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How to Eat Healthy in College: A Realistic & Helpful Guide

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Think back over your school career. What did daily lunch look like for you?

  • Rectangular pizza and milk from the cafeteria?
  • A PB and J sandwich and Doritos boxed up by mom?
  • A Lunchable in a grocery bag?

Regardless of the lunch you are accustomed to eating, it is probably a daily routine that you pay little attention to.

For many of you, the first time you will ever be solely responsible for preparing all of your meals or choosing to eat out will be in college.

The flexibility of deciding when, what, and with whom you eat is liberating.

At the same time, once the novelty wears off, planning to eat can be annoying.

With a different class schedule every day, study sessions, work, and other responsibilities, food might end up on the back burner. Before you know it, you might be:

  • Skipping meals
  • Eating Cheetos for breakfast
  • Digging quarters out of your backpack for a vending machine lunch
  • Having a dinner at 2 am

Any of the above scenarios are fairly common experiences for college students. However, it’s important not to let an “every once in a while” occurrence turn into a lifestyle.

Preventing the Infamous Freshman 15

You have probably heard people jokingly warn about the “Freshman 15.”

While weight management is one motivation for eating healthy, there are also many other health benefits that go beyond the number on the scale.

  • Food choices affect your energy level, ability to concentrate, mood, and prevent or beget a number of health issues.

The college environment is often filled with all kinds of triggers for unhealthy eating. However, you can overcome these by knowing how to eat healthy while away at school.

  • Make a deal with yourself to work on (or continue) healthy eating habits as a part of your college experience.

According to the British Journal of General Practice, one effective way of doing this is to “repeat a chosen behaviour in the same context, until it becomes automatic and effortless.”

  • Essentially, you’ve got to practice making conscious decisions about healthy eating to eventually make it a habit.

Check out the following scenarios and how you can flip the script in order to make healthy choices:

On your meal plan, you are able to go to the cafeteria up to three times a day. There, they always serve your favorite pizza, french fries, and have orange soda on tap. Sometimes, you choose to eat lunch elsewhere but still stop by to stock up on goodies in a to-go box.

In your first year of college, the cafeteria will become an integral part of your daily routine.

This is especially true if you live on campus and have a meal plan.

  • College cafeterias are slowly becoming more progressive in their offerings of healthy food.

However, almost all cafeterias frequently serve college staples – this includes a ton of fried foods.

We’re not recommending that you always skip the pizza for a salad. Instead, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is about moderation and conscious choice.

How to Start Eating Healthy

If eating healthy isn’t the norm in your life, try easing yourself into trying new foods.

  • Instead of grabbing breadsticks with your pizza, try the sautéed squash.
  • Love bagels? Try whole grain and use low-fat cream cheese if available.
  • You can also opt for boiled instead of fried eggs in the morning.

The cafeteria is also a great place to increase your fruit and veggie intake.

If your cafeteria has a juicer or offers fruit smoothies, incorporate them into your diet.

  • Instead of using your to-go box to stock up on cookies and brownies, fill it with fruit that is shelf stable.
  • These make a great snack in between classes or when you’re running late in the morning.

Meal Plans in College: Managing Your Decisions

You’re sick of the cafeteria and decide to head on over to one of the on-campus restaurants. You choose one of the fast food options and eat while walking to class.

Most meal plans also give you the option of using a declining balance. This money works like a gift card.

You start the semester with a certain amount and, every time you swipe your card, the balance declines.

  • You can use this money at campus coffee shops and restaurants.
  • Some schools will even allow you to use it at certain local businesses if they have an agreement in place.
  • On-campus restaurants are tempting but do not always have healthy options.

In order to enjoy these food options while also staying healthy, you should get to know their menus.

Many restaurants, especially national chains, will have nutrition information available on their website.

  • You can also look at nutrition guides, such as Eat This, Not That to see a ranking of the healthiest vs. unhealthiest meals at chain restaurants.

Make a plan for how to order when you are using your declining balance.

  • If you have a favorite meal that’s also not-so-great for you, plan to eat it only once a week.
  • Make a list of healthier options that you can eat on a regular basis.
  • For example, if you tend to order a fried chicken sandwich with double cheese, try opting for a grilled chicken sandwich with only one slice of cheese and added lettuce, tomato, and onion.

Eventually, you’ll start to figure out what to eat and what to avoid and will not need to research.

Many restaurants also offer calorie counts on their menus, so read them.

This is also a great practice to embrace outside of college.

  • There will still be times when you are in a rush and need to grab fast food, but being knowledgeable about your choices can lead to rewarding health gains.

Reading menus and ingredients will help you break down what you’re eating.

  • Whenever possible, avoid eating on-the-go or while staring at a screen.
  • We tend to eat more, even if we are not hungry, while doing these activities.
  • Instead, opt to chat with a friend or give your brain a break and allow it to wander while chowing down.

Cooking in College: Becoming an Adult

You’ve been browsing Pinterest and see all kinds of awesome-looking recipes. They remind you of the home cooking you’re missing out on. You don’t know how to cook, and the recipes look too complicated to follow anyway. You head over to the cafeteria for another meal.

Dorm cooking does not have to be complicated in order to be filling and healthy.

If you’re inexperienced with cooking, college is a great time to start learning!

If you prefer visual learning, try watching some YouTube videos designed for college cooking (including some killer microwave recipes).

