Dear Mark: College Meal Plan

Today’s Dear Mark is a fun one. The question comes from a college student saddled with a lackluster meal plan. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t Primal in the slightest. Worst of all, it’s obligatory, meaning she has no choice but to pay for all this food she doesn’t want to eat. Since I find this pretty appalling, I tried to help the student with a letter to the director of food service explaining what changes can and should be made to make the meal plan healthier. The changes I propose aren’t going to catch any of you off guard, but I tried to make them as palatable for someone who isn’t steeped in this stuff as I could.

Okay, enough blathering. Let’s just get to the question:

Dear Mark,

I am sending this message in order to ask your advice on how to navigate asking the college I attend to make changes to their food service in a more Paleo friendly manner. The school I go to is rather rigid with their meal plans, most students are forced to live on campus and are automatically signed up for the meal plan. A few friends of mine and I, are getting together to write a letter to the director of food service as well as the president about making some major changes to the meals they provide with the obligatory meal plan. Mostly I am asking for advice on how you would feel the best way to argue our case to these authority figures would be. In the letter we will be sending (and hopefully subsequent meetings), I want to maintain a level of respect for their positions as well as laws and policies regarding food service, but I am not so certain as to how willing they will be to admit flaws in the food they provide for students. Really any advice you can give would be helpful.

Thank you,


This is going to be tricky. You obviously can’t just come out and start calling for grains to be stricken from the menu or for grass-fed meat to be added, and I would recommend against demanding for the saturated fat content of meals to be increased across the board or even mentioning the words “paleo” or “Primal.” As is always the case when you’re proposing something as radical and farfetched as eating animals and plants, you need to be sneaky about how you go about doing it. And because you’re dealing with the head honchos, whose “authority” you are essentially questioning and whose egos may need coddling, you need to be even sneakier. I’m all for blatantly calling folks out, but you’re going to be eating what they provide for at least a couple years and you don’t want to turn them off right away. I do it here on MDA, but you don’t quite have that luxury (yet).

I’d write something like this:

Dear (insert titles and names here),

With the university meal plan being obligatory for students, we urge you to reconsider the composition and nutritional content of the meals. Our extensive research has concluded that the meal plan lacks an appropriate nutrient profile to support the intellectual rigor required to thrive in the university environment, and we have found it unable to foster our scholastic progress. As students immersed in an academic environment that demands diligence, boundless energy, and enthusiasm, we need to feed our brains and our bodies better nutrition. How we handle these four years at school will determine, in large part, how the rest of our lives and future careers play out, and access to better nutrition will give us the best chance at success. If we’re obligated to pay for the university meal plan, it’s only right that we get some say in determining the composition of that plan.

We have several suggestions that would go a long way toward making the university meal plan healthier, tastier, and more nutritious than current offerings:

1. A wider variety of unprocessed produce.

Vegetables and fruit provide several essential factors for optimal health: minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and soluble fiber. Minerals serve as building blocks for physiological structures (likes bones, teeth), hormones (like testosterone and thyroid hormone), and neurotransmitters. Without ample minerals in the diet, our bodies and our brains don’t work very well. Vitamins are vital compounds that play extremely important roles in mineral metabolism, tissue regeneration and growth, and digestive enzyme production. Antioxidants, found in colorful fruits and vegetables, help our bodies reduce oxidative damage and lower the risk of debilitating diseases. Providing both raw, steamed, and roasted produce in the form of leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and colorful fruits will ensure proper mineral, vitamin, and antioxidant intake.

Leafy greens include spinach, romaine lettuce, kale, chard, and collard greens.

Crucifers include broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.

Colorful produce includes blueberries, raspberries, red cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, beets, bell peppers, strawberries, blackberries, and pomegranates.

2. Offer an unprocessed animal protein source.

Humans are natural omnivores. We require protein to build muscle, but it also serves other, just as important uses. Amino acids, of which protein is composed, break apart upon digestion and participate in many vital metabolic processes. Amino acids also provide structure for cells, and they are involved in cellular communication. Low protein diets can lead to muscle wasting, low energy, and fat gain. Higher protein preserves lean mass while limiting fat gainProtein is also extremely satiating, while a lack of protein in the diet can cause overeating.

There is always a meat source available at meal times, but rarely is it fresh and unprocessed. Burgers, pizza, and pasta with meat sauce are not equivalent to a pot roast or a roast chicken. We would like the option of eating meat without having to deal with a starchy, grain-based carbohydrate at the same time. Beef, lamb, chicken, pork, and fish are all excellent meat sources.

