Penn State is ranked nationally for football and partying, but most impressive to foodies is its recognition as one of the most popular creameries in the country. As a freshman, for me that meant ice cream at all hours of the day–ice cream included in my on-campus meal plan. Brunch on Saturdays was French toast sticks, scrambled eggs, hashbrowns and Bittersweet Mint with gummy bears and crushed Oreos. Dinners ended with a scoop of Alumni Swirl, Coconut Chip or Peachy Paterno atop a gooey chocolate chip cookie from West dining halls. Late nights when we didn’t want to go out, my friends and I gossiped over bowls of WPSU Coffee Break doused in hot fudge – it’s a wonder I didn’t gain the Freshman 15 in the first two weeks of class.
Whether or not you go to Penn State, there’s an equally delicious dish lurking at any university dining hall. And it’s easy to justify the gluttony when you are a poor college student faced with a smorgasbord of calorie-laden options. (“I’m just getting my money’s worth!”) Fortunately, colleges are actually making strides to introduce healthier, more sustainable options in their cafeterias.
Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME has been ranked No. 1 for food and dining services in The Princeton Review for four years. They buy locally and seasonally and very rarely use butter.
At Temple University, freshman Sara Gatti sees potential. “There’s the ‘Smart Portion’ option, but people rarely stop at that when there’s also a buffet of fried food to choose from.” Temple’s dining halls offer portioned meals to help students gauge exactly how much they are consuming.
To see how your college dining hall ranks, go to www.collegeprowler.com. In the mean time, graze through the top 10 best healthful dining hall lunches, real and imagined:
1. Sushi. Preferrably freshly made with no extra sauces or tempura, fried, ingredients. “It would be kinda difficult to have good sushi in a cafeteria,” says Valerie Stoltzfus, sophomore at Meredeith College in North Carolina. Yet she still advocates for it. “Since we are an all girls school, they like to offer a lot of options because most girls like to try to eat healthy.”
2. Made-to-Order Wraps. Sub rolls are vessels for heavier, greasier meats and sauces. Have you ever seen a meatball wrap? That’s because flimsy wraps can’t support the weight or soak up the grease. Opt for turkey breast with low fat cheese, avocado, lettuce and tomato. No need for mayo, the avocado is creamy enough.
3. Low cal soups with brown bread. Lentil soup is a great comfort dish and and at less than 200 calories per cup, it’s okay to go back for seconds.
4. Salad. The salad bar is a dangerous place. While salad has the potential to be the best low-cal, high-nutrient meal option, you have to sift through all the bacon bits, shredded cheese and creamy dressings to find the leafy greens. Try a salad of dark leafy greens (not iceberg!), beets, carrots, peas, red onions, pecans and a crumbly cheese (preferably goat). Then toss the salad with a couple dashes of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt to distribute it.
5. Make-Your-Own Stir Fry. Another danger zone if used improperly. Pile your bowl high with veggies, add shrimp or chicken and stick to only ONE spoonful of sauce (the real culprit of the bad rap Chinese food gets.) The nice thing about make-your-own bars is that you have control over the portion size.
6. Turkey burgers with sweet potato fries. Sometimes you just have to give in to cravings – but not totally. With lower fat and higher protein, turkey burgers definitely aren’t as juicy as Whoppers, but spice them up with some fresh salsa and you have a meal fit for a (burger) king.
7. Fresh fruit smoothies. If you’re ordering smoothies from your campus coffee shop, chances are they don’t contain not real fruit. Be assertive and ask your dining commons staff if they use fresh fruit and milk or yogurt (not ice cream) in their smoothies. When you’re in a hurry, a peanut butter, banana, and skim milk smoothie will give you the protein and carbs you need to keep going.
8. Cereal. Not exactly lunch, but when your options are pizza, fries, or mystery meat, there’s always the old cereal standby. Stick with whole grain cereals with fiber to keep you full, and sweeten it with fresh or dried fruit. Remember: if it turns your milk pink, green, blue, etc., the cereal you’re eating has probably got too much sugar.
9. Vegetarian options. Cafeterias are starting to offer more vegetarian options like tofu, vegetable pasta and tempeh. Chances are, the vegetarian options are going to be lower in fat and higher in vitamins.
10. Make a meal out of sides. When none of the entrees look appealing, dine the European way. If your cafeteria has smaller plates, choose one, fill it with a side of steamed veggies and polenta or brown rice, take it back to your seat and eat. Wait a few minutes before going back to get another plate to try a couple other sides. Spacing out your eating between servings gives your stomach time to tell your brain that its full, and using smaller dishes makes you feel like you’re getting more food than you actually are.
Alexia is a recent grad living in Lancaster, PA. She loves to travel, experiment in the kitchen, and shop locally. The best breakfast she’s ever had is Swedish Oatmeal Pancakes.