by Aaron Betancourt
I’ll never forget my first time stepping into the ultimate dining hall. It was a hot August afternoon when I was exhausted from a full day of shopping and setting up my dorm. As I walked across campus from the Boathouse to the Vaughn Center, food was the only thing on my mind. I briefly glanced at the hall during my college tour earlier that year, but entering it for the first time was breathtaking. One swipe of my student ID opened the gateways to foodie heaven.
But that dining hall infatuation could have easily led to substantial weight gain infamously known as the “freshman 15” had I not been so health conscious and exercise driven. It’s easy to forget the world and eat while cruising through the cafeteria. Mom and dad aren’t there to control your eating habits and tell you what’s healthy or not for you. But like everything, your eating liberty should not be abused.
According to Dr. Larissa Hirsch on kidshealth.org, students typically gain three to 10 pounds during their first two years of college, primarily during their first semester. No one is saying it is bad to indulge once a week or treat yourself to a blizzard at DQ after midterms. It is also important to plan a regular exercise schedule, drink plenty of water and eat a balanced diet. You should not eat a midnight dinner from the grill everyday. A poor diet and lack of exercise can increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cancer. While you want to keep up those grades and enjoy college, you also want to think about what you feed your body.
Some of my self-disciplined dieting habits are eating fresh vegetables whenever they are served in the caf or in my pasta at Pandini’s. I don’t go near the desert section of the caf to resist temptation and eat yogurt with fruit for desert. Controlling portion sizes can be very hard at the all-you-can eat dining hall, but with enough willpower you can do it. You can also try limiting how many times you visit a certain facility. For example, only eat one burrito per week as opposed to three. Take advantage of one of the few times in your life where you will have a free gym membership. You shouldn’t go to the gym to look like Vin Diesel, but to stay healthy and keep your body active. Avoid late-night eating, but if you are up late studying or doing homework eat an apple or carrots as your munchie rather than cookies.
It may be hard to control yourself but ask yourself, “do I want my senior picture to look like I’ve gained 50 pounds in four years?” My high school biochemistry teacher once told me, “you can never drink too much water or eat enough fruits and veggies.” I’ve kept that saying with me all these years later.
But my first time eating at the dining hall was definitely one of my most memorable moments at UT. There was so much variety that I didn’t know where to look first. The make-your-own salad, fruit, yogurt and soup bar reassured me there were healthy options. I was happy they had exactly what I like in my salad. Romaine lettuce, carrots, croutons, onions and balsamic vinaigrette dressing. These options may seem simple but there are plenty of other options. On the other side there was a plethora of fruits including the bananas and apples I no longer had to buy from Publix since they were up for grabs at the cafeteria. Thank you dining services.
That was just an appetizer.
Right across from the salad bar was the deli. All the the fresh and nicely cut sandwich meat was neatly stacked. There was sliced bread, rolls and a variety of wraps. Seeing the sandwich press made me feel like there was an on-campus Panera or Au Bon Pain with panini-style sandwiches. The deli contributed to my sandwich routine of eating chips as my side, cousin of the classic combo of burgers and fries. However, the deli and salad bar were the “safe options” of the cafe. I was about to walk through the heart of the dining hall.
The international section reminds me of the restaurant Hibachi. Though it was only one option, I liked that they cook the food in front of you. It’s better to know where your food comes from and how it is prepared. It was the scent of the classic section that lured me in. The smell of fresh food coming out of the kitchen was like being at home and being the first one served dinner. Smelling the seasoning made me wonder what ingredients the chefs used. Watching the women cut the meat in the balance way section made my mouth water from how tender it looked. Unlike a restaurant, I wasn’t ordering food that I read from a menu description, or saw in an image. The food was in front of me.
I was more enamored when I came across three of my favorite foods: pasta, hamburgers and french fries. My carnivorous taste buds jumped up in glee at the fact that I was able to take as many burgers as I wanted. “My stomach may experience a carb fest,” I thought to myself with all the pasta, french fries and sandwich bread in mind. I was pleased to see vodka sauce at the pasta station, something that I’d find lacking in Pandini’s. Of course, my inner carnivore prevailed and I happily enjoyed two hamburgers topped with sliced pickles, red onions and ketchup with a whole plate of fries. All the move-in stress and pre-semester worries sailed off into the sunset.
I couldn’t forget the sweetest part of the day. As I walked in front of the desert section I was convinced I stepped into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. I should call it the “Sugar Rush Central.” All the chocolate cake slices, brownies and cookies made my inner chocolate lover go bonkers. I couldn’t decide between cake slices, brownies, cookies or one of everything and there was about the usual ten options. By that point I wasn’t sure if my eyes had turned into two hearts like an emoji. I never thought I’d have bakery style pastries as desert options. I instantly knew where to go while I was feeling stressed during finals week. If all that wasn’t enough, the soft-serve ice cream was a substitute.
Aaron Betancourt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org