3. Offer tubers as a starch source.

Bread is nice for the students who want it, but seeing as how the incidence of sensitivity and intolerance to wheat is growing, grain-free options must be available to students. While grains are a cheap source of calories, they also carry a host of anti-nutrients that reduce mineral absorption, aggravate the intestinal lining, and cause inflammatory conditions. We would argue that potatoes, squashes, and sweet potatoes are just as inexpensive and calorie-rich but far more nutritious and absent the anti-nutrients present in grains. Many people, including us, are intolerant of or sensitive to grains, but very few have problems with potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Instead of solely serving pasta, bread, rice, and beans, offer potatoes, sweet potatoes, and/or squash.

4. Cook with olive oil or any other fat high in monounsaturated fat. Stop using soybean, corn, or canola oils.

Although they are inexpensive, soybean, corn, canola, and other vegetable/seed oils are excessively high in polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids. Experts suggest that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats is way out of whack in the Western diet and partially responsible for many of the chronic diseases (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer) that plague us today. It’s impossible to reach the desired omega-3:omega-6 ratio of 1 if everything is cooked in high-omega-6 oils. Omega-6 fats accumulate in our tissues and are highly inflammatory. Furthermore, polyunsaturated fatty acids are unstable in the presence of heat, and cooking oxidizes them and renders the oils unhealthy and inflammatory. Extended cooking at high heats can even produce trans-fatty acids, which have been strongly linked to heart disease.

Monounsaturated (and saturated) fats are more resistant to heating. A recent Spanish study found that eating fried foods had no relationship to heart disease or all-cause mortality; in Spain, the oils typically used for frying are olive oil, high-oleic sunflower oil, and high-stearic sunflower oil.

Healthier options lower in omega-6 fats include olive oil, coconut oil, high-oleic sunflower oil, high-oleic safflower oil, and high-stearic sunflower oil.

5. Offer seafood a couple times per week.

While it’s important to reduce our intake of omega-6 fats, it’s also important to increase our intake of omega-3 fatty acids. The richest source of omega-3s is seafood: wild-caught fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel; farm-raised fish like trout; and both farmed and wild shellfish like mussels, clams, and oysters. In addition to omega-3 fats, seafood also provides important minerals like iodine and selenium, as well as high amounts of protein.

Serving fish or shellfish twice a week will improve the student body’s omega-3 intake.

These five simple changes have the potential to transform the health, happiness, and productivity of the student body. While implementing all five might slightly increase costs, implementing just one or two for now – changing the oils and offering more produce and protein, for example – will make a huge difference without breaking the bank. Besides, this is our health we’re talking about. This is our future we’re working toward. We don’t – we shouldn’t – want to take any shortcuts in this area.

Thank you for your time. We would like to arrange a formal meeting to discuss this matter further.


(Your names here)

That’s what I’ve got. It should give you a nice starting point. I stuck to research links, rather than links to “some guy’s blog.” I don’t know the exact situation with your meal plan, but based on what I’ve experienced and what I’ve heard from others, those five points should cover most of it. Assuming this will be a printed letter, I’d recommend that you annotate the text as you go and include a list of references at the bottom. If it’s an email, go ahead and include the hyperlinks. If there’s anything else I can do to help, let me know.

In the meantime, let’s have everyone else chime in. I know we have a ton of students out there, who are undoubtedly more intimately experienced with college meal plans than I am, so go ahead and give Emily your input. Let’s get a good brainstorm session going and see what we can come up with!

Thanks for reading!

TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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71 thoughts on “Dear Mark: College Meal Plan”

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  1. i think the oil thing is the most important here, as it’s the thing that affects everything. at least at my school i could make do between the salad bar and various cooked meats or omelettes for breakfast, and the random veggies they had… usually it was self serve so you could pick and choose and actually do pretty well all things considered.

    now, how it tasted… well, that’s another matter.

    1. I agree with the importance of getting the cooking oil changed. One thing I would be interested in learning is how much of a difference in cost would the school absorb by switching to other oils. I would assume they can get veggie oil and all the other crap oils for pretty cheap.

  2. Great resource! We see posts like that from students in the Forum all the time.

    It would also be great for someone to adapt to company cafeterias and other similar settings. Or for teens to use in talking to their parents. Or even adults negotiating with non-primal partners, housemates, etc.


  3. The canteen at my university serves some miserable junk. Even the items in the salad bar are covered in vegetable oils and whatnot. I know it’s no help but luckily there is no program like that at my uni, how about adding in something like: because we feel that taking part in the program as it currently stands poses no benefit to us we would request a cessation of this service provided to us and a refund for the monies we paid for it. While you are on campus there is the intermittent fasting option or bringing a packed lunch.

