Walking into a typical university dining center, one might expect to be greeted by a barrage of the sights and smells of unhealthy foods. The dining centers at Oregon State University, however, have taken a direct initiative to ensure healthy, nutritional options for students through providing education and dining center meals.
“We want to teach individuals that live with us some of those lifelong skills that they’ll need to be healthy,” said Tara Sanders, a registered dietitian and the assistant director of nutrition and sustainability at University Housing and Dining Services. “We try to teach skills and recipes that they can duplicate in the residence halls using products either from the dining center or from our stores.”
UHDS offers a number of cooking classes while the university as a whole ensures students have nutrition education.
As part of the Baccalaureate Core requirements for Oregon State University, students are required to take a lifetime fitness for health course, HHS 231, or an equivalent. One of the focuses in HHS 231 is on nutrition and the proper way to construct a healthy diet.
“We do about 40 percent physical activity promotion and then 40 percent of nutrition education,” said Dr. Erica Woekel, the director of the Lifetime Fitness for Health Program. “The other 20 is stress management, behavior change, that kind of mental health stuff.”
A large number of students taking HHS 231 and receiving this education are freshmen living in the dorms, as required by OSU’s First Year Experience Program.
As an professor of HHS 231, Woekel does believe eating healthily in the OSU dining centers is a possibility. However, she also said it can be difficult.
“I also think there are a lot of competing temptations within a dining hall with how food is positioned and the cost of certain foods,” Woekel said. “I think it becomes really difficult, especially for people living in dorms as freshmen—primarily who I work with—because they are kind of navigating that all for the very first time and they’re trying to figure out what actually is healthy.”
Woekel also said that while UHDS does offer some nutritious and healthy options, nutrition is not always the most motivating factor for students when they decide what to eat.
“There are a lot of great things in the dining center. But, sometimes it does take a little bit of effort and time and planning,” Woekel said. “I think sometimes when you’re hungry or have a very busy schedule, you kind of go into the dining center like, ‘what looks good? What smells good?’ So, even though we would hope that they have a bit more planning that goes into food choice, that’s not always the case.”
Sanders also mentioned that student food choice is often motivated by things other than their nutritional value.
“Taste is the top motivator for consumption,” Sanders said. “If it doesn’t taste good, they’re not going to eat it.”
According to Woekel, this preference for specific, less-nutritious foods is something that develops as a result of eating a less-nutritious diet.
“Unfortunately we tend to have a high sugar diet in our society, so we tend to get foods that are high in sugar, high in fat, and then our taste buds become accustomed to those things,” Woekel said. “Then the idea of moderation is hard because they’re accustomed to sugary things and maybe they don’t want to eat things like vegetables—broccoli, dark leafy greens, those kinds of things—because they don’t like them as much.”
Because of this, Sanders said UHDS tries to make food that looks good, so that students will eat it, while also containing some healthier aspects.
“That’s the angle we’re taking with nutrition,” Sanders said. “We want it to be appealing. That’s what’s going to incentivize.”
UHDS does this by changing some of the ingredients in traditionally less-healthy foods, so that they will still look and taste good while being slightly healthier, according to Sanders.
“We start with healthy ingredients,” Sanders said. “Even if you’re getting a burger, you’re still getting health benefits there. We have a whole grain bun that everyone gets.”
According to Jay Perry, a chef de cuisine at Marketplace West Dining Center, the chefs try to keep a balance in mind as much as possible when it comes to the freshness, taste and nutrition of their meals and ingredients.
“Fresh, flavor and nutrition are all right there at the top,” Perry said. “We don’t compromise one for the other. All three aspects come into play as best as we can.”
In order to do this, Sanders and the chefs work together to create new ideas for upping the nutritional aspects of the dining centers while still keeping the students happy.
“Tara introduces the thought,” Perry said. “And then we discuss it and as chefs it’s our job to turn it into something students will like. We don’t get it right all the time.”
According to Sanders, UHDS even gave pizza, which is often considered one of the unhealthier food options, a healthy nudge by adjusting the crust.
“All of our pizza crust and calzone dough is made in-house and with a whole grain blend,” Sanders said.
In addition to changing the ingredients in a lot of the meals offered in the dining halls, Sanders said the portion sizes have been minimized as well.
“We’ve shrunk things down a bit,” Sanders said. “We’ve done a lot for portion size control.”
UHDS even incorporates small, healthier changes in the kinds of drinks students choose. Although though the typical soda and juice options are still available in the dining centers, large jugs of drinking water are also on prominent display for student use.
“We just try to make water really accessible because we just want it to be the number one choice,” Sanders said.
Furthermore, UHDS has implemented some self-serve stations, like a salad bar and a smoothie bar, which allow students to control and shape healthier options into something that better fits their preferences.
“Largely what we try to do is make things to order,” Sanders said. “Things that are made in the moment the customer can design. They get to design their food based on their preferences. That choice factor is huge.”
Woekel also suggests placing a focus on how planning meals before going into the dining center can be a powerful way to increase nutrition.
“Just thinking about it, it’s almost like the visualization or dreaming of what you’re going to eat,” Woekel said. “That kind of gets you more excited about what you’re eating. But, also then you make better choices because you’re not as swayed by things like smell. So it becomes more empowering for an individual.”
To learn more about what options are available in the dining centers, the full menus and nutritional panels for each dining center are available at http://uhds.oregonstate.edu/menus. Students looking to get more personal feedback on their diet and nutrition can contact Sanders through UHDS or schedule a free appointment to meet with a dietitian through Student Health Services.