HOW TO: Eat Healthy in College

How to Eat Healthy in College

Today’s post goes out to a special demographic, who if they’re anything like I was, are doing a lot of googling these days: soon-to-be college students. You’re about to uproot your life, be out on your own, deprive yourself of many hours of sleep in favor of homework/socializing/beer-pong, figure out the various intricacies of LIFE ITSELF… and as if that’s not enough, you’re expected to feed yourself too!

Generally speaking, college students have limitations in space, time, money, cooking/shopping experience, and transportation… basically, it’s the perfect storm for subsisting on pizza and beer. But you don’t have to let this happen to you! As an RD who’s spent the majority of my adult life as a student (and whose first job was rolling burritos in my college dining hall), I’ve been there and I’m on your side when it comes to keeping your body running well by putting good food into it. Let’s talk about the tools you need to make this happen.

Decide what “healthy eating” means for YOU.

You want to eat healthy, but take a moment to think about what that means. Are you eating to support an athletic lifestyle, or to lose weight? Are you a vegetarian, or do you prefer to go paleo? What foods make you feel your best? What’s your ideal ratio of virtuous nutrient-dense foods to splurge-y treats? If your goals are not defined, they’re impossible to achieve. The general approach that I’m taking in this guide is to maximize real, minimally processed foods; to focus on eating plenty of fruits and veggies, lean protein, whole grains, and healthy fats. It’s a solid foundation, but be sure to take your individual needs into account.

Master your Meal Plan

For those students living in dorms, many will be enrolled in regimented meal plans. My alma mater didn’t follow the popular “all-you-can-eat” approach, but when visiting Welcome Week at another campus that did, I was lucky enough to overhear this gem: “Damn… you could get fat in here if you’re not careful.” (true dat, anonymous collegiate.) While it can feel limiting to be at the mercy of your dining hall’s policies and offerings, keep these tips in mind to make the best of the situation:

  • Scope out your “go-to” healthy options. Make things easy for yourself by identifying some “automatic” choices to fall back on when the specials don’t seem so… special. They will vary based on your tastes and the menu at your particular cafeteria, but some common options are chicken breasts from the grill station, salad bar, fresh fruit, eggs, and oatmeal. And don’t forget to take convenience into account; if you’re dining during peak hours and have to wait in a long line for a made-to-order stir fry, you’re more likely to say “screw it” and grab a slice of greasy pizza.
  • Go easy on carbs. College dining halls are notorious for putting out tons of carbs – it’s cheap from a foodservice perspective, and hungry young people can’t get enough. Don’t fall into the trap of filling up on refined, empty calories.
  • Make friends with your salad bar. A well-stocked salad bar is such a luxury – take advantage of it! Make the right choices and it’s a one-stop-shop for creating a balanced meal with veggies, carbohydrates, proteins and fats – 100% customized to suit your tastes.
  • Be active in campus food politics. Like any business, your dining department takes customer satisfaction seriously. If you’re not satisfied with the healthy options available, tell someone about it! In my experience, managers are very open to suggestions.

Get Cooking: Basic Tools for your Dorm Kitchen

Whether you have a meal plan or not, cooking for yourself is a foolproof way to take control of what goes onto your plate. Tiny dorms aren’t exactly ideal for playing chef, but there are definitely some space-saving tools of the trade that you can invest in and use to your advantage:

  • Microwave: the heart of the dorm kitchen. Instead of zapping pizza rolls, use it for oatmeal, eggs, steamed veggies, potatoes/sweet potatoes, and – of course – popcorn.
  • Mini-Fridge: There are only so many healthy foods that are shelf-stable… seriously, treat yourself to some refrigeration.
  • Toaster Oven: For an appliance that takes up so little space, it can really expand your dorm food repertoire. Try easy and healthy meals like tuna melts, baked chicken/tofu, sprouted bread toast with nut butter, or tortilla or pita bread “pizzas.” And just about anything that you can cook in a standard oven can be scaled down to dorm-sized proportions!
  • Blender: it’s not just for margarita night!  Use one to swirl up smoothies and dips for healthy snacks. And while you’re at it, pick up a pint-sized mason jar to rig your own poor man’s magic bullet!
  • Coffeemaker: I’m recommending this for students who blow their budgets (both financial and caloric!) on Starbucks. You’ll definitely save money, and if you have trouble resisting the frilly drinks, this will help you caffeinate yourself without crazy amounts of sugar, fat, and icky additives.
  • And don’t forget the little things that make a big difference: cutlery, a good knife or two, a cutting board, a can opener, and whatever utensils are useful for making the foods you love.

Stocking Your Dorm Pantry

If you stock up on easy-to-grab healthy foods, you won’t be as tempted to go out for junk. Emphasis on easy – you’ll probably have a tight schedule, so convenience is key to a sustainable plan. Here are some of my favorite staples:

  • Non-Perishables: oatmeal, canned beans, canned tuna, peanut butter, nuts, whole grain bread and crackers
  • Mini-Fridge Stuff: yogurt, cheese, hummus, fruits, milk (or non-dairy milk), juice, fresh veggies (for raw snacking or microwave steaming)
  • For the Tiny Freezer Compartment: frozen fruits for smoothies, frozen brown rice

I hope I’ve been able to share some good insight, but I’d also love to open up this conversation to you readers: how do you keep up with healthy eating as a student? What do you find the most challenging? And how do you overcome the barriers between you and your goals?

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