So you’ve chosen to track your calories, whether it be for the gains, weight management, or just general health. But now you’re standing in front of the buffet in your dining hall with large containers of food, making it seemingly impossible to track anything. Before you panic, not all hope is lost. You can still stay on track with these helpful tips.

1. Do Some Research

Valentin Rublack

Many universities list nutrition data on their website. Not only can you find out the amount of calories in your dining hall food, but also the amount of carbs, fat, protein, and sometimes several micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals.

As to the accuracy of this data, some universities make a pretty big effort to ensure this, sometimes employing people whose entire job it is to make sure the meal preparation and portion sizes are consistent. 

2. Be Aware Of Your Portion Size

Valentin Rublack

For items that don't have clearly-defined portions, such as cooked vegetables and grains (because there's no such thing as "1 rice"), see if you can find out the volume of the dishes that you use in the dining hall, such as scoops, plates, or bowls. The latter works best for portioning since you can fill them to a certain volume more clearly.

Keep in mind, though, that one ounce of solid food rarely equals one fluid ounce, so see if the nutritional data is also listed in a known unit of volume like cups, fluid ounces, or milliliters. If it’s not on the website, you can look up the nutrition facts on other sites like Fatsecret, MyFitnesspal, or Google.

For example, if you fill up your bowl with rice and the bowl size is one cup, googling “rice nutrition” will tell you that one cup of cooked rice is equal to 206 Calories, and this data is derived from the USDA National Nutrient Database.

3. Not All Foods Are Created Equal

Kristine Mahan

Neither from a health perspective, nor from a tracking perspective. Foods like bread, chicken breasts, or apples often come in relatively uniform portions. They often arrive prepackaged at the dining halls, meaning that the nutritional data is fairly precise. In many cases, calories listed on the website will refer to those portions as "one apple" or "one chicken breast."

4. Bring a Scale

Valentin Rublack

Take a small kitchen scale with you to weigh out your portion sizes. Pulling out a scale is just a matter of seconds, and once you know how many grams of rice your bowl holds, you don't have to repeat the process next time. There are very lightweight and inexpensive scales like this one that you can carry around in your backpack discreetly.

5. Learn How to Eyeball

Jane Xie

Once you've measured out your portion sizes a few times, you will start to get fairly good at gauging them with precision. So if you don't always want to bring your scale to the dining hall, you can simply rely on eyeballing after a while to get a reasonably precise estimate. However, be aware of the fact that your judgement may shift over time, so go back to more precise methods every once in a while.

6. Track Your Weight

Bathroom scale

Magnus D on Flickr

Weigh yourself every morning and take the average over a week. Are you gaining or losing weight at a rate that you didn’t expect? This probably means that your tracking has a certain bias. But don’t worry, as long as that bias is consistent, you can simply adjust your calorie goal. Do this instead of trying to figure out why your calorie counting is off – it’s much easier.

A good rule of thumb is that for every 500 Calories below your maintenance level, you would lose about one pound of body weight per week, and vice versa. However, know that at the beginning of a new diet, the majority of lost or gained weight can be water, so don't jump to any rash conclusions.

7. Ask Your Dining Hall Dietitian

Most universities have an on-campus dietitian available to educate students about nutrition in and outside of the dining hall. Try scheduling an appointment, because they can probably tell you accurate information on the quantities and quality of your dining hall food, as well as offer other valuable health tips and insights. It's always better to have a professional opinion.