1) Eat consistent, adequate meals
Nourishing your brain and body with enough fuel to support your activities and keep you energized is a top priority. Eating satisfying meals is an important tool in interrupting disordered eating patterns or eating disorder behaviors (both undereating and overeating). Our bodies need meals and snacks at regular intervals (think every 3-4 hours), and eating consistently during the day can help manage sensations of hunger and fullness. Essential tips here: start your day with breakfast and avoid meal skipping.
2) Go for a balance of food groups
Our bodies need all the macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) to function well. When you’re in line at the register, run through a mental check list to be sure you’re including these five key components in your meal: 1) carbs or grains; 2) protein-rich foods; 3) a source of dietary fat; 4) fruits and vegetables; and 5) fluids. Don’t skip any food groups.
3) Develop a game plan
A lot of dining halls offer information on menus on their websites. It can be helpful to look at the options ahead of time to reduce overwhelm when you’re actually in the dining hall. Familiarize yourself with the different meal stations when the dining hall isn’t packed. If planning ahead isn’t helpful (for example, if too much nutrition info is also posted online or you find yourself bogged down in the decision-making process), talk through the stressors with your treatment team.
4) Variety is important
Try to switch up what you’re eating on a day-to-day basis. Take advantage of the dining halls’ changing selections to vary your intake. Not only does including a variety of foods keep things interesting in terms of flavor and give us access to a wider array of nutrients, it is a helpful tool in itself for limiting eating disorder behaviors. Choosing different foods and not opting for a few safe options at every meal can help keep our options from getting progressively narrower. Try to include combination foods and prepared entrees rather than cobbling together separate components into a single meal.
5) Use the salad bar appropriately
What role are salads playing in your meal choices? How often are you having them? Salads often have the allure of being a “healthy choice,” but they don’t always serve our recovery goals. The foods we’d pick at the salad bar can be healthful and delicious, but salads can be problematic if they displace other important food groups, contribute to limited variety, or are chosen because it is a “virtuous” choice. If you do have a salad for a meal, be sure to get sufficient portions of carbohydrates, protein-rich foods, and fats (dressing).
6) Listen to your body
Some dining halls and meal plans have the option for unlimited servings and courses. Others portion meals on the plate for you. Check in with your hunger and fullness cues to help determine what portions will truly satisfy you at that meal. Give yourself permission to throw away unfinished portions if you’re challenged by the need to always clean your plate. Listening to these cues and developing trust in your body can feel challenging and take time. Work with your dietitian for guidance around portions and body cues.
7) Don’t restrict yourself
Include desserts and fun foods in your eating patterns. Give yourself permission to eat what is enjoyable, nourishing, and satisfying. Explore and honor taste preferences. Recognize when rigid or black-and-white thinking limits what your choices are or dictates what you “should” eat. Physiological and psychological restriction can leave us vulnerable to disordered eating patterns or behaviors.
8) Surround yourself with appropriate social supports
Eating in a dining hall can be anxiety provoking. Sometimes it feels like others are watching our choices. It’s helpful to reality check these thoughts; most of the time, others aren’t evaluating what we’re eating. If others are truly checking in (like a concerned friend, for example), try to figure out what kind of support is most helpful during the meal. If there are others with whom there is a triggering element of comparison, try to eat with supportive and nonjudgmental friends.
9) Recognize and process potential triggers
The dining hall might have posters or messages about healthy eating or more general nutrition advice presented through menus and visual displays. Ingredient lists, allergen warnings, and nutrition information can sometimes surprise us and cause us to doubt our choices. Understand that these messages may not apply to your individual situation or recovery.
10) Snacks are important
Snacks are a helpful tool in managing hunger, achieving adequate intake, and having access to fun foods between meals. Snacks are generally a combination of two or more food groups. Not all dining halls allow you to take food with you to snack on between meals. If that’s the case, plan where and how can you obtain snacks. Keep portable snacks in your bag so you’re not stuck at the library or class with nothing to eat.
11) Know your schedule
Get a sense of what your schedule looks like and think about when and where you’ll eat most meals. When are your busiest days? Which options are close enough to visit between classes? When do you need to plan for and pack a snack? Try to identify tight timelines, conflicts, or areas where unsupportive habits might enter the picture ahead of time.
12) Work with your team
Not all of these strategies will fit your situation exactly. Some tips may feel more or less relevant, depending on your individual recovery. It’s extremely helpful to have a treatment team during the school year and process challenges as they come up. Try to get an understanding of the resources available to you ahead of time (even if you feel you won’t need to utilize them). It’s good to know who and where to turn to for increased support if the need arises.