Campus Life

Learning how to say “no”

The 411 on how to navigate free food at MIT

“Divya! You should come downstairs with your plate and fork. There’s a ton of food downstairs.” My friend looked at me with a sense of urgency as I walked into my room with Trader Joe’s grocery bags in hand.

As I dropped the bags on the ground and grabbed my plate, I realized the latent irony in the situation: I had just gotten three full bags of healthy food, only to go forth and sniff out the Bertucci’s pizza waiting downstairs.

While I was munching on my broccoli pizza ten minutes later, I realized I had caught the free food bug. I had begun to plan my schedule around events that had free food. To compensate, when I went to Trader Joe’s every week, I started buying more fruits than I am capable of eating in an attempt to force-feed myself nutritious foods. And to top things off, I now had a sizeable collection of “free food” sitting in my mini-fridge with the invisible titles of “dinner,” “lunch,” and “dessert” stamped on them. The things that I should have eaten were competing with the yummier things that I was seeking out. Clearly things were getting out of hand.

At MIT, it’s easy to get sucked into the free food trap. After all, what’s not to like about free food? It’s food and it’s free — it’s a no-brainer as to why we’re so enamored by the concept. Especially for many college students, free food is the perfect escape from culinary experiments gone awry or food from dining halls that just doesn’t taste all that great. Also, it’s the first time that we’ve been away from the “eat your spinach and broccoli” arguments at home, and it certainly feels great to finally get rid of the green things in our diet. Add the generally high cost of food in Boston, and you’ve got a perfectly reasonable reason to pursue free food like it’s your job.

But whether we like it or not, our food habits at MIT will dictate our food habits after we leave. If we don’t figure out how to moderate the free food epidemic, we may be in for a huge wake-up call later. So how exactly does one navigate the free food mania that is MIT, without giving up on some healthy ideals?

Approaching free food with a “here and now” mindset instead of a “save some for later” one might help. If you’re someone who likes to hoard a box of pizza for a week or collect sodas from events, this approach might apply to you. Restricting your intake of free food to a specified period of time allows you to limit your consumption to only as much as your stomach can take. Furthermore, by not collecting unhealthy food in your room, you can avoid the temptation to binge later. After all, too much of even a good thing can also be bad for you.

What has worked for me is not seeking out free food, but seeking out events — with food as an accessory incentive. I found that when my primary reason for attending an event was free food, I rarely ever reaped the full benefit of the event. By making free food a secondary objective, I began to get a lot more from the events I attended, and I was able to manage my expectations and eating habits as well. And on the random occasion that I just happened to be near a table of cookies and pastries, it was a welcome surprise to be able to munch on something in moderation — think one or two cookies. I learned that the surprise of free food could be better than the planned consumption of it.

If free food is truly integral to your diet at MIT, consider constraining yourself to one free food option per day. Find ways to supplement your diet for the other two meals with food from the dining hall or recipes that you make on your own. If you have a group of friends that seeks out free food together, take turns finding recipes online that you can make together and share. When time is scarce, hop by La Verde’s and pick up some fruit and yogurt or a granola bar — my personal favorites are FiberOne oatmeal bars and KIND bars. Now, excuse me while I go and snack on some grapes.