Dining Well in the Dining Hall

Written by Amanda Jowell, BA.

All your best friends are gathered in one place. There’s an abundance of food and tons of options. You have a chance to take respite from your busy day.  How is it that despite the seeming perks of the high school or college dining hall or cafeteria experience, it can be such a stressful space?

I started thinking about this when I was in college serving as a peer counselor for students with eating concerns, eating disorders, body image, and self-esteem issues. For staffing the peer counseling hotline or providing in-person counseling, I was trained to help students who found the dining hall an uncomfortable experience.

During my college years and my time here at Columbia, I’ve heard people share that:

  • The limitless amount of food available in the dining hall can induce fear – fear of overeating, fear of feeling out of control while eating, and fear of feeling guilty about food choices.
  • The uncertainty, the mysteriousness, of what might be on the cafeteria menu or the potential lack of desirable choices can be scary.
  • The presence of hundreds of students eating in one place can make locating friends or meeting new people challenging, or contribute to unhelpful comparisons to others or perceptions about judgment for eating behavior.

If any of this sounds familiar to your dining hall experience (or avoidance of the dining hall experience), consider the following:

Plan more to stress less.

There is a lot that you can do to improve mealtime in the cafeteria before you even enter the physical space. For example, if you know that waiting in line and making quick decisions is stressful for you, you might plan an option A, B, and C in advance. Having multiple options in mind can allow you to have a bit of a plan with a bit of the flexibility associated with healthy eating behavior. If this feels overwhelming, consider consulting a dietitian.

Also, identify some strategies to test out while you are waiting in line. You might remind yourself of why it’s important to you take on the cafeteria challenge, chat (or even text) with friends to keep occupied, or take a few deep breaths to invite your body’s relaxation response. Meditation can be a helpful coping mechanism during many types of tough moments. Whether it be seeing a food that gives you anxiety or overhearing someone in the dining hall speaking about how unhealthy their meal is or what diet they are on, taking a few seconds to a few minutes to focus on your breath and your goals can help you to cope with whatever difficult feelings show up.

Don’t go it alone.

We all get by with a little help from our friends (and family). If you find looking for place to eat during a meal stressful, try and enter with a buddy, reach out to friends before going to the cafeteria or designate a meeting place/table where you and/or your friends normally sit. Depending on the closeness of the relationship, opening up to friends about how this experience is stressful may also be helpful. Friends might empathize with your experience and share their own, or seek some advice from you on how they can be most helpful to you before, during and after the meal.

And of course, please keep in mind that speaking with professionals can really help. Reaching out to your high school guidance counselor, your college’s mental health services or other therapists may be able to give you some more personalized tips.

Ban food-bashing.

To shift your dining hall experience, it can help to lead by shifting your conversation a bit. Minimize talking about what’s on your or other people’s plates during the meal. This can certainly be tough, especially because it’s so natural to chat about the enjoyable and not-so-enjoyable parts of the meal, but being mindful of what you say about food can overall make you and your friends’ dining hall experience more pleasant. Even well-intentioned comments can make someone feel judged about their eating, and if you are sitting with friends, then surely there will be many other things to talk about instead!

Orient towards your goals.

People with eating and body image concerns may have drastically different goals at any given meal to normalize their eating. For one individual, the aim may be to stick to a specific plan to eat a range of high-calorie foods, even if feeling full or not so hungry, to help restore weight. Someone else might be trying to reintroduce a scary food in a manageable way. Yet another person may be trying to listen closely to their body’s needs, be it hunger, fullness, or cravings, and then take moments to savor the food as well as other pleasant aspects of mealtime. And another individual might be focusing on feeling better in their body no matter what food is served to them. Simply put, each person shows up to the dining table with their own goals on their tray; to make the most of mealtime, it helps to focus on how you wish to evolve from the experience.

Whatever your goals may be in the dining hall, we encourage you to continue to strive to make the dining hall a positive, nourishing experience.

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