  4. Mark:

    It would also be beneficial to our Nation’s security and the general population if such an effort were directed at the Defense Department. The diet and menus developed by DoD are the basis for dietary guidelines put out by other governmental agencies. Change DoD’s culture on this issue, and you will see a corresponding change in culture at Agriculture, Education, etc.

    Keep on with your good work. The info on this blog has made a dramatic difference for the good in my quality of life. I find it nothing less than miraculous how my aches and pains and general malaise have disappeared in such a short time.

    1. Totally agree! My “going Primal” buddy works for the DoD. He has complained for some time about the awful mandatory social events where horrendous so-called “food” is served.

      In more recent times, one of his responsibilities has been to actually procure this “food”. They give him a list. When we first went primal I asked him about this situation. He said something like “Oh, well – its just part of the job and I don’t eat that stuff anyway. I allow my team members to skip these events when possible”, and so on like that.

      Then, his attitude shifted to becoming more and more disgusted and outraged about “the poison” (his exact words) that is being fed to the DoD employees. Now he is about to take a stand on the issue with his boss.

      So, once again, Mark, thank you for a very timely and helpful post.

    2. Agreed – I’m in the Army and food in the dining facilities (state side and deployed) is awful at best. Hard task to “forage” through the omega-6 oil laden junk, processed junk, pseudo-meat products, etc. to find good food. I have attempted to educate who I can but usually works out like the foloowing story.

      There is always a large vat of melted butter (yes real butter) next to the syrup. I once requested the cook to use this readily available ghee to cook my eggs and was promtly denied by the dining facility manager becuase my request did not meet the “healthy eating guidelines” established by the DoD. They proceeded to cook my eggs in soybean oil. Fortunatly I now eat at home and pack a lunch 95% of the time.

  5. While I never participated in a meal plan when I was in school, I work at a university and am very impressed with the eating options at the dining commons. We occasionally go there to eat and, while there is always the usual pizza and burgers, they always have a meat option and seafood option with various veggies. They also have a sushi bar where you can request sashimi and a stir fry station where they cook your meal in front of you. They use canola oil but will steam it instead on request. Add to that a huge salad bar and the fact that they use local produce as much as possible, and the students here likely have a better opportunity to eat healthfully on campus than they ever would at home. I hope they take advantage of it!

  6. This is by far the best post I have seen here in a long time (not to say all the other posts are not great as well). So much information and so well presented this can be a letter to a college, work cafeteria or a even a high school!

    1. If I feel inclined enough I might use this to help me write and send dietary recommendations to the two rehabs I went to. Apparently one of the rehabs has influenced policy changes in Canada (regarding what exactly, I’m unaware) due to surveys from the clients. Both rehabs usually had adequate decent food but if it’s possible to get them to serve more primal fare a lot of people could benefit. The first one I went to didn’t provide salt because someone sniffed some when they did provide it so after staying in the program for 3 and a half months I have rarely wanted to add salt to my food. My palate changed for the better.
      The first month of the program was a hiking trip through nature so it was very minimalist and the activity was primal.

  7. I haven’t read the whole post yet but reading Mark’s second paragraph snidely promoting expedience was a pleasure.

  8. Extremely well-written and highly useful for other applications! Thanks!

  9. I’m not sure the snide intro is going to play well. Rather than arguing for across-the-board changes, I’d argue for alternatives that accommodate the five items you listed. One could also imply that a refusal to meet the request while compelling participation in the meal plan would be considered unacceptable and that legal action could be pursued. Also, at a minimum, the cafeteria should publish the ingredients used in every recipe so students can avoid those to which they are allergic or intolerant–or just don’t want to eat.

    1. I basically agree with your approach, even though “snide” would not be the word that I would choose, as I’ve already stated (below). Maybe, “arrogant” or “condescending” would be the perceptions that I’d be concerned about being made by university admin.

  10. Did someone mention Primal/Paleo college students…? 😀

    Great letter template, Mark. Having talked with some campus dining admins, I can say that menus are typically done on a yearly basis, and as such are contracted to food suppliers on a yearly basis as well. So, immediate large-scale changes aren’t likely for the majority of cases. But more minor changes (e.g., unprocessed meat choice: just leave off the sauce, or grill/roast, etc.) can be effected rather easily if you make a solid case for it and have support from others.

  11. Reading the OP, I am highly suspicious that s/he is talking about MY alma mater, since we were a small residential college where living on campus was the norm and the meal plan was required (although the few people who were able to live off campus could still be on the meal plan, so it boggled our minds that it couldn’t go the other way).

    I don’t want to get into a finger-pointing-flame-war type thing, but maybe there are paleo/primal alums who will back you up if you get the word out!

  12. Uhh did you go to Connecticut College?? I actually got them to order special Paleo food with my meal plan, but I needed a special note from my doctor about my Crohns.

