My Five-Step Plan to Mastering the Dining Hall and Eating Well on Campus by Mike McCarthy


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Mike McCarthy is the Assistant Director of Residence Life at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Fitchburg State College (now Fitchburg State University) in 2006 and 2009 respectively. While earning his undergraduate degree he completed internships at Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL and Summit Entertainment in Santa Monica, CA. In 2010, he also completed a certificate program in Leadership through Cornell University.

In addition to his work within Student Affairs, Mike and his partner Doro started a health and fitness coaching project called Team Ted Fitness in 2012. The project has led 30-day health and wellness groups, personal development workshops, and recently began leading Insanity workout classes.

You can follow Mike and Doro on Twitter at and connect on Facebook at




My Four-Step Plan to Mastering the Dining Hall and Eating Well on Campus

 I don’t mean to brag, but I’m something of an expert in eating in a dining hall.

Why? I’ve been living on campus since 2002 (aside from two semester-long internships in undergrad) – that’s a lot of time on campus. I’ve been an undergrad student, a grad student, a graduate student assistant staff member and for the longest, I’ve been a live-in staff person on a college campus. All of this time on campus has come with an on-campus meal plan.

It’s really easy to put on weight or be unhealthy while living on campus. We work long hours, give so much of ourselves often with our own well-being the last thing on our minds, and have to grab quick, easy meals between meetings. It’s also surprisingly easy to stay healthy, fit and active if you know where to look.

Every dining hall is different. I get that. I’ve been at a number of different dining halls and at each one I’ve had the opportunity to make healthy choices. Sometimes I have to dig and look hard and put together my own meal with various items available, but I can always do it.

Here is my five-step plan to eating healthy on campus –

Step 1 – Look at the Menu

Scope out everything that is available that day (particularly at stations where the foods change daily) that way you can build your meal around what’s available and what will make a great well-rounded meal. So many times I get in the dining hall, see the first item looking all delicious, get that and then cannot pair it up with anything fitting.

Get the lay of the land and then start putting your meal together. Take five minutes and see everything the dining hall is offering that day. You then know exactly what you’re working with before you start putting items on your plate.

As long as there are dining halls there will be the occasional bizarre meal (I had a rib and omelet meal last week), but if you explore what’s on the menu before putting items on your plate you put yourself in a position to create a well-rounded, healthy meal.


Step 2 – Lean on the Sandwich and Salad Bars

If your campus has a salad bar and/or sandwich bar area, these are likely the areas you’ll lean on a lot. They’ll often have fresh veggies cut and ready to go without any oils or seasonings (you can add those later if you wish), but they’ll be more flexible when trying to make a meal.

These items can also help bring some variety and some color to your meal. “Eating the rainbow” is a popular and super easy way to bring in a variety of different nutrients and vitamins as foods of different colors have different positive traits.

RED – Heart healthy and supports joints

ORANGE – High in vitamin C and is great for your eyes

YELLOW – Good for your skin and digestive system

GREEN – Helps your immune system (hugely helpful as we interact with so many people on our campuses)

PURPLE – Purple or blue foods help our brains … and since we’re working at schools our brains are pretty important.

Does your plate have too much gray or brown on it? Find ways to work some veggies in or have fruit as your desert that day.

Step 3 – You Will Eat Again Someday

It’s also really easy to indulge when it’s a stacked lunch day with two or three delicious-looking meals. You don’t have to make the food. You don’t need to even wash a dish. So it’s very easy to just grab all of the delicious-looking food and tell yourself you’ll eat better tomorrow. I still do this.

Commit to one normal, human-sized meal. The dining hall will have your favorites again and you’ll have another normal meal that day too. You do not need to eat everything.

This is a hard one for me. Those stacked lunch days are tempting. I’m not too proud to say that I’ve had meals comprised of pulled pork, curried chicken and jerk pork … with nothing else on my plate. What might have worked better for me? Building a balanced meal around one of those items and perhaps bringing some of another entrée home to eat during a meal later in the day. I live on campus after all, so it’s easy enough to swing by my apartment to drop off food.

Step 4 – Find Your Go-To’s

Think of your dining hall. What’s your favorite food they do? What’s the one thing they make that’s like your kryptonite – you’re just helpless to its delicious ways.

Now think of the healthy foods that you dining hall often has. These are the items that can be a cornerstone of many healthy meals. For me, my prime go-to’s are tuna and grilled chicken. These are adaptable items that can be mixed with many different foods to make a meal. Hummus and beans are other items that I often work into a meal to make for a more filling, well-rounded meal.

 Quick Meals When You’re on the Go

 BreakfastLoaded Oatmeal

  • Bring a cup and spoon to the dining hall
  • Grab some oatmeal
  • Add a scoop of nut butter
  • Add a half cup to a cup of fruit
  • Mix it up and enjoy!


  • FRUIT! Have a piece of fruit in your office so you can grab that instead of a candy bar.

 Lunch/DinnerTuna in a Cup

  • Bring a cup and spoon or fork (but you should totally get a spork) to the dining hall
  • Fill it with a large scoop of tuna (also consider hummus or a bean mix)
  • Add a selection of veggies from the salad bar
  • Mix it up and enjoy!

Step 5 – The 85% Rule

I went to a workout and Q&A with Shaun T (creator of Insanity, Hip Hop Abs and Focus T25) last year and a lot of the questions focused on his personal meal plan. He shared his philosophy and I really dug it. So I’ll share it here.

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He spoke about how he breaks up what he eats as good stuff and bad stuff. He tries to make sure that 85% of what he takes in is good stuff.

That’s a pretty attainable number. When you aim for all or nothing it’s easy to fail and beat yourself up over those failures. You also have the specter of delicious, but terrible for you foods hanging over you. An 85 and 15 type of meal plan allows for you to still enjoy the occasional treat in moderation. I have a weakness for fresh chocolate chip cookies. If the dining hall has fresh chocolate chip cookies, I have a fresh chocolate chip cookie, I just don’t have all of the fresh chocolate chip cookies.

These are the four steps I follow when I go to the dining hall. There are tons of other ways to eat well on campus. The biggest thing is making deliberate decisions. You’ll have the occasional not-so-great meal, but if overall you’re eating well – you’ll feel good and make the progress that you’re after. Dining halls are a great resource, but without discipline it can be easy to fall into meal patterns that prove detrimental. However, if you go to the dining hall seeking out healthy options that will allow you to do the best work possible, you can find a healthy meal.

What are some of your tips and tricks for eating well on campus? Any favorite recipes using items in your dining hall?

Leave your comments, tips and questions below!

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