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No Meal Kit Necessary: 7 Genius (and Simple) Ways to Hack Your College Cafeteria for Healthier Meals

Photo: Iain Bagwell; Styling: Cindy Barr

Want to eat healthier and make the most of your university meal plan? Here are our best hacks for personalizing your college cafeteria experience to best suite your tastes.

This week, Spoon University, the popular site for food-obsessed college students, announced a parternship with Chef'd to bring the first-ever personalized meal kit to college students. It's like the classic, beloved college care package, only healthier (and more expensive).

 I understand (and applaud) college students' desire to eat healthier, fresher meals and, as a fellow food-obsessed twenty-something, I'm in total support of young adults learning essential cooking skills for themselves--just read my recent post on the 10 Foods You Should Learn to Cook in Your Early 20s. What I also know about college students is that 1. Many are on some kind of meal plan, 2. They are very busy human beings (speaking from experience--after all, I was one of them  not so long ago), and 3. They're broke--well, most of them.

Now if you're a college student who loves food/making it and has extra time and cash on your hands, this subscription service might be perfect for you and, by all means, go for it. But if you're not about to order a specially curated meal kit and still desire to eat nutritius and satisfying meals on campus, I have a little tried-and-true expertise on personalizing your college cafeteria experience. Here are 10 genius, and easy, ways to get maximum enjoyment from mundane cafeteria food.

1. Lemons and limes = your flavor-boosting, calorie-reducing saviors.

It’s easy to think that, because you’re eating a salad, you’re automatically eating healthy. Unfortunately, the bottled dressings at the end of the salad bar are generally loaded with fat, sugar, and weird stabilizers, so the next time you’re going through the line, opt instead for a spritz of fresh citrus juice plus a little salt, pepper, and plain olive oil for a vibrant and healthy dressing. Lemons and limes can also add a bright, fresh flavor boost to bland-tasting veggies, grilled chicken, rice, and much more—which is one of the reasons I always keep them on hand at home, too. It’s one of the easiest ways to elevate flavor without adding calories.

2. Convert hard-boiled eggs into egg salad.

Egg Salad Sandwiches with Bacon and Sriracha

My college cafeteria always offered hard-boiled eggs at the salad bar station, and while I dropped them on my greens fairly often, a smart way to change up the same-old flavor profile (while still getting the protein and other nutrients that eggs offer) is turning those hard-boiled beauties into egg salad. Hard-boiling eggs is the first step to making egg salad, so the cafeteria already did half the work for you. To make it, coarsely cut up hard-boiled eggs using a fork, then mix with a sprinkle of salt and pepper plus a dollop of something creamy--like sour cream, mashed avocodo, and/or plain Greek yogurt--and boom, you're ready to load up a sandwich or wrap.

3. Swap bread for a tortilla.

Grilled Veggie and Hummus Wraps

Let's face it: Sandwiches can get boring, and all that white bread day after day isn't the healthiest option out there. Now I love me a good sandwich, and I'm not saying that bread is evil. But, if they're available, try grabbing a tortilla instead--whole-wheat if your cafeteria offers them--and roll up a fresh wrap loaded with sandwich meat, lettuce, cheese, vegggies, and hummus. It saves you carbs and simply switching up the vessel can keep your lunchtime routine from getting stale. Pro tip: Fold over your tortilla and pop it in the toaster (or microwave for a few seconds) and then fill it up for a warm, toasty wrap.

How to Make Grilled Veggie and Hummus Wraps

 

4. Ditch the soda for seltzer + juice.

Water can get boring, I get it. And while the temptation for a fizzy beverage every once in awhile is real--take it from someone who has a soda fountain 10 steps from her in the office at all times--you can avoid some sugar by mixing your own fizzy beverage with carbonated water and a splash of juice for flavor. Got any fresh berries? Stir them in, and you're practically a caf mixologist.

5. #ParfaitAllDay.

My college cafeteria offered yogurt all day long, and a loaded-up parfait was my standard caf creation as a filling breakfast or afternoon energy booster (I'd make it a mini for an afternoon snack). I grabbed fresh or dried berries, granola-esque cereal from the always-available cereal bins, and peanut butter from the sandwich area to create a filling, protein-packed meal in minutes. P.S. If you've never tried mixing peanut butter into your yogurt...trust me on this one. It's. Life. Changing.

6. Dress up plain oatmeal (and we're not talking brown sugar).

Flaxseed Oatmeal with Blueberies

Oatmeal is a great choice for a heart-healthy, fiber-packed meal, but it's almost unbearably bland on its own. So dice up an apple, grab some nuts from the salad bar, stir in a spoonful of nut butter, add some fresh or dried fruit, drizzle with honey, sprinkle with cocoa, and/or add a splash of milk. There are endless options to personalize it for breakfast or even lunch and dinner--heard of savory oats? If you haven't, now is the time. 

7. Get more from your salad bar.

Mu Shu Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Lettuce isn't just for salads--you can skip the bread and tortillas all-together and make your own lettuce wraps. Be sure to use sturdy greens with thick ribs like iceberg or bibb, and then fill with warm ingredients like roasted veggies, ground beef or grilled chicken, and beans before sprinkling with a little cheese and adding a spoonful of sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt if it's available). For Asian-inspired lettuce wraps, you can make your own peanut sauce by warming peanut butter in the microwave and stirring in canola oil, soy sauce, and a little hot sauce. You can also make cold cut roll-ups with deli turkey or ham + salad bar fixin's (like shaved carrots, cucumbers, sliced bell pepper, hummus, and diced avocado).