Making healthy cafeteria choices is not as difficult as it used to be. But the tempting smells and availability of grab and go foods still make it challenging to make choices that support your health goals. When you’re faced with an abundance of options, here are some good choices that are usually available in your cafeteria.
Whether a salad bar or pre-packaged container, salads are a healthy cafeteria choice. If you make your own, add toppings like olives, nuts and seeds (in moderation), hard boiled eggs, beans, extra veggies, and lean protein. Skip the croutons, pasta salads, bread sticks, and creamy dressings. Opt for a vinaigrette on the side if possible. Remember that portion size still matters, so stick with about 2 cups of lettuce with toppings.
Grab and go options like bananas, apples, and oranges are another healthy cafeteria choice. If you’re adding fruit to a salad, keep portion size to less than the palm of your fist. Pairing a fruit with a healthy fat and protein will provide more satiety than fruit eaten on its own, so a nut butter plus a hard boiled egg is a good pairing with fruit.
Chicken, fish, and turkey are healthy cafeteria choices, too. Whether you add them to a salad or choose them as a main dish, these sources of protein will fuel your body with long-lasting energy. If the dish is served with gravy or sauces, opt out if possible or remove most of it once it’s served. Keep side dishes like pasta or rice to about one cup, or one fist sized portion.
Mentioned a couple of times already as sides, eggs are another good source of protein available in most cafeterias. Hard-boiled eggs are easy to take with you and good accompaniments to other parts of a meal. If your cafeteria serves breakfast, choose scrambled or an omelette filled with veggies and protein. Two eggs is equivalent to a single serving.
Beans & Lentils
Despite recent trends, your body does need some carbs for energy. Complex carbs, like those found in beans and lentils offer this support. Adding beans or lentils to the top of a salad, or choosing them as a side for your main protein are both good options. Black beans, kidney beans, and lentils are more ideal than chickpeas, which are higher in sugar. A good portion size is about one closed fist, about one cup.
Nuts & Seeds
Another quick grab and go snack in a cafeteria is nuts and seeds. About ¼ cup is a good size for a single portion. Just a sprinkle is good enough for a salad. If you’re choosing a pre-packaged option, opt for walnuts or almonds over cashews or peanuts for the biggest bang for your nutritional buck.
The challenge with whole grains is determining whether an item is filled with whole grains or whole grain flour. Most prepackaged choices in cafeterias are whole grain flour, which doesn’t offer much nutritional support to your body. Healthy cafeteria choices in the whole grain category would include a single slice of whole grain bread, one whole grain tortilla, or a small portion of whole grain pasta.
Soda, juice, energy drinks, gatorade, and coffee blends offer little nutritional benefit. Choose water, sparkling water, and black coffee instead. Check the sugar content on the back of the bottle when selecting something other than water and specifically note the serving size since it’s often more than a single serving in the container, which quickly increases the sugar you’re consuming.
Healthy cafeteria choices are possible! Look for foods that are as unprocessed as possible – foods you would find in nature – and use the other choices as side dishes in moderation.