  13. I was my Uni’s student government president and sat on the Food Service Committee. Our vendor is Sodexo and we have had a lot of success in making them offer healthier options. What Mark said is the perfect scenario as they will always offer Pizza, Pasta, etc – and it would be unfair to limit what other people can eat.

    Our Sodexo offers an omellette bar in the morning in which you can ask for real eggs and butter instead of the canola oil spray.

    In the afternoon the salad bar offers plain cooked chicken, pork, and rarely steak – I’ll often bring a 6oz piece of steak in a plastic bag from my dorm that I cooked on a george foreman the night before. In between meals such as 1PM-4PM they offer an open grill in which they can cook hamburgers, hotdogs, etc. to order. I’ll often order order 3 cheeseburgers with no buns and put them on a big salad.

    Also any college can let you get off the meal plan through the Disabilities office. You simply have to prove that you spoke with Airmarc or Sodexo and they were unable or unwilling to meet with your nutritional needs. You dont need to document any gluten or grain sensitivity and you can get a cash refund for the difference between your Room and Board to buy your own meals.

    1. Sounds like a flexible university when both student government and food service have as much autonomy as you describe. Not all universities have that climate – and from what Emily is saying it sounds like her school may not be that flexible. Also, university disability departments have varied rules about documentation. Not all are as accommodating as yours seems to be.

  14. Please bear in mind that standard college fare is cheap and easy. When you try to change the food available cost is going to be one of their first concerns. You’re going to need several examples of schools who have implemented healthy food plans successfully.

    Humboldt State University in California has a pretty good meal plan that offers options to please vegans and carnivores. They are not perfect, but they prove that fresh food can be cost-effective. (Full disclosure: I graduated from HSU.)

    I have tried the meal plans at several other universities (who shall, in their shame, remain nameless). One university I went to forced you to make only one trip through the buffet per meal to “reduce food waste and food theft”. The “food” was horrible, and some was honestly inedible. Students would pile several plates high trying to find a few dishes worth eating. The trash cans were piled high with uneaten food. The waste was pointless and heartbreaking. Buffets are notorious for large helpings of the poorest quality food. I’d also like to add that this particular school used paper plates and plastic utensils for every single meal, which must have been a huge expense.

    The HSU points system allows their cafeteria to offer higher quality food at a premium. Vegans spend points on organic produce, primal eaters spend points on grass-fed meats and organic veggies, SAD eaters grab bowls pasta or cereal and milk. The HSU cafeteria does offer an array of junk food, but it costs points. I’ve gone through with people on an array of special diets and everyone seemed to be able to find a good meal. Not gourmet, not five star, but worlds better than the buffet garbage served at most other schools I’ve been to.

    I’m sure there are other schools with other plans that still feed students well. Do research, find some other examples proving your idea can work, and then submit your letter. Heck, if you are really serious put together a business plan detailing the changes you suggest. If you do the work for them they are much more likely to say yes.

    Good luck!

    1. Excellent suggestions! Now, this meal plan is evidence that is very much on point for universities, without being threatening. Works in the best interest of all parties.

    2. I was also lucky enough to go to a university with an *awesome* dining hall system (Notre Dame). Students there still complained about the food, but I think they just didn’t realize how good they had it in comparison with most places.

      Each dining hall had six or seven “country” themed stations, along with a big fresh salad, cold cut, and soup bars (and ones for bread, cereals, and desserts, but). The “Homestyle” place always had some kind of tasty meat (pork loin, roast chicken, skirt steak, etc.) and good vegetable choice, breakfast there was always an omelette bar plus egg and meat choices.

      I had no idea about Primal then, so I didn’t eat perfectly, but I tried to eat “how mom taught me” which at least covered the meat and veggie bases. I have to admit I complained too, that everything started to “taste the same” but looking back, having all that stuff prepared and ready for you was awesome. I wish I had taken *better* advantage. Hope the kids now appreciate it more than I did!

  15. Could we also draft a letter to the airlines?

    When booking a flight the other day, I was confronted with the following meal options: Lacto ovo vegetarian, Vegan vegetarian, Vegetarian Hindu, Hindu, Muslim, Jain meal, Kosher, Seafood meal, Child meal, Baby meal, Bland, Diabetic, Fresh fruit platter, Gluten intolerant, Low calorie, Low fat, Low salt, and Low lactose…

    … but no Paleo!

    Sure, we could maybe get by on Gluten Intolerant… but it’s probably some disgusting pastry alternative… and what about the seed oils, and extra saturated fat?

    Who’s with me?

  16. Does the university have a nutrition program/department? Maybe you could get some students and faculty from that area of study interested in doing a project on the food plan. Maybe if the recommendations came with the backing of faculty members the changes would be easier to swallow.

