Ellyn McCarter believes in the power of food to build community.
McCarter, registered dietitian and nutrition manager for Dining Services at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, wants to dispel nutrition myths and make sure all students have a chance to build their campus family.
“You remember the moments in the dining center, where you sat and got lunch with your new friend you made in chem class and you shared a meal,” McCarter said. “You make those lifelong friends sitting around the table.”
McCarter, a Lincoln native, thought she would study business until she took an introductory nutrition class at Southeast Community College. The class opened her eyes to a new side of nutrition and what a healthful diet actually looks like. A dietitian with experience in the military was teaching the course, and she talked about working with people who have lots of physical demands from their job but didn’t understand how to nourish their bodies.
“I had all these ideas about what proper nutrition was but I learned we’re surrounded by all these nutrition falsehoods and misinformation,” she said. “She would talk to these athletes and they would have these misconceptions about nutrition and food, and they were the same misconceptions I had. It helped me expand my ideas.”
McCarter finished her dietetics degree at Nebraska and started her career at a hospital before joining Dining Services in June 2022. She was always interested in working as a food service dietitian and the job seemed a great fit.
“You have those three deadlines every day — breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she said. “Every day is different and I love that.”
McCarter said some of the most common misconceptions simply involve ideas about what is healthy and what isn’t. People think they shouldn’t be eating fat or carbohydrates, she said, but it’s more about eating the right kinds of fats or carbs. Unsaturated fats and complex carbs can still be part of a healthy diet, even if saturated and trans fats or simple carbs should be limited.
The time when students have a meal plan is a great opportunity to experiment with lots of healthy options and learn what is out there while someone else is cooking for them. McCarter said some people think a healthy diet must be a short list of bland items, but she wants them to know it doesn’t have to be that way.
“I think a lot about the students who think you want plain chicken breast, you want your broccoli, and rice,” she said. “When you’re on your own and you’re cooking for yourself, and all you know is chicken and broccoli and rice, it’s going to be hard to have the well-rounded three meals a day. You can get the same great lean protein sources and great carbohydrate vegetable sources and you can do it with flavor and variety.”
A more flavorful alternative, for example, McCarter said, could be a stir fry with lean chicken or some tofu marinated with spices, topped with a variety of veggies and a light sauce or chili oil, creating an elevated version of that concept.
Ultimately, she wants to teach that eliminating certain things entirely could be short-sighted, and nutrition is about a lifelong journey.
“Cutting out carbs completely may help you lose weight in the short run if that’s your goal, but if you think about your lifelong health and wellness, it’s not the way you want to go,” she said.
McCarter enjoys working on outreach, like setting up booths at campus events, and educational projects, like writing information for the napkin inserts in the dining halls. She’s also had fun collaborating with the new Dining Services Student Advisory Board currently in its first semester. But she spends most of her time working with students with allergies and other dietary restrictions.
She said around 440 Husker students have indicated they have some sort of dietary restriction. The most highly reported include celiac disease and gluten sensitivity and peanut and tree nut allergies, but she hears about numerous others as well.
“Anybody could be allergic to anything,” McCarter said.
To serve those students, Dining Services offers some spaces designed to by the safest places for those students to eat. Moxie’s Gluten-free Café is in the Selleck Food Court, and the 8+ serving area in Harper Dining Center offers meals free of the most common allergens, including gluten, shellfish and tree nuts.
But McCarter also meets with students and managers of dining centers across the university to create an individualized plan for each of those students.
McCarter said additionally, Dining Services works to train staff on cross contact. She said food safety often focuses on cross contamination, the transfer of bacteria and other causes of foodborne illnesses, which can affect anyone. But she also wants to emphasize cross contact — the transfer of allergens — to protect those people who are affected.
“If a student were to go up to a staff member and tell them they had an allergy, they would know how to help the student,” she said.
Students and families with questions about dietary accommodations can contact McCarter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
McCarter said working with these students is one of the best parts of her job. She said some of the allergy and food sensitivity students have preconceived notions about what is available to them in the dining halls and she loves seeing them realize the number of options they have on campus.
“They can be like everyone else,” she said. “They get to eat in the dining center and be with their friends. Being able to guide them through that process and help take that weight off their shoulders is always really rewarding.”