Going to college is an exciting but overwhelming time! With all the changes to your living situation, training schedule, and class load, it can be easy to forget about your fueling! One of the biggest changes is being in charge of deciding what you eat for every meal. This can be challenging if you don’t know what to put on your plate, and as an athlete, you must be building your plate with your training in mind.
This blog post will help you learn how to eat healthy at the dining hall and decide what a student-athlete should eat for dinner. I will go through the components of a balanced Performance Plate, how to build your meals, recommended stations, and some tips and tricks. By the end of this blog, you will know how to make healthy meals at the dining hall!
Components of a Healthy Meal at the Dining Hall
When you are building a plate, there are energy-containing nutrients you need to include to make sure your body is fueled. Each one of these three components is essential to give you adequate energy and micronutrients that can be found in these foods. I recommend including all three components to eat healthy at the dining hall.
Carbohydrates are our body’s preferred energy source, so they aren’t something to be afraid of! Carbss break down in our body into glucose, which fuels us for short bursts of energy that is utilized during training. If you are eating and not training directly after, the glucose is converted to glycogen and stored within your muscles so it can be utilized later.
Carbohydrates can be found in two different forms: fast-digesting and slow-digesting. Including a mix in your diet ensures your gas tank doesn’t run out throughout the day and you are getting various nutrients in.
Fast-digesting carbs are what you would consume as pre training-fuel, like applesauce, energy chews, fruit, and granola bars. These foods are a little higher in sugar (carbs), which isn’t a bad thing, and can give quick bursts of energy for activities.
Slow-digesting carbohydrates are foods like whole grains, vegetables, and other fiber-rich foods. These foods are great to reach for at meals because they keep you full for longer and also contain lots of vitamins and minerals that you need. The energy that these foods provide will last a long time and are great for the night before game days.
Protein is the building block for our muscles and also plays a large role in our immune system. Proteins are broken down in our body into chains called amino acids, and those amino acids are what work hard to build and repair muscles.
Protein sources that are lean give lots of protein for small serving sizes. Lean protein sources include chicken, turkey, lean beef, fish, and pork. There are other sources of protein, such as milk, cheese, and eggs, that are also complete sources of protein. If you are vegetarian or choose not to eat any of these foods, there are options for you, such as quinoa, nuts, seeds, and tofu.
There is a lot of focus on carbohydrates and protein for athletes, but fat is just as important! In addition to protecting our organs and providing warmth for our body, some vitamins require fats to be absorbed. These vitamins (A, D, E, and K) all play an important role in our body, especially surrounding vision, immunity, and energy levels.
Not all fat sources are created equal, but none are bad in moderation. Looking for monounsaturated fats such as avocado and olive oil and Omega-3 fats found in fish and chia seeds can help bring you many anti-inflammatory benefits.
Performance Plate Method
Now that you know what nutrients are important to put on your plate, now we can talk about how much of each in relation to your daily activity! I am going to explain the Performance Plate Method, which is something that I regularly use with my athletes to help them eat what they need to!
Light Training/Rest Day
On light training days, you may think that you should eat less food, but this is not true! You should still be visiting the dining hall for +3 meals a day!
On rest days, your body is recovering, so you need to give enough energy to recover. The sources of the energy may just differ. This plate will look like having half a plate of fruits and/or vegetables, a quarter starchy or slow-digesting carbohydrates that I talked about above, and a quarter of lean protein. The fat can come in as a topping like avocado or dressing on a salad. There is also a good chance your food is cooked in some type of fat at the dining hall, so you will get your fat there as well.
An example meal from the dining hall on a rest day could be a big salad from the salad bar with a small chicken breast and a side of potatoes.
Moderate/Practice Day Training
On practice days, you will have increased energy needs simply because you move around more than you would. These days, we are looking to split your plate into thirds: 1/3 vegetables or fruits, 1/3 carbohydrates, and 1/3 protein. You will also want to include 2-3 servings of fats. This will ensure that you have enough fast-digesting foods and enough protein and fat to help you recover afterwards.
Some of my favorite dining hall dishes on Practice Day are turkey burgers with a side of green beans and sweet potato wedges.
High Training/Game Day
Competition days are when you give your all, so you must fuel your body that way too! Making sure that you have adequate energy will make sure you don’t get tired halfway, and you recover easily afterward! This plate will look like what you may think of as “carb-loading” because half of your plate will be carbohydrate sources. You will also have a quarter plate of protein and a quarter plate of fruits/vegetables. You will also include your 2-3 fat sources in these meals.
Some of my game-day favorites from the dining hall are penne pasta with marinara sauce and sliced grilled chicken and a side of cooked carrots.
Sports Dietitian Recommended Stations
Going into your dining hall for the first time, you may see many options. There are usually some form of stations within dining halls that can include pasta, smoothies, sandwiches, and different ethnic cuisines. There are some stations where it is easier to make the correct performance plate, and others it is not. Depending on what is at your dining hall, here are some stations I recommend you take advantage of.
Some dining halls may have a build-your-own pasta bowl station.Tthis can be a great option as there is usually a carbohydrate (pasta), protein choices (chicken, meatballs, etc.), veggies to top, and the sauces will likely have some fat in it. You can also add your own like butter or olive oil. I love the pasta station on game day or for dinner the night before a game!
Smoothie stations can be a great option, especially if you need to grab something quick before or after practice. It is also super easy to create a balanced smoothie using the Performance Plate method we talked about above! Choosing a liquid like milk can add protein or water and then a protein source (Greek yogurt, nut butter, or chia seeds) can also provide the protein you need. Add a banana or granola for carbohydrates and nut butter/seeds for fat.
Stir-fry stations can be a great way to get great-tasting vegetables in. I love a stirfry station! Some dining halls may also have noodles and protein options that you can mix in as well. Often sauces and dressings will have fat in them, so you are given your sources of fat from that, and you can also choose whether you want it to be your whole meal or what you want to be put into your stir-fry!
Tips and Tricks
Going to college is a huge change in your life, so why not make it easier? Here are some tips and tricks that you can take with you to make sure your transition is easier!
Bringing Tupperware to your dining hall is a great option for taking food on the go. Then you can save things for late-night snacks after training or early-morning breakfasts for when you can’t make it to the dining hall to eat.
Eat with Friends
Surrounding yourself in a community and eating with friends can make the experience more enjoyable. We are meant to be with other people, and you may be used to eating with your family at home, so don’t isolate yourself during meal times!
Look at Menus Beforehand
Nothing is worse than going to a dining hall and walking around and not finding anything you like. On many campuses, there are multiple dining options, so looking for menus online may be helpful in deciding where you are headed for your next meal.
College dining halls can be something that you use to your advantage, and you should! Now that you know how to build your plate and what needs to be on it, I am confident you can succeed in choosing healthy meals at the dining hall.
There are some stations that I recommend, like the stir-fry, smoothie, and pasta stations, but it all comes down to the basics, including carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, onto your plate in the right amounts, which will help your performance.
If you struggle with finding the time to eat within your busy schedule. I encourage you to sign up for the Performance Fueling Club (PFC). PFC is an online sports nutrition coaching program that helps athletes with flexible on-demand content and live nutrition coaching with a sports dietitian.
We currently have open enrollment, and I would love to help support you in getting to your goals!