Eating healthy easily on a meal plan

Tori Smith – Opinion Columnist

After being away from campus for two months, I’ve had to adjust back to a new normal. No more cuddles with my dog in the morning or spending (in-person) quality time with my family. The most challenging adjustment, however, is not having a home-cooked meal made by my very talented mother every night.
Now, my nights look a little different. Every evening I bundle up in my winter coat, hat and gloves to make the treacherous walk to the Caf where, if I’m being honest, I usually just grab some chicken strips, mozzarella sticks and mashed potatoes.
For an article about healthy eating, maybe I should keep my eating habits to myself. Oh well, honesty is the best policy.
One night after eating my wonderful meal of carbs and fats, I wondered how other (probably more health-conscious) students fared when picking out their meals in the Market Place.
Does the meal plan provide students with healthy, balanced meals? According to Health Service’s registered dietitian Jen Donkin, it does.
“I meet too many students who get in a rut of eating chicken strips and fries for most of their meals… There are plenty of options, but it takes getting out of your comfort zone and trying something new,” Donkin said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a balanced plate for the typical young adult consists of a little less than 25 percent fruit (about 1.5 to 2 cups daily), a little more than 25 percent vegetables (about 2.5 to 3 cups daily), 25 percent protein (about 5 to 6 ounces daily), and 25 percent grains (about 6 to 8 ounces daily). It is also recommended to aim for one serving of dairy for every meal (about 3 cups daily).
While these recommendations are often contested (if 65 percent of people are lactose-intolerant, why is dairy even a category?), the USDA’s MyPlate is still a useful tool for balancing meals.
“I encourage students to try new foods and have variety and balance which means all food groups,” Donkin said.
In the Market Place, Donkin cites meals such as casseroles with a side of veggies as an inexpensive and filling option for students.
“There are grilled and baked meats, lots of fruit and vegetable options as well as whole grains,” Donkin said.
In addition to these options, she encourages getting creative by coming up with your own dish, like making a quesadilla using ingredients from the burrto line and utilizing the available toasters. This can help students when they feel bored of the day-to-day options.
It’s a relief to hear that Donkin believes Gustavus is doing a good job at providing its students with healthy meal options, but what do the actual students think?
In order to gauge how students feel about the options on their meal plan, I posted a poll on my Instagram story and asked my fellow Gusties “Do you feel you’re able to eat healthy, balanced meals while on the Gustavus meal plan?”
Out of the 47 responses, 56 percent said no. After speaking with Donkin, this number surprised me. If Gustavus is doing a good job at providing healthy meal options, why do students believe otherwise?
“The biggest issue is that one little cup of fruit is $4,” Senior Jessica Stauber said.
This sentiment was echoed by other students.
“I’m not spending $6 for a salad or $5 for a pint of strawberries,” Junior Solveig Stafford said.
The inflated price for these healthier options is troubling. We all know how frustrating it is to run out of money in our meal plans at the end of the month and it’s even more frustrating when it’s the result of trying to eat healthy.
“[There is] a lot more unhealthy options for longer hours,” Junior Ana Zaalishvili said.
I’ve personally noticed this in the Market Place as well.
It can be pretty disheartening to be studying for a test at night only to realize it’s 7 p.m. and you’ve missed dinner. I’m thankful that certain lines do stay open longer (and a special thank-you for all of the students and staff working late) but as Zaalishvili pointed out, they aren’t necessarily the healthiest options.
This might be why many students (including myself) cling to the coveted chicken strips and fries. They’re available all day, they’re a filling meal and they’re really tasty.
The only other lines open after 7 p.m. are the Pizzeria and the Market Deli. Apparently, the healthiest option after sunset is a ham sandwich.
While I do acknowledge that the college does provide healthy options for its students, it can’t go unnoticed how difficult it is for students to actually choose these options. They are costly and only served during certain hours of the day. For students who are worried about their expenses or students who typically don’t eat until 7 p.m., these options aren’t accessible.
Eating balanced and nutritious meals every day is one of the most important ways of improving physical health as well as mental health. Although the chicken strips will always have a special place in my heart, I do think it’s time I get a little more creative. That’s only if I can make it to the Caf before those options are taken away.

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