  17. Institutional food is meant to be cheap, which means grain-based (Let them eat cake!). At least in this case Emily is the customer and therefore might have some influence. If she was a mere employee then all she’d get is a smack down. I’m an airline pilot, and for a while my airline was offering pilots a gluten-free meal option for in-flight meals. That’s gone away, due to cost-cutting I presume, and now I’m usually given a pasta meal. My first reaction was that they’re trying to kill me, but then I realised the company is just acting like any employer does.

  18. This is awesome! Thanks, Mark.

    Also, in case anyone is interested, UC Berkeley (Cal) has really great dining commons. Most of the students don’t appreciate it, but every dining common has a salad bar where you can make a big ass salad. Steamed fish is offered once per week. It’s usually tilapia, but sometimes it’s salmon! Scrambled eggs and bacon for brunch…mmm! I’ll admit, it is difficult to get clean sources of protein all day everyday. But they’re definitely improving.

    Everything in Bear/Cub Market is organic, too (except for the condoms). And they offer 70% organic dark chocolate bars…mmm!

  19. I teach at an elementary, and my children go there, as well. I wouldn’t touch what they serve these little people with a ten foot pole. We pack our lunches, but it concerns me that we have a whole host of students on ‘free lunch’ who probably get their only meal of the day at school. Nothing is fresh, and the amount of carbs in one tray is astounding. Canned veggies, processed meats, cheese sauces that contain no real cheese. The saving grace is a lone apple or pear. Sometimes. I’ve spoken with our Superintendent, but it falls on deaf ears. We’re raising another generation of fat, ill, people who are uninformed about nutrition. Sad. Your letter is brilliant, and I wish I could use it to change the school board members’ minds.

    1. Jamie Oliver did a whole series on this very subject – trying to get the schools to serve edible food to the kids instead of cheap garbage. It all came down to the almighty dollar sign — like that’s a big surprise.

      You might enjoy watching the program as well as listening to his TED talk about teaching kids about food. You should be able to find everything by googling Jamie Oliver.

      1. I second your comments,

        Jaime, whilst not primal, showed that a healthy, balanced diet can be provided at the same cost. The benifits to the children, parents and teachers were instant and amazing.

        He is an amazing tool for getting the word out, his rage is awesome. if we could make him go primal, it would be an unstoppable force

  20. Your letter template is great, and I could see it working with various suspicious friends, who wouldn’t read a book, and ardently distrust a blog… It is an excellent expanded nutshell.

  21. My only experience with a college providing meals was at a college in Oregon where I was staying for a 3 day workshop. The food was awful and the choices at troctious especially for someone needing to be gluten free. I had VERY few options and the ‘salad bar’ was the worst I had ever seen – including some fast food restaurants! Good for you trying to improve the food quality, if someone doesn’t try and try again it will never happen!

  22. BRAVO, Mark!!! That was quite a manifesto! And I love how you loosened your usual writing style to still be exact and engaging, while still sounding a little more like a college student. Also love how non-threatening this is. Totally agree that the words “primal” and “paleo” can immediately set people’s hackles up. This reads as completely reasonable. It amazes me that you could write it in a way that stays true to your principles while not sounding starkly threatening to conventional wisdom! Again, I say, Bravo!

  23. Having read the post and the comments, I’d like to remark, as someone with more than a little insight into how university administrators think/act, in general.

    Normally, I have a fairly sensitive “snide” meter – but, I didn’t read the opening paragraph as snide. However, I also don’t know that it would be considered “coddling egos”, especially academic egos.

    There is a fine line between making a solid case based on evidence and coming across as lecturing to the lecturers (as it were). Most university administrators have been professors first and have not entirely lost touch with those roots. While they DO respond well to evidence and a professional demeanor, they don’t respond well to what they perceive as “uppity” students.

    I totally appreciate that the rest of the letter is focused on offering choices. Best way to go, IMO. University administrators do understand equity.

    Its been truly said, that often it takes a law suit to get university policies to change. The US government has three main branches – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. University administrators are fully aware that just because a law is passed that they do not automatically have to step in line and update their policies.

    Laws have to be interpreted and tested in the judicial system before institutions will begin to assimilate them into policy. That process can take years. Universities count on the cyclical and transient nature of the student body as natural deterrent to pursing a law suit.

    So, my advice is to obtain a faculty advisor/mentor who will come on board with your plan and pursue change long term. Show this faculty member your proposed letter and allow him/her to suggest specific changes based on the political climate at the specific university in question.

