Navigating the Cafeteria
Simple habits like walking to class, pairing meals with a healthy side and avoiding too much soda can help you lose weight effortlessly.
By Jesse Sisler, DePaul University
Other than hearing President Obama speak at a rally, the most memorable experience of my freshman year was finding out that I managed to unintentionally lose nine pounds.
In what I’m sure has earned me a place in Iowa City lore forever, I went to the doctor for my yearly checkup only to find I had lost weight. I didn’t count calories, I didn’t have a workout regiment and I spent most of my time watching reruns of Family Guy, while guys I know that played football in high school and spent more time at the rec center than Patrick Bateman (American Psycho shoutout!) ended up victims of the freshman fifteen.
Descartes spent his time thinking about the mind and the soul; I had my intense moments of thought about how exactly I managed to lose weight at a time when adolescents are often most vulnerable. I’ve come to several conclusions.
The first is totally out of anybody’s control: parenting. My mom especially worked really hard to instill healthy eating habits in my brother and me. For many though, a healthy diet is either auto-didactic or nonexistent. Other possible ways I avoided the freshman fifteen include: intelligently navigating the dorm cafeteria, following a consistent mealtime schedule and, perhaps most importantly, walking to class.
1. The Dorm Cafeteria
I could write a novel about the things I saw and heard in the cafeteria. These collegiate watering holes are usually the most popular stop on campus visits, and the first few times you eat there are really visceral experiences. It can be overwhelming if you do not know what you are doing. Practice makes perfect, but there are things you should know beforehand.
Do not eat at popular times. Your classes end at 6:00? Awesome, but do something else before you eat.
The cafeteria at 6 p.m. is like LA during rush hour. You might starve, get killed or get arrested after shouting obscenities for disturbing the peace.
At peak times, you could end up waiting fifteen minutes for the daily special. Instead, eat around 7:00 or 8:00. The really obnoxious kids will be out doing whatever they do (probably shotgunning beers and whistling at sorority girls from their balcony), and you won’t have to worry about losing a finger over the Ranch dressing (always the most popular).
Eating at off hours gives you the chance to relax and take in your surroundings, which is actually good for digestion. It also gives you the chance to actually pick out healthy food, not whatever has the shortest line (usually the cold burgers).
I will say this: those of you who struggle to meet people might consider eating at peak hours because of the socializing opportunities it provides. You’ll almost certainly have to sit next to a stranger, and in line, you can comment about whatever they’re calling sausage at the pasta bar.
Once you’ve decided what time you’re going to eat, map out the sections. Getting organized in this way will allow you to keep track of what you’re eating. You’ll be able to avoid eating cafeteria pizza three nights in a row, and knowing exactly where you’re going saves time.
The most popular lines tend to be “typical” fast food like fries, hot dogs and chicken nuggets, in addition to whatever special they’re serving. Instead of following the crowd, make yourself a taco, eat some Chinese food or just make yourself a big salad. I’ve found that salad bars are often the safest, most consistent option in cafeterias.
I would also recommend keeping your lunch choices relatively simple. Grab a sandwich or salad, add some fruit and you’re set. Eventually, having fruit as a side will become second nature.
This also knocks out almost all of the major food groups, allowing you to splurge a little at dinner. As far as dessert goes, definitely spoil yourself, but portion wisely. It’s really tempting to have the cheesecake and the double chocolate chip cookie, but just pick one.
I think the best advice I can offer for meal planning is to only get the lunch and dinner option. For breakfast, just have a couple granola bars or a bowl of cereal. Eating a pancake or French toast with sausage or bacon every morning takes its toll quickly.
My first year, I would treat myself to a nice breakfast every Sunday, which is also the best time to go to the cafeteria because most kids are fighting off hangovers or doing homework.
What you drink matters, too. I usually got a glass of water at every meal, sometimes opting for milk. A soda here or there is no biggie, but it should not be a multiple-times-a-day thing. Carrying a water bottle is one way to avoid sugary drinks, especially if you know you’re going to be too tempted to go for the carbonated stuff.
2. Scheduling Matters
We seldom think about it, but when you eat is important. Stuffing yourself at dinner is as American as reading about Kid Rock fighting at a chicken and waffle joint, but it is actually much healthier to eat a big lunch.
Eating a big dinner is also, I suspect, inefficient. After you scarf down that Italian beef sandwich with fries, you’ll be tired for a good hour or two.
If you eat a smaller dinner—say, a salad with soup and bread—you’ll be energized and have plenty of time to do homework and study. Eating at consistent times also reinforces the importance of habits, and eventually, picking out healthy foods will become second nature.
I know it’s cold and I know it’s early, but walk, damn it! On a large campus, walking from your dorm or apartment to class can take fifteen to twenty minutes. If you walk at a decent pace, that’s actually pretty good exercise, especially if you’re on a hilly campus.
Remember, I never established a workout regiment, and I hate rec centers. Most of my exercise came from power walking to class. Campus buses are nice and convenient, and for a few weeks in the winter I fell into the habit of taking them, but it just feels a lot better to walk.
You won’t feel guilty after drowning your sorrows in cupcakes, and you can pretend you’re in one of those commercials that make it look exciting to use good toothpaste.
The best part about not using the campus buses? You can avoid making small talk with that kid from your philosophy class whose name you don’t remember.