Ways to adjust to dining hall life

By Stephen Margelony-Lajoie

(Juliette Sandleitner/Daily Collegian)
(Juliette Sandleitner/Daily Collegian)

Keeping track of your weight and diet goals was easy when you were at home over winter break. You had more control of what you put in your mouth, and you could measure your food without people looking at you funny.

But whether you’re striving to improve your diet or not, it’s well known that it sometimes takes a bit to readjust back to the food offered in the dining commons. From diet to general health, here are a few tips to make the transition easier.

Portion control is probably the hardest adjustment to make when returning to school. It’s just so much easier to control your calorie intake when you’re home, and it’s no secret that the dining commons are filled with temptation. Whether you’re trying to lose, maintain or gain weight, calories do matter. But in every dining common, determining proper portion sizes for your plate can be a struggle.

On almost every food option in the dining commons, there are nutritional information cards on display. This is helpful when focusing on your fat, carb and protein macros but these cards aren’t exactly good at telling you what the suggested serving size actually looks like.

Unless you’re an experienced calorie counter, eyeballing portion sizes doesn’t come naturally. So when you’re just starting out, go for items that come in pre-portioned servings. These would be foods such as grilled chicken, fish, fruits, hardboiled eggs, and grilled cheese halves. Because these items’ serving sizes are very clear, you can trust that your calorie count for the day is accurate.

Of course, eating such a limited pool of foods is going to get boring. Grains, vegetables, French fries, and other foods that are tossed into pans for serving in the dining commons aren’t going to come pre-portioned. But eyeballing portion sizes becomes easier with more practice.

Use an image search engine to see what portion sizes of your favorite foods look like, and measure your food when you visit home to get better at determining what a cup of rice or 4 oz. of steak looks like.

For those who avoid calorie counting or other possible food-related triggers for mental health reasons, the USDA-approved “MyPlate” could be a better option. When choosing your food, just make sure one quarter of your plate is a protein, another quarter is a grain, and half of your plate is a combination of fruits and veggies.

But even if you have portion sizes taken care of, there is obviously more to diet than just keeping track of your weight. Digestive health is also important. There’s a school-wide consensus that making the shift from home-cooked meals to dining commons food makes things a little uneasy. While your digestive system takes the time it needs to adjust to school food, there are precautions you can take to help it move along.

The most obvious solution is to make sure that you include more fiber than usual in your diet. Any fiber supplement containing psyllium husk will help bind you up. But if you’d rather take a more natural approach without supplements, the dining commons often serve quite a few items with high fiber content.

Black beans, brown rice, edamame, lentils, peas, broccoli, apples and barley are fruits and vegetables that are often served in the dining commons that will add a good amount of fiber to your diet.

There are also quite a few foods served that you should avoid if you’re suffering from constipation. Foods containing chocolate and dairy, for instance, may do more harm than good. Not drinking enough water can also cause constipation.

There are non-dietary reasons why you may be having some digestive issues as well. Not getting enough exercise contributes to constipation and, more related to the current New England weather, anti-allergy and cold medications may also cause constipation.

But don’t forget to treat yourself every now and then too. Whether you’re on a strict diet or just striving for better health, everyone needs a cheat day and UMass provides plenty of temptation.

Coming back to UMass means seeing the end of your grandma’s habit of constantly baking you goodies and “making” you eat them throughout your winter break. Luckily, UMass’ dining commons are always serving some amazing deserts.

Either ice cream or frozen yogurt is available in every dining common, so even the biggest ice cream addicts will never leave the dining commons unsatisfied.

There are also plenty of other goodies that can quell any sweet tooth. The best deserts to look out for are the Oreo coconut bars and chocolate tart, which never last very long when they’re served.

So whether you’re trying to change or maintain your weight, take care of your digestive health, or just enjoy a treat here and then, eating at a dining commons is no problem at all. Nothing will ever get close to grandma’s home made cooking, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get something close to it at your second home.

Stephen Margelony-Lajoie can be reached at [email protected]