  24. Great Job Mark! Maybe I’ll use your recomendations to my University here in Portugal as well =D

  25. Awesome Mark! Thanks–I went primal during college, and while I didn’t have a mandatory meal plan, it was difficult at first to see so many “healthy-looking” people eating the crap my school served.
    Wish I had this when I was in school…

  26. A further thought about the opening paragraph…

    University administrators are aware that students – often minors – are entrusted to their care. They are aware that parents like to see their children well cared for while in attendance at university.

    Many universities play on these concerns via their PR – making assurances to families of potential new students, (some true, some not). The origin of mandatory housing and food plans was part of this effort.

    So, to mention that the current meal plan fails to meet student’s needs (as the opening paragraph does) could be perceived as threatening and could backfire. After all, universities go as far as to falsify on campus rape stats and all sort of other damage control. Seriously, damage control is on the curriculum of university administrators.

    This aspect is yet another reason to work with a politically savvy faculty mentor – who might also suggest getting parents involved as well.

  27. Mark,

    I’m speaking from the standpoint of a parent who is paying thousands (!) of dollars for a required meal plan my daughter won’t eat! I know how frustrating this is.

    I think your letter is great, but it is highly unlikely to accomplish the students’ goals. It is asking for a sea change in policy, which I very much doubt will happen, particularly before the end of the school year and in the climate of tight budgets. More seafood? Get real! With the cost of fish these days, the students are going to be lucky if they get fish sticks!

    I think a more practical approach makes sense. Basically, a student is going to have to compromise in order to eat in the dining hall, but the dining hall service administrators can make some very modest and reasonable changes that would address every student with a dietary constraint:

    1. Ingredients for every item should be listed, so that students can make their own decisions about whether or not it fits into their own dietary plan. I’d like to know if there’s flour or sugar in the sauce that coats the chicken, for example. This should be relatively simple, as there is a fixed and rotating meal schedule, and the information already exists, it’s just a matter of communicating it to the students.

    2. Students should be able to ask for and receive unadulterated meat and vegetables—if that chicken has a sweet and carby sauce, I should be able to get a piece without the sauce. If the zucchini is breaded, they should also serve some unbreaded, plain zucchini. Non-starchy vegetables should be offered every lunch and dinner.

    3. The salad bar should offer some protein sources like hard boiled eggs, full fat cheese, tuna, and nuts or seeds, in addition to a nice variety of fresh vegetables and full-fat, sugar-free dressings.

    4. Breakfast should include eggs and “breakfast meats” (bacon, sausage) daily as an option to cereals, breads, pancakes, and pastries.

    5. Plain (ideally full-fat) yogurt should be offered (for those who eat dairy) at every meal.

    I think it’s entirely possible to reach the 80% rule on any student dining plan, as long as the above items are met. However, the student has to do his or her part as well, and it involves some compromise.

    It may not be possible to avoid the PUFA cooking oils. Each student will have to decide if he or she wants to eat something cooked in PUFA, or stick to the uncooked items on the salad bar. It’s not ideal to eat too much PUFA, but it’s for a short period of time, and supplementing the diet with your own Omega 3’s (canned cold water fish, fish oil capsules, flaxmeal, etc) can help lessen the damage by keeping the ratios a little more in balance.

    It is probably impossible to expect grass fed, pastured animal products be served, because of the cost. But eating grain fed animal products is still a big step up from eating the grain directly. Again, supplementing with your own Omega 3 sources is always a good idea, though I know (boy do I know!) it burns to pay so much for the meal plan and STILL have to buy some of your own food.

    I think these suggestions are entirely doable, and benefit a wide group of students, not just those who adopt a paleo/primal/low carb style of eating. It may therefore be possible to get more students on board to petition the dining service to make these simple and inexpensive changes, until the rest of the world catches up to what we know to be the best way to eat.

    Good luck!

  28. While the letter is a good idea please be aware that there are usually ways around this if your parents are willing to go to bat for you (sometimes just having your parents help you make noise can get you a waiver).

    Waivers are usually available for any number of reasons including religious obligations, eater disorders, allergies, intolerances, etc. This might not be the way Emily wants to go but I’m just putting it out there that often there are waivers even for “mandatory” meal plans.

  29. I struggle with the same thing! I have been doing my best to adapt a paleo diet in the University setting and it’s not easy. I think writing to the administration is a great idea. I may try and do the same at my college.

  30. Colleges are responsible for providing students with healthy food choices. Of course, what the students eat is up to them. Many students indulge in what’s bad for them because they can, which results in the “Freshman 15”. In order to avoid it, students need to realize that just because their meals are “all you can eat” that they don’t have to eat it all.

    1. Well, yes. But, the “Freshman 15” has been traditionally linked with campus cafeteria eating. I recall seeing studies that implicated the fattening cafeteria food and mandatory meal plans. If I were Emily, or anyone else in a similar boat, I’d look for such studies using “Freshman 15” as a key term.

