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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Rubin

The Cafeteria's Curse: How to Navigate Clean Eating at school

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is "How do I eat clean in my school cafeteria?". As high schoolers, we spend the majority of our time at school, and some of us are not lucky enough to pack a lunch, so we have to cope with *shudder* cafeteria food. Generally, school cafeterias are not the healthiest of places. They are usually serving fried, breaded, and artificially sweetened foods. So, the question is, how do you build a meal that is healthy, but is not simply a pile of lettuce or a piece of fruit? Well, like any balanced meal, we have to try and eat something from each food category.


Protein is the most important part of a meal, it is the food group that fills you up and builds muscle. Now, at best, some cafeteria meat is sketchy. I am not going to tell you to eat that if you have no idea what animal it actually is. However, if you don't feel comfortable eating that meat, protein can be found in a number of different foods. For example, garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and other legumes such as kidney beans, black beans, and pinto beans, all have a substantial amount of protein to keep you full. If you're in the mood, add some garbanzo beans to a salad, or try to find some less suspicious looking deli meat. Best case scenario, your school cafeteria serves chicken breast some days. Chicken breast is super boring, but if you add it to a chopped salad of your own creation, it is pretty good.


Vegetables are great when it comes to adding the true nutrient factor of your meal. Plus, depending on the vegetable, they are filling. One vegetable that is common in cafeteria's is edamame, which is great for your heart and tastes great as well. Carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, and zucchini can be found either cooked or raw in most cafeterias. Adding these to a meal helps bring up the nutritional quality and substance of your lunch.


As I speak about in my article "The Truth about Carbs", healthy carbs are an essential part of any meal. Steer clear from the white bread section and find yourself some brown rice, quinoa, faro, sweet potato, or corn to add to your meal. This is a crucial step in creating a good, filling lunch that gives you energy for the rest of the day.


A lot of nutritionists will say stay clear of dairy, but with my experience dairy is a very healthy food group in moderation. If dairy causes you problems however, and you are lactose intolerant, don't consume it. I like to add a sprinkle of cheddar cheese to a salad or soup to give it something extra.


Ah, this is my favorite part of any meal. Most cafeteria's have a substantial amount of fruit because it is cheap and easy to access. My favorite thing to do is pair a apple with peanut butter (or sun-butter) to put on the side of my meal, it works just like a dessert!

Things to stay clear of:

Cereal and milk- this is the worst idea when it comes to having lunch and breakfast as well. Cereal is plain carbs and sugar with no nutritional value. This meal will likely make you crave carbs and sugar all day, no matter how low in calories it is.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches-

Don't get me wrong, I used to love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But unfortunately, unless you use a healthy bread, a no sugar added jelly and peanut butter, this meal is just the same as cereal, only more calories. Though the peanut butter has protein, the unhealthiness of the bread and the jelly will cancel out the sandwich as a nutritional meal.

How to deal with food cravings at school:

I am not going to lie, french fries and fried chicken smell pretty damn good. The fact is you may find yourself staring at your friends plates and craving that delicious aroma. Train your mind to look at french fries not as a delicious meal, but rather as something that will lead to clogged arteries and extra fat, all of which is true.

Remember this as a rule of thumb for food: It's not about the calories, it's about the nutritional value. Keep that in mind everyday you go to school.

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