Navigating the Dreaded Cafeteria!
by Rebecca Sherman
Seattle, Washington

Have you ever skipped a meal or eaten something you really didn’t like because it seemed easier and less of a hassle than figuring out how to get what you really wanted to eat in a cafeteria? Have you skipped lunch with friends to avoid a cafeteria line? I have.

Cafeterias can be intimidating to anyone. In the old days at least there was only one line from which to order. Now a cafeteria may have many separate areas, such as a salad bar, a drink station, a hot line and a fast food line.

The ideal situation is to take a tour of the cafeteria, either with a staff member or a mobility teacher, prior to the beginning of school. This will give you a heads-up on what to expect and it will be much quieter. Find out where to start and go through all of the areas systematically. Practice going from the beginning to specific stations--the ones you really like, like the salad bar. Wonder how it will go when there are hundreds of people scurrying for food? Don’t worry about that yet.

Where to start? Oh yes, the trays, silverware and those much-needed napkins! Let’s talk about how to carry the tray. Practice with it empty first. I like to carry it with my elbow on my hip and my forearm running underneath the tray to the outer edge. This provides stability and balance.

Practice carrying a loaded tray. It’s easy right? There are several ways to carry a tray. Of course, if you have your hands free, no cane, dog, phone, etc., you can use both hands. Some people like to set the tray on their hip, up against their body, and put their hand on the outside edge with their arm going over the tray. Try various ways and see what works for you. To avoid spills, I like to put a lid on my drink cup and set it on the tray next to my body so I can feel if it tries to slide. That way I know how to correct the balance of my tray before my drink falls on the floor.

Oh no! How do I know I’m getting chocolate milk? Ask the cafeteria staff if prepackaged drinks and foods are always put in the same order. If so, memorize where your favorites are located and grab them yourself. You can always double-check with a buddy or someone who is grabbing milk when you are if you are unsure.

To get something to eat, such as the hot special, listen for the person in front of you to order, then you know the next person the server will address is you. Ask what is available and tell the server what you would like. You will notice your food being dished up and when it’s ready, put your hand forward, palm up, so the server can slide the plate into your hand. It’s easier than trying to find it after the server has set it down and moved on to the next person. As the servers come to recognize you, they’ll let you know the plate is being handed to you.

If you would like a salad, you may need to ask for assistance until you get an idea of how the salad bar is organized. Generally the salad bar is set up the same way every day. If you think you can find the ingredients you want on your salad, go to the bar and load up. When you come across a container you don’t recognize, ask. Please do not expect a fellow customer to fix your entire salad!

If you pay after you get your food, listen for the cash register and head in that direction. Be aware that there may be a line and ask where the end of the line is located. Don’t expect people to let you butt in. For assistance in locating a table, ask the cashier. If you pay before getting your food, ask someone in line for pointers on locating an empty table. Hopefully, you’ll be eating with friends and they can call your name when you head toward the lunch area.

You will encounter cafeterias outside of school. If you don’t have the advantage of touring the cafeteria when it is empty and you are alone, listen for clues. Do you hear the cash register? How about the jingle of silverware and plates sliding across a countertop? Where are people putting empty trays and the garbage? If you can pick up on those kinds of clues, it will help orient you. If there are others standing in line, ask for some information about the arrangement of the cafeteria. If no one answers, go to the cashier and ask for assistance. The cashier may be able to find someone to help if he can’t.

Maybe you have found other ways to navigate a cafeteria that work for you, and that’s great! Just don’t be the one who says, “I’m not hungry,” when friends want to eat at a cafeteria.

A version of this article appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008 edition of "About Blind Children” newsletter published by the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind.

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