  31. I remember the old college meal plans. I believe I could some kind of fried potato product at every meal from fries, tater-tots, or when the smiley pressed fries.

    I don’t miss those days at all. I am pretty sure if you write a letter to the school, you’d be able to get off the forced meal plan and use your money to buy your own healthy food. Tell them you have dietary constraints and can’t handle all the garbage food the cafeterias are putting out.

  32. If this makes it all the way to meetings, you could suggest creating a large student community garden to grow fruits and veggies, which over time would help offset the cost of implementing the other suggestions.

  33. Thanks so much for this Mark. I had the same problem, and demanded that I be taken off this stupid, expensive and forced meal plan if they weren’t going to off things healthy. And you know what? They actually listened! They have a lot of organic options now, a wider variety of produce and even a gluten free section. I’m wish they would offer more vegetables, but that aside, it’s gone pretty well.

  34. I’m a college student on campus too, and I had to fight against a required meal plan as well. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) I went in to have a food sensitivities/ allergies test and it came back with the typical allergies to dairy, wheat, peanuts, and even eggs, lima beans (weird right?) and crab. I was able to be excused from the meal plan and now I cook all my own meals without the bad oils, grains or sugars. Since so many people are sensitive to wheat and dairy, that might be something you can look into. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to documented conditions.
    Hope this helps!

  35. Great letter. I was fortunate as the small private college I attended (a bazillion years ago) was ahead of the game in some respects. They always had a huge salad bar. The ‘scramble’ line had some of the usual suspects like burgers and fries (always wondered if the burgers were real meat or TVP) but also offered some good alternatives. For those of us willing to do the work, there was the option to take turns preparing our own ‘special’ meals such as vegetarian. They provided what we needed. Even better was the Sunday night sit down dinner with large platters of steaks, mashed potatoes, decent green beans! This would probably be nearly impossible at a large institution.

  36. Great work Mark. It is a shame that so many college meal plans lack a variety of nutrition that meets everyone’s needs. Sometimes they are just a collection of fast food restaurants.

  37. I am a university student myself, thankfully I live off campus and cook for myself. Whenever i go to the dining halls in my school I am disgusted by the options, everything is bagels, sandwiches, pizza, etc. My school even recently took out the salad bar! It’s sickening to think that the school is poisoning their students who they expect to excel academically. Anyways, out of curiousity I went to go look at the food choices they have now (3 years after I left residence) and noticed that on the website it said that if students wanted they could talk to their food services to discuss their options due to allergies. I would advise you to go and talk to somebody and explain to them your “intolerances” (i said this so that they didn’t think I was being ‘picky’). Good luck!


  39. I think this post is fantastic, like so many that you post, Mark. Like many others have already posted, this is a tremendous resource as a basic guide as to why someone may want to consider making some switches to Primal eating habits. I have read many posts and articles, here and elsewhere, read The Paleo Solution, will someday (when I can make the time) read the Primal Blueprint book that my roommate recently purchased, but I often stumble over my explanations. This is a great, basic, go-to-explanation!

    As for meal plans, I also never participated in one; not since grade school, really (although I can remember pizza being on the menu once a week)! However, I have no doubt that anyone can use a reference like this and begin to change the face of nutrition in this country at some of the largest forums around…the college (and perhaps even high school) campuses. I hope all of you who are active in college will take advantage of this resource and form mini-revolutions everywhere!

  40. I’ve been doing a little investigating of randomly chosen food management services at universities.

    Regarding providing a list of ingredients, even if the service is willing to do so they also tend to make a disclaimer about the manufacturer making changes to the food and the student ultimately being solely responsible for whatever they choose to eat, regardess. I smell lawyers, probably the university legal eagles.

  41. Personally I’d just get a waver for having to pay for a meal plan. Trying to change the food plan as a whole is admirable, but as far as yourself, it wouldn’t be that hard to argue for a special exception in your case.

  42. I need to send this letter to our local health region. The garbage that our hospitals expect patients to eat is revolting. My daughter spent a couple of nights there a while back and the children’s options were hotdog, chicken fingers or macaroni and cheese. And there was a letter for parents regarding nutrition asking that we please not feed our child outside food as healthy food was important for their recovery – um sure…

  43. Wish I had this letter to send when I was a freshman in college! My school was the same way and required that you had a meal plan if you lived on campus. I simply moved off campus as soon as I could so I could buy my own groceries.

