How to Make Dining Hall Meals Healthy & Fun, According to a College Food Blogger

For the most part, we all like the idea of eating healthy – chowing down on Insta-worthy salads, juices, acai bowls, and whatever else is on-trend for the healthy living community. But eating healthy in college is particularly challenging when you’re forced to navigate the dining halls for something that resembles a vegetable. Meanwhile, you’re surrounded by unhealthy meal options both on and off-campus (because let’s face it, how could you turn down a late-night ice cream run to McDonald’s?). 

Combined with the unfortunate tendency to stress snack and the negligence for a balanced diet that increases in proportion to alcohol consumed, healthy eating in college suddenly seems downright impossible. Plus, the idea of healthy eating and overthinking every single meal option can actually make it more difficult to maintain a balanced, nutritious diet.

Katie Smith is a junior at Notre Dame and a college athlete (she’s a member of the ND swim team), and she’s also the creative foodie behind the college-themed healthy living Instagram Kale It What You Want. But eating healthy hasn’t always been easy for her, either.

“I’ve made so many mistakes when it comes to a healthier lifestyle and healthy eating,” Katie notes. “I think there’s so much pressure on girls in college to look a certain way or eat a certain way that girls feel the need to deprive their bodies of essential nutrients. I’ve been through this and can say that the most important thing when it comes to eating healthy and living a healthy life is to be gentle and kind to your body.”

Eating healthy is so much more than overpaying for a green juice or forgoing normal meals for a cereal bar, which has the same sugar content of a candy bar. Many times, it’s our common misconceptions that make healthy eating way harder than it needs to be.

1. Healthy eating doesn't have to be boring. 

Katie has figured out how to navigate the dining halls to find fun, tasty healthy options that are far from boring.

“There are so many fun recipes that I have come up with in the dining halls—it’s all about creativity and branching out,” Katie says. “Knowing what types of foods to go toward in the dining hall is important. This doesn’t mean having a boring salad every night—it means getting creative and being smart about what you choose to put into your body.”

2. Healthy eating doesn't have to be limiting. 

It’s just not realistic to assume that you can never have junk food. Yes, you can go out and have fun while still eating healthily, and you can enjoy your favorite treats in moderation.

“It’s important to have a balanced lifestyle and that includes what you eat,” Katie says. “But you’ll realize as you slowly make changes to your diet, you will begin to crave ‘junk’ food less and less.”

As far as the college social scene, there are ways to go out without going overboard. You can monitor your drink intake throughout the night, or make sure you ask for a cup of water alongside any drink you order. This will give you time to slow down and really ensure you are staying hydrated and healthy throughout a night of partying with friends. 

“I’ve also heard that ‘you can’t have fun if you’re always trying to be healthy.’ That’s also not true,” Katie adds. “Rather than missing out on an experience, allow yourself to have fun and go out in moderation.”

That means when you get the late-night cravings after a night of drinking, avoid high caloric foods and instead go for healthier alternatives. Instead of heavy meals like pizza or fried food, try a bit of dark chocolate or popcorn. Don't beat yourself up though if you and your best friends want to grab a slice at your local pizza joint at 2 a.m.—after all, we’re only young once.

3. Healthy eating is not about the calories. 

There may be the same number of calories in a bag of chips as in an apple with some almond butter, but that doesn’t mean they’re equal in nutrition. The nutritional quality of food far exceeds its caloric value.

“A common mistake that I’ve made and I’ve seen tons of young girls make is to strictly count calories,” explains Katie. “I’m not saying this is completely bad, but most times it leads to an unhealthy obsession with eating as few calories as possible.”

If you become too focused on calories, you could end up cutting out foods with vital nutritional content. As a result, your body won’t be able to function properly. Not to mention, you stop enjoying your food when you only think about the calories you’re consuming. If you see yourself beginning to cut calories and losing energy, it might be helpful to talk to someone to try and find a healthier alternative so you can keep being your best—and healthiest—self. 

“I’ve tried to stick to intuitive eating—that is really listening to your body and eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full,” explains Katie. “I think this is a much healthier approach to a healthy diet than counting calories or restricting certain foods.”

Navigating Dining Hall Meals 

If you want to start eating healthier, you can start by identifying unhealthy habits and swapping them for better alternatives. For example, in the dining hall, switch from your end-of-meal cereal to a piece of fruit. That way, you get your sugar fix, but in a more natural, more satisfying way. Craving carbs? Switch out your pasta for healthy starches like sweet potatoes or squash

“Another way to easily incorporate healthy foods is to always start your plate with a big serving of veggies,” advises Katie. “As for me, almost every time I go to the dining hall I fill my plate with a base of spinach. Spinach has so many health benefits and is super dense in vitamins and minerals. It’s also great for healthy skin, hair, and bones. And then I top it with whatever I’m in the mood for that day.”

And don’t forget to drink water. Ditch your sugary sodas and juices for water at your meals to stay hydrated. Water has so many benefits, from helping digestion to maintaining a healthy complexion, so don’t miss out by indulging in refined sugar water.

Also, just because you live in a dorm, doesn’t mean you can’t make a few meals in your room. Especially for breakfast, it can be hard to get to the dining hall or student union before class.

“Another meal/snack that I make all the time in my dorm room is overnight oats or chia pudding,” explains Katie. “It’s super easy to make and you can bring with you on the go to class." 

Keep your snack stash stocked and balanced.

For food on-the-go, in between meals, and to help you power through chapters on chapters of reading, keep healthy snacks on hand in your dorm room. Katie suggests fruits, veggies, and healthy fats to keep you full.

“My go-to snack is any type of fruit. I love bananas and apples... and I have an unhealthy obsession with peanut butter,” she says. “So I would have that as my go-to snack, sometimes on a rice cake. But I’ll also keep raw almonds and cashews on hand as a healthy source of fat (keeps me full before going to class).”

One of the most important things you can bear in mind while selecting a snack is opting for whole foods over processed ones—especially when it comes to granola bars, where the shorter the ingredient list, the better.

“I would suggest trying to eat as many whole foods as you can,” Katie advises. “So, avoid having chips, cookies, or snacks that will tempt you. In terms of granola bars, I love RX bars because there are very few ingredients and they taste great. The smaller the list of ingredients, the better.”

You could even get a smaller blender, like a Magic Bullet, to make your own smoothies or smoothie bowls without the added sugars and juices found in some restaurant options.

In the end, eating “healthy” is about finding a balance and listening to what your body needs. We spend so much time obsessing over how we look on the outside we can sometimes neglect how our bodies are doing on the inside.

For more meal ideas and dining hall recipes, be sure to check out @kaleitwhatyouwant on Instagram.