College is an exciting time for dancers— newfound independence and autonomy, along with the experience of meeting new peers and learning from experts in the field. For many college-aged dancers, however, limited resources can surface challenges that impede their performance potential.
This is especially true for younger dancers, who may experience college-like living as early as 12 and 13 years old. Summer intensives and year-round pre-professional programs often involve living in dorms with shared cafeterias. Executing sustainable mealtime patterns isn’t always easy. This article will dive into how you can better equip yourself to navigate eating on campus. Once you’ve read it, don’t forget to download your free guide to College Dorm Life as an additional resource.
Dining Hall Cafeterias
Busy schedules make it hard enough to provide your body with enough food throughout the day— now add the reliance on your dining hall. Whether it be an abundance of unfamiliar foods or a spread that doesn’t look too appetizing, it’s a recipe for under-fueling and a leading contributor to eating past fullness (AKA “over”-eating) during the evening hours.
How can I eat healthy in a dorm cafeteria?
The Healthy Dancer® Food Flexibility algorithm offers a strategic approach for all of your mealtime decisions. Starting with intent, it guides you through a series of prompts to identify what is both accessible and preferred at the moment. From there, we consider gentle nutrition— for dancers, this means applying the principles of performance nutrition in a way that isn’t obsessive.
#1: Start with carbohydrates
When available, opt for whole grains like brown rice, oats, quinoa, or whole-wheat bread products. These foods offer more fiber and B Vitamins, both of which help your energy levels. For additional help, check out the following two articles that break down everything you need to know about the various types of carbohydrate-rich fibrous foods.
#2: Mix In Protein
Protein helps to build strength and repair fatigued muscles. Animal-based or plant-based proteins are fabulous options. Meat, seafood, tofu, and beans are commonly accessible in college dining halls. Opt for those that are grilled, oven-roasted, or broiled for options less likely to cause stomach distress while dancing. Here’s a complete guide to protein for dancers.
#3: Add Your Fats
Heart-healthy fats like oils, vinaigrettes (often found on salad bars), guacamole (can be added to sandwiches), nuts, and seeds (often found on salad bars or in the convenience store) are helpful for muscle recovery and satisfaction. Click here to learn more about the role of fat in a dancer’s diet.
#3: Aim for Color
Various micronutrients, like iron, zinc, vitamin C, and vitamin A are abundant in vegetables and fruit, both of which are available in dining halls. Veggies are often roasted, sauteed, or simmered in soups while the fruit is most available on salad bars. Try topping salads with colorful citrus. Toss an apple and banana into your dance bag for emergency snacking. Dairy or dairy alternatives are also commonly available and offer us a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat while being an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D.
Though the buffet-style service can overwhelm some dancers, dining halls are the perfect place to try new foods. Take advantage of the endless possibilities and new flavors. Combine foods from different stations to create a unique and tasty meal. Need some quick ideas? Start with a grilled chicken breast and add a side of pasta and salad.
Don’t be shy: ask for a dining menu
If available, your school might offer an online dining menu to help plan balanced meals for the week ahead. Since available offerings can change daily, access to an online menu will help to ease nerves. This can also reduce time spent on dining hall lines and therefore limit feelings of overwhelm. Here are two sample online dining hall menus that depict common offerings on campuses nationwide.
Your relationship with food matters
With zero control over dining hall options, it can be challenging to step out of your comfort zone. Breaking food rules (a concept I talk more about here) is the first step. Remember: restrictions don’t work long-term and can lead to biological consequences and psychological consequences like food guilt.
Eating In The Dorms
#1: Stock Portable Snacks
To support sustained energy throughout the day, eat a meal or snack every 2 to 4 hours. This keeps your body energized and your brain alert. Utilize dining hall containers to pack on-the-go options. Here are commonly available examples:
- Build a wrap with deli meat or tofu, cheese, and veggies.
- Pack hummus (from the salad bar) with fresh veggies (such as carrots, celery, or sliced cucumbers).
- Grab nuts and/or seeds (from the salad or oatmeal bar) and pair them with a piece of fruit (typically apples, bananas, or oranges).
Aim to keep 4 snacks in your bag at all times. Reusable storage bags help! This will ensure you always have fuel on hand to support even the busiest days. Not “feeling hungry?” Check out this article to learn more about the importance of appetite regulation and regaining lost hunger cues. If access to a dorm fridge is unavailable, stock pantry staples like mixed nuts or nut butter, tuna packets, oatmeal packets, dried fruit, whole-grain crackers, pretzels, and roasted chickpea snacks. While portioned snack bags help to save time, they’re often not the most economical option. Consider purchasing bulk items and portioning them into your reusable portable snack bags (linked above). Here are a few tasty and affordable Amazon staples that can be shipped directly to campus.
- Turkey Snack Sticks are a tasty protein source and easy on the go.
- Nut Butter Packets are heart-healthy options that can be paired with a piece of fruit or pretzels.
- Crackers or pretzels are stored easily in your dorm.
- Dried Edamame is a balanced option for plant-based (and non-plant-based) dancers.
- Trail Mix can be eaten on its own or added to oatmeal, yogurt, or salads.
- Dark Chocolate Almonds are an awesome sweet treat that is rich in magnesium and fiber.
- Popcorn is a fibrous whole grain and easy to pack.
- Go-go Squeeze packs offer quick energy between classes.
- LARA bars contain naturally occurring fats to satisfy your hunger between meals.
Take Advantage of Dining Dollars
Most college meal plans offer dining dollars, which can be used at your local campus convenience store. Here are a few easy staples to stock:
- Trail Mix
- Peanut Butter
Consider Dorm-Friendly Cooking Gadgets:
Relying on convenience foods is the reality of most college Freshmen. But there are cooking gadgets that can help to broaden your personal meal plan. Before purchasing, be sure to check with your university’s housing department about specific appliances that might be not allowed. Another tip? Use power strips with overcurrent protectors to prevent blowing a fuse.
- Mini Fridge to keep cold snacks such as Greek yogurt, string cheese, hummus, etc.
- Electric kettle or coffee maker
- Mini-waffle or pancake maker – can also be used to cook eggs, hash browns, grilled veggies, and paninis.
- Magic bullet or single-serve blender
- Pasta/Rice cooker
- Airtight containers for bulk snacks (to prevent rodents)
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Microwave and dishwasher-safe dishes: mugs, bowls, and plates (at least 2 of each)
- Silverware: forks, spoons, and knives (at least 2 of each)
- Collapsible serving/mixing bowl
- Glass Tupperware for leftovers (these are microwave and oven safe too)
Now that we’ve covered the basics, don’t forget to download your FREE guide to College Eats below. And if you’re a college dancer with tips not mentioned, contact Rachel for the chance to add your spot to this article!
Article was written with the help of Kylie Mignone. Expert reviewed by Rachel Fine.