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3 ways to strike a balance while on the meal plan

Make the best of your meal plan, just like this happy student. (photo/oxy.edu)

It’s the time of year when freshmen begin noticing changes happening in their bodies.  The stresses of college finals have begun, resulting in sleep deprivation, caffeine addiction, and poor dietary habits.  More than that, many students are realizing for the first time that they’ve put on weight and perhaps lost muscle since August. 

It’s not just the fault of Thanksgiving feasting.  The dreaded “freshman 15” accumulates gradually from many different factors. Stress, inactivity, junk food, and social pizza and beer bingeing are all relevant factors.  However, one of the largely ignored, and very impactful, reasons students gain weight is because their eating habits shift with the addition of a meal plan.

In the defense of Mac, the problem is less with the quality of food and more with the social constructs of a meal plan.  Let me explain:

1.  Most freshmen have never before had their food supply limited to certain times of day.  In high school, lunches were scheduled, but snacking at home was usually open most of the day.  As a freshman myself, I felt pressure to eat enough at Mac mealtimes for fear I would be hungry later.  Supposedly, students are never allowed to go hungry, but that’s not entirely true.  If eating lunch early and dinner late, there can be a seven hour window of having no food. 

My tip for reducing mealtime eating-like-you’re-hibernating-soon is to keep snacks in your room.  Eat little bits throughout the day.  Don’t be afraid of hunger.  Buy granola bars at White Bear and keep one or two in your book bag for in-between classes. 

2.  Most freshmen have never before had access to an all-you-can-eat buffet three times a day.  At most buffet restaurants, stuffing yourself is the key to getting the most of your money.  This model does not work on a daily basis.  Freshmen may not be used to limiting their appetites.  

A tip for reducing buffet pig-outs is to stop eating when it looks as though you’ve had enough.  Think about how much you eat at home, and size your meals comparably.  Relying on feelings of fullness to curb your eating doesn’t always work in an unlimited buffet atmosphere. 

Too, remember to eat fruits and vegetables every day.  Don’t go for the same sandwich and pizza for every meal.  Eating a variety of foods will keep you healthy and ensure you’re getting the necessary nutrients.  I recommend trying new foods in the vegetarian line.  Some of the meals might not look appealing to mid-western Americans, but they are often rich in flavor and nutrition.

3.  Lastly, an overlooked reason why freshmen have unhealthy diets in college is that they compare themselves to their friends.  Eating every meal with the same set of friends leads students to compare their eating habits to those of the people around them.  Such comparisons are misleading, as a person with a sedentary lifestyle should not eat the same way as an athlete.  Similarly, a person with higher calorie needs would not want to compare him or herself with people who eat salads for lunch.  After all, sometimes it’s hard to tell how individuals eat in their dorms, at other meals, or what their lifestyle is like.  Comparing one’s eating habits with another’s can lead to unhealthy assumptions and lead to unbalanced nutrition.

I know this advice is unsolicited, but I hope that some can benefit from it.  These three things are what I didn’t learn until the spring of my freshman year, and what I wished someone had told me earlier.  So, regardless of age, I hope all can strike a healthy balance despite being on the meal plan.  

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