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Plant-Strong in the College Dining Hall: The College Greens

Plant-Strong in the College Dining Hall

For a lot of students who go to college, living in a dorm, eating at the all-you-can eat dining hall, late night parties with beer and pizza, and gaining 15 pounds are associated with freshman year.  Most students are happy with the dining hall’s offering of endless baskets of french fries, piles of greasy burgers, slice after slice of pizza, occasionally a vegetable drowned in butter, and unlimited access to ice cream.  At first glance, it may seem impossible to be plant-strong in the college dining hall.  However, with a positive outlook and a few tips and support from other plant-strong college students, anyone can become an A+ plant-strong student!

As students who live on campus with expensive meal plans and no access to a kitchen, we rely on the dining hall for the majority of our meals.  We may not be plant-perfect while at school, but with an open, creative mind we are still plant-strong and absolutely loving every second of it!  Here are some suggestions for making your college experience a plant-strong one!

When you first go to the dining hall, scope out everything available and mentally take note of all your options.

  • The salad bar is a great place to start and is the basis of most of my meals.  Spinach or mixed greens, a variety of fresh vegetables, chickpeas and/or kidney beans, plain tofu, raisins, and sunflower seeds are usually available.  See if your school offers balsamic vinegar, salsa, or low-fat hummus as a dressing; if not, enjoy your salad plain – the vegetables have so much flavor themselves!
  • Plain steamed vegetables from the main entree are another great option.
  • Enjoy baked potatoes, brown rice, quinoa (if you’re lucky), whole wheat pasta, and whole wheat bread for starches.
  • Fresh fruit is a great way to end a meal.
  • Nondairy milk and a plant-strong cereal or oatmeal is another good option.

Once you are aware of all the plant-strong choices, get creative!  Mix and match combinations of vegetables, legumes, fruit, and starches.  Add low-fat toppings such as plain marinara sauce, salsa, balsamic vinegar, and hummus for a little added flavor and variety.  You might have to gather things from a few different areas, but have fun with creating different combinations!  Brown rice or whole wheat pasta, steamed veggies, and some beans from the salad bar with plain marinara sauce on top is one of my favorite combinations. A HUGE salad with just about every vegetable, legume, and seed or nut (and sometimes even fruit) in the dining hall is a major staple for us – we have it at least once a day and often for both lunch and dinner.  But be prepared, you may get lots of stares and comments about eating a plateful of salad about three times the size of your head!  When we leave the dining hall, we always take a piece (or two or three) of fresh fruit with us to keep on hand in our dorms for snacking when hunger strikes.

Although we rely on the dining hall for lunch and dinner, we eat breakfast in our dorm rooms every morning (usually a large bowl of cereal or oatmeal, with fruit, almond milk, and lots of cinnamon).  As plant-strong athletes, we have pretty large appetites so we also snack often throughout the day.  Some days, it is just easier to throw together a quick meal in the room, so it is very helpful to have your dorm room stocked with plant-strong basics!  A refrigerator and microwave are great to have in your room if possible.

  •  In the fridge, keep some staples such as nondairy milk, hummus, salsa, nondairy yogurt, nuts/seeds, and ground flaxseed meal.
  • If there is a freezer too, store some frozen berries and frozen meals from home.
  • Get a large container to keep other go-to items such as: your favorite plant-strong cereals (maybe the ingredients for Rip’s Big Bowl?!); rolled oats (You don’t even need a microwave to have oatmeal!  Overnight, soak one part oats in 2 parts nondairy milk with added chia seeds, fruit, cinnamon and enjoy in the morning – these are SO simple, yet SO delicious); plant-strong whole wheat bread, english muffins, or tortilla wraps (Ezekiel Sprouted Grain and Ezekiel Sprouted Corn are favorites); canned brown rice and beans; plant-strong canned soup; dried fruit; applesauce; and tea bags.
  • Have a selection of fruit (bananas, apples, oranges, peaches, etc. from the dining hall) for snacking and some vegetables like carrots and celery which you can eat plain or dip in hummus.
  • Also easy and delicious are potatoes and sweet potatoes that you can pop in the microwave and quickly have for a snack or with a meal (topped with salsa or cinnamon).
  • Have your favorite spice or condiment to add excitement and variety – we LOVE cinnamon and we LOVE salsa, and we add them to just about everything possible.
  • We also have nutritional yeast in our rooms to sprinkle on salads, vegetables, and any other meals we eat in our dorms.