  44. These are great suggestions, though I think it all depends on how large the university is. I was diagnosed with Celiac the day before I went to college, and I quickly found that they had next to nothing that was gluten free or contaminated with gluten. The university outright refused to refund my money for the meal plan even after letters from myself and my doctor. After a few months of working with them they brought in a few gluten free frozen meals for me but that was it. I spent most of my Freshman year living off of peanut butter, pre-made rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, and microwave rice. I can’t imagine what they would have done if I had asked for paleo meals! I hear they are far more accommodating at smaller schools though.

  45. I haven’t read all the comments, but to me the obvious free market approach is to vote with your dollars. Meaning, do not to pay (i.e. subsidize) a university or school for goods/services you do not utilize or believe in. Higher educational institutions do not force people to attend; only public schools do that. A market is voluntary exchange.

    There are many “higher educational institutions” one can attend, and I use that description tongue in cheek given the obvious bubble in higher education, but everyone has a choice. Choices will be different for everyone. And if you are still not satisfied then exercise your entrepreneur spirit and do something about it. Start a food service linked to a meal plan. Challenge the school’s policy via petitioning, maybe even a lawsuit. First I’d check whatever paper work you signed to see what type of contract you willingly agreed to. But if you are paying for goods/services you do not like and you do nothing, shame on you.

    1. Can you tell I discovered MDA via
      I am sure there are different paths one could pursue given a state university/college vs. a private institution. Regardless, every state has an attorney general. Contact them. File a suit in small claims courts for the equal cost of the meal plan tuition, money already paid, and maybe damages. Small claims court do not require a lawyer either or exuberant costs. Often bigger businesses and institutions do not show up for the court date and the plaintiff wins by default.

  46. I wish I saw this post during my college years. I was a pretty fat guy for most of college. I’m sure a lot of that was due to beer and “fourth meals” at Taco Bell, but the cafeteria options surely didn’t help. At times they would have good options–omelette bar, salad bar with grilled chicken and many veggies, etc.–but if you couldn’t make the “main meal” time, you were stuck with pizza and cereal. Not primal at all.

  47. This is a wonderful post.

    I grew up eating 95% Paleo, thanks to my mom’s cooking. Candy and desserts were only on birthdays (one slice per person) or holidays, and we had fresh rice and homemade sourdough bread, but not more than 3 or 5% of our calories.

    I was very healthy and strong until late of my first year of college.

    Bad food in college started my sickness right in the first year, which became so bad so I eventually dropped out in the second year. It got worse and worse and I had 5 years of sickness during which I couldn’t even seek employment.I finally cured my problems VERY QUICKLY after my mother made me eat Paleo again (after college I had become brainwashed by USDA guidelines in hope of fixing my problems so they only became worse and worse)

    So if fortunate students are lucky enough to know of Paleo, yes, indeed, I sure hope they will be able to have options available at the cafeteria! I sure didn’t!

    I tried to eat healthy, but I was forced to eat very low-fat and very low-protein! I basically survived on vegetable wraps which were the only healthy option! 🙁

    Your letter to the university is so wonderful, I nearly cried!

  48. AMEN! Back in my day not only was a food plan mandatory, not only was it filled with unhealthy options, but it was our ONLY option. We went to school in a very rural area, were not allowed to have cars on campus until our Junior year. Had I known about Primal, Paleo, or even any it it’s derivitives I would have LOVED to have a letter like this that I could send in.

    I feel this student’s pain, especially if this food source, like so many, is her only food source.

    I wish her luck and extend thanks to Mark on her behalf.

  49. The campus where I am a graduate student and teach has implemented a health-awareness program and has done quite a bit of work to refocus its food offerings. In the shops area where the Wendy’s, Papa Johns, etc. are, posters are everywhere that include nutrition information for the food consumed at those places. Eating a double bacon cheeseburger with its bun, a side of fries, and a large coke is less enjoyable when you have to stare down the nutritional information on your meal. The dining halls have begun a sustainability effort as well. They attempt to use local ingredients whenever possible, especially in the spring/early fall months when fresh produce is available. And they help local vendors and farmers in the process. The school has also pushed a gluten-free menu. The dining hall has an area of entirely gluten-free foods, and one of the salad places on campus now serves gluten-free bread. Some of the gluten-free stuff isn’t always the healthiest, but it’s a step in the right direction. I’m quite proud of their efforts, and I’m happy to pay to eat in the dining hall once or twice a week just to support the work they are doing to provide healthier options to students. That could be one way dining services can supplement the increase in cost: new customers in the form of professors, visitors, etc.

  50. Dear Mark, I am so impressed. I am sharing this with both of my girls who are in this situation. I so HAPPY!!! I have something that will help them both…. and their friends, roommates and future life!~ XO!!! M : D

    OIL is my biggest concern also!
    But want all 5 and sooner, than later!