Learning to navigate the cafeteria

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Some people are really good at typing, and others still use two fingers. Some people are really good at drawing, and others wish they were back in kindergarten where every scribble is a masterpiece.

Some people have a hard time identifying their strengths and weakness…but for me, at least one weakness (or is it a fear) is incredibly obvious. I’m simply bad at navigating cafeterias. That may sound foolish, but if you’ve ever stood hopelessly staring at various lines and items in a cafeteria with absolutely no idea what to do until someone accidentally walks into you spilling their tomato soup all down your shirt (me in 10th grade) then you would understand.

I think it goes all the way back to first grade when nearly every other child brought two dollars crumpled up in their pocket (at least one day of the year) and lined up outside the kitchen entrance, while I just strolled on into the cafeteria, lunch box in hand. For all five years of elementary school I never ventured into the lunch line. My brothers had told me stories of the hot dogs being made of rubber and that was enough for me to decide I was safer with my peanut butter on potato bread sandwiches (the love for pb was strong even back then).

A daily reminder on my wall of how I used to pose with my lunch box on the first day of school each year. Still not sure who let me out of the house in a dress and zip-up sweat shirt…

I don’t know what my fellow classmates learned in their years of lunch trays and chicken patty sandwiches, but somehow come high school when I forgot my lunch one day and decided that there had to be something worth eating back in the mysterious kitchen I found myself covered in tomato soup rather than eating any.

Since I got off the meal plan in College I have had precious little time in a cafeteria or food court to remember how incredibly awkward, confused and stupid they make me feel. Like, how do you know you want what’s in the line until you wait through the whole thing and see it? And how do you explain to someone who’s never even met you how you like your sandwiches made without sounding ridiculous? And, most importantly, how do you not end up spilling something on you, the floor or the poor person who decided to get behind me in line? But my current rotation at a hospital in Baltimore has given me lots of reminders.

As a food and nutrition employee at the hospital I get free lunch each day in the cafeteria. The free part of that takes away my normal excuse to people for bringing lunch. It’s a lot easier to say “it saves money” than “I’m bad at and maybe scared of cafeterias” no matter what the truth is.

So, as a 22-year-old I decided it was time to face my fears and take the opportunity to learn to navigate a cafeteria without the pressure of actually paying hanging over me.

It’s been two weeks, and so far I’ve found the salad bar.

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 9.10.20 AM
Photo courtesy of I, Maderibeyza [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve gotten relatively comfortable at stacking up lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, chick peas, cold, kind of dry chicken, shredded carrots and whatever else they happen to throw into the line up that day. I have successfully explored two different types of salad dressings (still scared of the creamier ones that seem to make more of a mess) and I discovered a crouton bowl!

There are other lines though. There’s the sandwich one which I really want to get in, but I need to work up the courage to describe my order to the person behind the counter. There’s the grill and a special of the day and some other type of line that I haven’t been able to figure out yet. Those are the foods most people get but right now I haven’t even been able to make myself read the menus on the overhead screens.

I’ve got eight more weeks. The plan is to try each line before I finish. By the end of this rotation my preceptor wants me to be calculating tube feeds like no ones business, but my goal is to confidently say “yes, I can navigate a cafeteria.”

Do you have any tips for navigating cafeterias? A go to line? A way to not sound like a 7-year-old child when placing an order? Stories of your own scary moments? If so, please comment and share below! I’d love to hear them and need all the help and courage I can get to try out that grill line.

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