall is a great way to do just that, and oftentimes these snacks are healthier than those you might be able to afford at your local Target. (I mean, an apple with peanut butter is much better for you than salty ramen noodles, is it not?)

Eat Allergy-Friendly or Specialty Diet Foods

Does your school have a gluten-free or vegan station? Mine has both, which is great for people who fall under those specialty diet categories. 

On the other hand, I do not follow a vegan or gluten-free diet - but I still love eating from these stations! Why, you might ask? Because I simply find them a lot lighter and healthier than some of the offerings at other stations. For example, the vegan station tends to have tofu or quinoa dishes, superfoods that you would be hard-pressed to find at the average college dining hall. Meanwhile, the gluten-free station always has delicious veggies and often has brown rice or rice noodles, two options that are great to combine with steamed veggies from the salad bar and toppings like soy sauce or olive oil. 

Check Menus Ahead of Time - And If All Else Fails, Eat In

This is why I originally started making meal plans...I didn't like arriving at the dining hall and not knowing what would be for dinner. It was what led me to get so overwhelmed and wind up binging on unhealthy entrees in the first place! 

Eventually, however, when I started to make meal plans, I realized that you could check the dining hall menus in advance in several ways. Firstly, before you swipe into the dining hall, there's usually a sign posted outside the door. Secondly, you can always check online - and thirdly, my school even has an app called BU Food. While they're not always great about updating it, I keep the app on my phone because it allows me to conveniently see what food choices are available to me on an average day. That way, I can plan what I'm going to eat for lunch and dinner while I'm still at breakfast, just by glancing at my phone! 

And if you're really not into what's on the menu on any given night, don't hesitate to stay in and eat something in your dorm room. I have a microfridge in my dorm room, and I usually keep a couple of organic freezer meals stocked for emergencies. Target is a great place to get things like soup, Lean Cuisines (they have a new organic line!), and crackers, while I tend to hit up my local Trader Joe's (usually if I go home on the weekend, because it's cheaper there than in Boston obviously) for my favorite specialty foods like pumpkin frosted shortbread cookies (YES, I KNOW), roasted garlic hummus, and vanilla almond granola. 

Plus, depending on your meal plan, you might even have to eat a couple meals in your room every week just to make ends meet! So make sure you don't end up eating in your dorm room when you'd rather be having that mac and cheese in the dining hall (or, alternatively, eating soggy pizza in the dining hall when you'd rather be having microwaveable pesto pasta), and check that menu ahead of time. 

Finally, Make a Plan!

Alrighty y'all - now here's what I came here to talk to you about!

Making a meal plan helps you navigate the dining hall better because not only does it encourage you to check out menus ahead of time, but it also prepares you for days when you'd be better off eating at the salad bar or in your room than going for an unhealthy entree. Preparing yourself ahead of time can help you make wiser, healthier choices and keep yourself from binging on foods you'll later regret and feel sad about. Not to mention, it can help you create balance! For example, if you saw something delicious on the menu for Tuesday, like a chocolate brownie with ice cream (YUM), you can plan to eat the brownie and then make a healthier choice on Wednesday, when you're less passionate about the dessert, to even it all out.  

Meal planning is all about weighing your choices ahead of time. But while it will ultimately help you make better, healthier dining choices, it might seem a little boring to the inexperience newbie. That's why it's better done with a cute printable, of course!

I put together this awesome meal planning printable for you guys to help you make healthy choices in the dining hall that you can feel good about at the end of the day. Please feel free to print and share this resource with your friends - but don't go selling it or passing it off as your own, or I'll send my pack of flying monkeys after ya 0:)

This printable is a free resource from Love, Haley Blog.

Please feel free to share, print, and distribute for PERSONAL USE ONLY! 

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional.
The nutritional advice provided in this post is purely based on my own experiences and should not be interpreted as medical advice in any way.

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