We love to cook and while at school we really miss finding or creating recipes and the simple goodness of home-cooked meals.  To ease the dreams of a delicious family dinner in a warm kitchen, bring some plant-strong favorites back to your dorm if you are able to go home or if family or friends come to visit!  When we are able to do this we like to make a big batch of granola, some plant-strong zucchini or banana bread, a small container of frozen chocolate banana bites (from the Forks Over Knives Companion Book), and a few containers of dinner leftovers.  No matter how much you may love being away at college, it is always a nice treat to have a taste of home!

Depending on your college, you may have an even larger variety of plant-based options, or a very limited selection.  It might not always be a piece of kale, but it is certainly very doable!  Once you get to know what things are available, you get in a routine and you don’t have to think twice about eating plant-strong at every meal.  It is NOT something else you need to be stressed by or have anxiety about.  You can always make it work and it is 100% extremely worthwhile.  Have fun with it and enjoy yourself!

Some other things to consider: get involved!  Find out if your campus has a healthy lifestyle club, an environmental club, or even a plant-strong club!  Joining up with like-minded people is fun and a great support system.  You can share your ideas, help each other out, and always encourage one another.  If your campus doesn’t already have a club, then start your own!  Gather some friends, make some posters, and spread the word.  Plant-strong is the bomb and kale is the new cool!!

Also, speak up!  If your dining hall is lacking in the plant-strong department, then talk to someone in charge of your school’s dining services.  Stop by their office and talk to someone, write a letter, fill out a survey – become influential in making your school more plant-strong!  Don’t be afraid to stand up and ask for more plant-strong options. Make some simple suggestions for basic, healthful, plant-strong foods that lots of students will enjoy.  Every student should have access to whole, plant-based foods that are essential to our diet and well-being.

Best of luck to all fellow plant-strong students – whether you are aspiring or plant-perfect or anywhere in between!

- The College Greens

About the author

The College Greens
The College Greens: Tara, Jenna, and Craig. Tara is a junior at Bucknell University, currently majoring in Education and minoring in Creative Writing, and planning to do a nutrition program upon graduation. Jenna is a sophomore attending Duquesne University, and she is studying to become a Physician Assistant. Both Tara and Jenna are certified in Plant-Based Nutrition through Dr.Campbell's eCornell program. Craig is a senior at Bucknell University. He is majoring in Chemistry and minoring in English, and is planning to go to medical school to become a pediatrician, where he hopes to incorporate lifestyle medicine in his practice.

6 Responses to “Plant-Strong in the College Dining Hall: The College Greens”

  1. Cynthia says:

    excellent tips!

  2. Thanks so much for doing this; I have two kids eating in college dorms who are exploring making it work in the dining hall world, so this is very helpful! I have sent your link, as well as the link to Cathy Fisher’s StraightUpFood site, which is also great at showing how to whip up something out of whatever’s available.

    • Hi Phil! You’re so welcome :) It’s so wonderful to hear about other plant-strong college students!! StraightUpFood is definitely a good resource, and Lindsay Nixon’s Happy Herbivore site and cookbooks are great as well for simplicity and affordability.

  3. Elana P says:

    Love all the tips!!! Awesome job guys!!!

  4. Kathy G says:

    Great advice! You guys rock.

  5. Great tips!!! I’m a vegan food blogger and although vegan for quite some time I gained a whole host more insight in to how to improve my diet and ensure it was wholefoods based by completing an online course. If you want the link let me know! :)

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