If there's one thing everyone complains about at Emerson, it's our meal plan. The quality of food is awful (one student was served a piece of meat that seemed to have arteries still intact...), the cleanliness of several dining facilities has been called into question, and although Sodexo tries to spice it up with "international" foods, the variety is severely lacking. The idea of staying healthy on the Emerson meal plan seems laughable.
At the end of last year I made the choice to eat healthier, adopting a highly plant-based diet and suddenly everything I thought was daunting about my meal plan became so much worse. But I was not about to cave and go back to my nutritious meal of party sized bag of chips, Ben & Jerry's pint, or curly fries with a side of mozzarella sticks! So gradually I made a system to help me stay healthy on the Emerson meal plan.
How To Start
The most helpful way to start down the path of staying healthy on the Emerson meal plan is to buy one (or two) of those green boxes. If you have access to a refrigerator these can be a Godsend. Use these to stock up on veggies, legumes, and grains that you can take back to your dorm and compile into a healthy salad or bowl, then store what you don't use in your refrigerator to save up on DH swipes and time.
You should be aware of all of the dining services that Emerson has to offer and know that they all give you access to fruits and teas (which are both super awesome for overall health). Also note that by going to the Sodexo My Way site you are able to obtain access to nutritional facts (kinda scary) as well as a means of giving feedback/suggestions.
If you can read the ingredients on something, do it. Know what you're putting into your body.
Now that you've got your little green box it's time to take a trip to the infamous DH. Treat this like going to the grocery store, go first to see what vegetables and legumes they have at the salad bar, then check if they have any entrees that don't look coated in oils, salts, sugars, or sauces (they will also have nutrition facts on display). If it's baked potato night get the potato with a little bit of shredded cheese.
Walk over to the Vegan Station, check out the vegetable and grain situation over there, then make your decision. Are you willing (and able) to cook your own vegetables? If yes, grab as many raw, un-tainted vegetables as possible, go back to your common room's stove/microwave, and boil/steam what you feel needs to be cooked to eat (learn how here).
If you do not have the time/drive to cook the veggies yourself, take them to the DH steamer or have the person at the Vegan Station cook them for you. But be careful with the Vegan Station. Oftentimes it may feel like you're in control, but then you get a huge bowl of overly sauced veggies and not so tasty grains. Plus, if you want to put the liquidy concoction in your box you won't have room for much else.
Now that you've gotten your ingredients it's time to grab some fruit. If you're just not feeling the salad/grain bowl that day it is often possible to make a decent wrap at the deli section. Ask them to spread some hummus on a whole wheat wrap and pick out some veggies (you can bring them some from other parts of the DH).
If you're in the DH for breakfast you'll notice that your options are very limited. You could go for toast (if they ever got a decent whole wheat/grain bread), but if you do stay away from that shady jelly and butter at the salad bar (same goes with the yogurt). None of that stuff should be sitting out all day and you have no clue where it's coming from.
Re-direct yourself to the Egg Station, but take caution. Those pre-made eggs are gross and you know it. If you ask them for fresh eggs they will give you the different colored version. I've learned that you have to ask for a specific number of eggs to get them to actually crack eggs into the pan. Once you've gotten them to do this, pick your veggies and tell them what you want them to do.
Wow, look at you! You took a trip to the DH and completely ignored the grill station, cereal, and pizza (if you're going to eat pizza you deserve to eat good pizza). Guess what, those crampy feelings you felt before from the DH are a thing of the past.
If you want to see more of something, or have something made a certain way you can always leave them a napkin note.
Einsteins (Or Em Caf)
I tried to find something healthy to eat there and got the Veg Out sandwich with the shmear on the side (they are notorious for putting too much). They did not put it on the side and instead of telling me they didn't have the multi grain bread it was supposed to be on, put it on a sesame seed bagel. The veggies were essentially the same ones I could pick up at the DH.
