Article: Navigating School Dining Halls and Cafeterias

September 29th, 2012 | by Pam Stuppy
Published in: Articles

Printed in Seacoast Online

Many adults and students have at least one of their daily meals in a business cafeteria or school dining hall. In the past few years, the number of food options available in these facilities has tended to expand so there is greater variety.

This increase, however, can be a little overwhelming when it comes to putting together a healthy meal.

Most of these dining situations have a main “hot line” containing cooked meal entrees and side dishes. They may also have a “scatter system” with separate specialty areas — like a salad bar, deli/sandwich bar, pasta bar, dessert bar, etc. Some might have areas divided by ethnic foods — Asian, Italian, Mexican, etc. Others may offer “cooked to order” foods — like an omelet station or stir-fry station.

Some will offer specialty areas like one for vegetarian options or gluten-free foods. Most identify at least some of the major allergens contained in the foods — like those containing nuts, peanuts, shellfish, etc. Alternative beverages may also be available — like lactose-free milk, soy milk, rice milk, almond milk (all contain or are generally fortified with calcium at a level similar to dairy milk or yogurt).

As a consumer trying to eat healthfully, it can be helpful to think in food groups when confronting a cafeteria or dining hall. When it comes to portion sizes think of the “My Plate” proportions — about half the meal vegetables, a quarter of the plate a protein source, a quarter of the plate a whole grain or starchy vegetable, a good source of calcium and some fruit.

Entrees contain one or more food groups. When trying to make healthy choices, think of how the food has been prepared. If it has been fried, has a cream sauce, or contains cheese, you know it will contain more fat and calories than one that is broiled, baked, grilled, or otherwise prepared with lower fat ingredients.

Many people are opting to limit animal proteins in their diets even if they are not true vegetarians. Vegetarian eaters often do not get enough protein. Since plant-based proteins tend to contain less protein for the volume, it might be necessary to include several protein sources at a meal. If there is inadequate protein in a vegetarian entrée served, other protein sources can be added to it or eaten on the side.

Examples of plant-based proteins would be beans, tofu/tempeh/edamame/soy milk and other soy products, hummus, nuts, seeds, or veggie burgers. Vegetarians consuming eggs and dairy could add protein through milk, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt and eggs from the salad bar.

Choosing an entrée that contains a lot of vegetables tends to boost the nutritional content while keeping the calories to a minimum. An example might be a stir fry with chicken or shrimp. Vegetables can also be found as cooked vegetables on the hot line, items on the salad bar, as tomato sauce on the pasta bar, as toppings in the sandwich bar, or in soups. Make these colorful foods a major part of your meal.

Seek out the sources of whole grains available. This could be a cooked grain like brown rice, quinoa, barley, whole grain pasta, or bulgur that are offered as a hot side dish, part of an entrée, on the salad bar, or in a soup. Note what whole grain bread items are available — whole grain bread, pita, tortillas, English muffins, etc.

Fruit might be in a fresh fruit salad, as dried fruit like raisins or dried cranberries on the salad bar, or as a grab-and-go whole piece of fruit. Fruit is better than juice since it contains fiber. It is also easy to consume large amounts of calories from high intakes of juice. Real fruit juice (100 percent juice), however, is better than fruit drinks, which are mostly sugar water.

Busy adults dashing through the company cafeteria or students rushing though the dining hall on the way to class, often depend on the hot line entrees as their primary meal source. Some people do not find these foods appealing and feel at a loss as to how to create a healthy meal on their own. In this case, thinking of all the foods available as ingredients can be helpful. The foods chosen do not have to look like a traditional meal, as long as the five food groups are represented.

How about taking a whole grain bread item like a whole grain tortilla, add a source of protein like grilled chicken from the salad bar or hot line, add some cooked or raw vegetables, top with a little salad dressing and roll up. Then maybe add some yogurt with fruit.

Another idea might be to get a bowl of soup and enhance it with some of the cooked vegetables, a whole grain like whole wheat pasta from the pasta bar, and some beans from the salad bar. Add a glass of milk and an apple.

For a main dish you could also make a modified stir fry by combining a cooked meat/poultry item or beans with some of the cooked vegetable and a cooked whole grain.

A vegetarian option might be a whole wheat pita spread with hummus and then topped with beans and veggies from the salad bar. Or you could add beans to whole grain pasta and tomato sauce from the pasta bar. Enhance either of these with a side salad containing nuts, seeds, and dried fruit, plus a glass of soy milk to make a complete meal.

Sodium can be a concern with eating out. Soups, foods containing cured meats, deli meats, marinades or sauces using soy sauce, some salad dressings, tomato sauces, and condiments like steak sauce are common sources of sodium. Reduce the portion size and/or frequency of eating these foods if you are trying to limit your sodium intake.

So the next time you are eating in a cafeteria or dining hall setting, scout out the options available, think by food groups, and see what creative combinations you come up with for a healthy meal.

Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, Maine, and Portsmouth. She is also the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy. Visit www.pamstuppynutrition.com for more nutrition information, some healthy cooking tips, and recipe ideas.



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