When searching for videos try these key terms:

  • College Cooking
  • College Budget Recipes
  • Dorm Cooking
  • Healthy Microwave Recipes

Depending on your dorm, you may have an entire kitchen on your floor or only your microwave.

  • If you’re off campus and have access to your own kitchen, you can definitely amp up your cooking skills and have more refrigerator space for ingredients and healthy whole foods.

There are also food blogs and recipe books that are great tools for inexperienced and/or college-student cooks.

Here are some of the most popular blogs that are perfect for college students who want to try out cooking:

Remember when browsing through recipes that your goal is healthy, not only easy and budget-friendly.

If you find online recipes that you have tried and love, bookmark them in a “healthy recipes folder.”

Using a cookbook?

  • Dog-ear or highlight tried-and-true recipes.
  • When you are hungry, it is hard to make a decision and easier to pass on healthy options.
  • Bookmarking these will allow you to quickly find a great meal.

Shopping as a College Student: Embrace the Struggle

Grocery run! You walk around the store and stock up on your favorites: cheese puffs, Oreos, soda, and Sour Patch kids. Next, you clean out the ramen noodle aisle before heading over to the cereal aisle to pick up a box of off-brand Cap’n Crunch (it’s college, you have to be thrifty).

In the scenario above, one makes these choices because the foods are inexpensive and easy-to-eat.

  • While it’s true that, many times, healthy foods are more expensive than junk food, shopping smart can overcome this obstacle.

When shopping for groceries, get to know all of the options in your community.

  • Take a field trip to several and compare prices.
  • Stores like Aldi are more compact and have a money-saving business model that they pass on to customers by making fresh food more affordable.

Farmer’s markets are another great place to buy affordable and locally grown foods.

  • These markets usually have a friendly atmosphere, where you’ll be able to meet members of your community and try samples of many different foods.
  • You will be able to purchase much more than fruits and veggies.
  • Farmer’s markets also feature vendors who sell homemade bread, jams, cheese, and many other delicious items.

Discount grocery stores are one of the best ways to save money on healthy food purchases.

  • These stores sell overstock and close-to-expiration food from bigger retailers.
  • Since you are unlikely to be stocking up a ton of food in your non-existent dorm pantry, the foods that are close to expiring will likely be eaten quickly anyway.

Finally, remember that healthy food can also be convenient food.

  • Instead of buying chips, try sugar snap peas. They have the same satisfying “crunch” and can be eaten alone or dipped in food like hummus or ranch dressing.
  • Skip the cookies and buy a bag of dark chocolate chip morsels. These satisfy your post-dinner craving for sweets without going totally overboard on sugar.
  • You can also try replacing soda with sparkling flavored water.

Going Out: Eating and Socializing

On Friday nights you always go out to eat with a big group of people. You usually go through the usual rotation of food: sushi, pizza, burgers, or the Chinese buffet. It’s a great time and you always leave feeling stuffed!

When going out to eat with friends, use many of the same strategies for healthy eating as you would for on-campus dining.

While you might not frequent these places often enough to know the menu, you can quickly look it up on your phone before heading over to eat.

If you know what the menu offers ahead of time, you will already have an idea of what healthy meals are offered, and might not feel pressured to order quickly in order to keep your friends from waiting.

  • If your meal comes with sides, opt for a salad or vegetable instead of fries.
  • Does the waiter bring over a breadbasket? Split a piece with a friend or skip it altogether.
  • Try ordering water instead of soda or tea. Not only is water healthier, but skipping the drink at restaurants will save you a good bit of money over time.

Another key strategy for eating healthy while eating out is paying attention to portion sizes.

  • Many restaurants serve meals that are double or triple the size of a standard home-cooked portion.
  • When eating out and having fun, it’s easy to go big and eat the whole meal. This often leaves you feeling stuffed and lethargic.

Instead, try eating only half of your meal and taking the rest to go.

Not only are you eating a normal portion size, but you’ll have an entire extra meal for the next day! It’s a win-win situation.

If you’re at a buffet, aim to eat only one plate.

  • Think of the value of eating at one of these restaurants as being able to eat a variety of food rather than as much food as you can.
  • If you want dessert, choose just one and not an entire dessert plate.

Eating Late at Night and On the Run

It’s late, you’re starving, and everything on campus is closed. Looking around the dorm, you find a few stale crackers and a Pepsi. You call it “dinner” and go to bed hungry.

Nobody likes going to bed hungry. The best way to avoid the above scenario is to plan ahead.

  • Before going to the cafeteria, look up the daily menu online (if available).
  • You might decide that there’s nothing appealing being served, and you’d rather eat somewhere else.
  • This process will save you time and keep you from having to skip a meal due to being short on time.

Know you are going to have a particularly busy and stressful day?

Figure out where you will eat the next day and pack some healthy snacks in your backpack the night before.

  • Carrying around a refillable water bottle can also ensure that you are always hydrated.

This will prevent headaches and help you to stay focused.

Drinking water may also prevent you from overindulging when you are drinking soda or other sugary drinks.

Conclusion: Eating Healthy in College

Practice these skills in college, and you will be rewarded with lifelong healthy habits. There are bound to be “off” days where you slip up.

That’s okay.

Start each day with a positive outlook and an intention to eat healthily. Your brain and body will thank you for it.

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