This lack of adhering to special requests is something that this place has become infamous for and I think that there truly are much better options for getting a quick, board bucks friendly meal without having to be wasteful. The only reason I could see for going here is if you can't find nice fruit anywhere else on campus.
The C Store is a tricky place if you're trying to practice self restraint. If you don't like junk food there honestly isn't much to work with. I know they put out all those health snacks, but here's the thing: health snacks are still junk food. Those snapea crisps are actually mushed up snapeas mixed with a bunch of other stuff and reformed into a snapea shape. The only two health snacks I would recommend are the That's It fruit bars and the sea salt Smart Food popcorn.
It seems that they're trying to bring new things into the C Store (of course that also meant bringing in vending machine pastries, deceitfully marketed vegan ice cream, and Nesquik products). Just keep on reading the nutrition facts and ingredients on everything, and honestly stick to the fruit.
If you really want to use those board bucks TruMoo is a decent chocolate milk (which can be good for you), flavored seltzer water is a good means of weaning yourself off of soda, and some Kind Bars really make a great snack if you need a bit of extra energy.
At first glance, the Max seems like an awesome place, with a variety of items, but in all honestly it is only a little bit better than Einstein's when it comes to staying healthy on the Emerson meal plan. (Read 7 Reasons Never to Eat at the Max to see why). But don't worry, there are still a few valuable resources.
The Max consistently has bananas (yes, they are often in poor quality, but you can rely on them being there). I've actually gotten the most delicious apples that I've ever managed to find on campus from the Max. They always have a wide variety of milk (including soy milk) and yogurts. Not all of the yogurts are super healthy, but on most days you can find plain Greek yogurt (a great source of protein and a good alternative to mayo or sour cream, try it out).
There are several boxed salads that you could deconstruct to make much better salads or bowls with. The fruit cups are a good option for breakfast or if you have a sweet tooth. They also have a really nice selection of Tazo teas. As for the hummus... I'm honestly not really sure why they're allowed to sell Sabra after so many recalls, but hummus is great with veggies and on sandwiches so it's up to you.
Surprisingly enough, Pcaff is beginning to have the potential to become the place for eating healthy on the Emerson meal plan. It all started with the emergence of Mindful Sodexo where some initiative was made on their part to bring more healthful items to Pcaff and the Max (it's really not as prominent at the Max though).
I was pleasantly surprised one day to see that they had a whole bunch of specials (which are a bit pricey, but come on, are you really using your board bucks on much else?). I asked them to make a few substitutions and ended up with the most wonderful portabella sandwich with red peppers and a nice relish on toasted whole grain bread. I think I almost cried.
What this means is that they are testing out a bunch of new types of food to see what they should integrate and are looking for students to buy these specials and give them feedback. Unfortunately, it appears that most people are ignoring these specials so there is a very uncertain future for the consistency of real food.
Lately they've had hummus for a sort of Mediterranean wrap. Pair that with a whole wheat tortilla and the available veggies and you have the perfect ingredients to make a wonderfully healthy wrap.
As for the stir fry, you can ask them to cook it in water instead of oil, tell them you don't want the seasoning (it makes it way too salty), and ask for light or no sauce and you get a decent enough meal. It's a big portion, and not very flavorful, but even if you make it with soy sauce or stir fry sauce it still is not that tasty. Maybe I just haven't figured it out yet, but as long as the specials are going on, I'm happy not ordering it.
The majority of the good things you can find at The Max are also here (soy milk, yogurt, teas, fruit cups, etc) but the fruit selection typically isn't as great. And it's wrapped in saran wrap for some reason, so I guess if you need some saran wrap buy an apple from Pcaff.
Let's Get Some Food!
So, it's time for you to go out into the world of Emerson dining with a new mindset. You CAN get a good meal today and you deserve it! Hopefully more changes will begin to be made, but until then it is still completely possible to give yourself the satisfaction of a good, healthy meal.