Tips for Healthy College Eating: From a New Grad

Written by Tess O’Brien and Edited by Sue Rose, MS, RD, LDN
hleathy college eating tips

Now that you’ve been in college for a few months, you may find it challenging to eat healthy. Based on my experience, I often blamed my irregular schedule, super-tight budget, lack of sleep, and insubstantial meal plan. Adjusting to the college lifestyle is not easy and it may seem that weight gain or “malnutrition” are inevitable. However, utilizing tips for healthy college eating will help you be mindful in seeking healthier, accessible options on campus.

The first few years: on-campus living and dining hall tips

During your first year at college, you may be living in a 130-square foot dorm room that doesn’t provide you with many options for food storage. It is also common for 1st year and on-campus students to depend on a meal plan that is strictly valid for dining halls which are not typically recognized for providing nutritious options. Thus, the first year or two of college are probably the most difficult time to achieve a healthy eating routine, let alone adjust to a new style of eating altogether. Here are some personal tips for healthy college eating that helped me during the initial years spent eating dorm food.

My personal tips for healthy college eating as you begin college

  • Keep a loaf of whole grain bread in your dorm. Buy spreads that don’t have to be refrigerated – like peanut or almond butter!
  • Drink plant-based milk! Milk alternatives such as almond milk can be purchased in single servings. No refrigeration is necessary until the seal is broken.
  • Store canned goods anywhere there’s space. Get creative and don’t forget the can opener!
  • Enjoy a sweet potato by poking holes in the skin with a fork, microwaving for 5-6 minutes, and topping with black beans or salsa!
  • Cold cereals and oats can be stored in a dry environment and last for a long time. These staples are good sources of iron and fiber, both needed by college aged students to stay healthy!
  • Microwave ½ a cup of oats and 1 cup of almond milk. Add a tablespoon of your favorite nut butter.
  • Buy apples that can be used for a grab-and-go snack.
  • Buy bananas in a variety of stages of ripeness and enjoy throughout the week.
  • Purchase nuts in bulk and enjoy for an easy late night snack. Raw unprocessed nuts are the most nutritious.
  • Pack your mini fridge full of fruits and vegetables!
  • Buy green or herbal tea bags and microwave water as the boiling/heating method.
  • Most dining halls provide a salad bar, so utilize it and add as much color to your plate as possible. Color is key to a healthier diet.
  • Skip the heavier salad dressings. Instead, opt for a more vinegar-based dressing such as red wine vinegar mixed with a small amount of olive oil, salt, and pepper.
  • Add beans (kidney or black) or chickpeas to your salad as a source of protein rich fiber.
  • Carry a water bottle around campus. Fill it up at the dining hall to prevent drinking sugar and calorie laden beverages.
  • Don’t get carried away by the endless dining hall options. Portion control is key in preventing over-eating.

The last few years: off campus living and apartment eating tips

healthy college eating tips

You are now living on your own and don’t have to depend on a meal plan or limiting yourself to a mini fridge for perishables. For some of you, retreating from your meal plan may be a relief. You are now free to expand your food options from outside of a dining hall. However, some of you may be uncertain on how to provide yourself with nutritious choices while dealing with a tight financial budget and time constraints. Personally, I was excited to move out of my dorm room and be in charge of my food options. However, I was a non-working, full-time student so I utilized these tips for healthy college eating that worked with my restrictive budget and schedule.

My personal tips for healthy college eating off campus

  • Find restaurants/stores that offer healthy options and student discounts. For example, Sweet Tomatoes gives students 10% off everything you can pack into your bowl at their salad bar!
  • Skip the dairy in your daily coffee and opt for a dairy-free option (almond, oat, coconut, soy). Tip: If there is a Whole Foods near you they don’t charge extra for dairy-free options!
  • At the grocery store, buy foods that can be prepared quickly and taken on the go (oatmeal, pre-made salads and wraps).
  •  I ate a lot of canned soups while in college. My favorite was the Amy’s Organic Soup that was only about $2.50 per can and was enough to fill me up. Be sure to check labels for the sodium content though, as canned soup can be loaded.
  • Always carry healthy snacks with you throughout the day (fruit, nuts, veggies, granola bars) so you aren’t craving junk food when you finally get home from the library. Here’s a list of 50 calorie snacks.
  • Some grocery stores offer a small discount when you bring your own bags to carry your groceries (Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Target).
  • Obviously, alcohol consumption is not healthy and is often referred to as “empty calories” due to the lack of nutrients. If you do choose to drink alcohol, avoid sugary drinks, and opt for a lighter alternative such as a vodka soda with fresh lime.
  • After a few evening alcoholic drinks, treat yourself well. Drink plenty of water, eat foods high in nutrition and vitamins (fruit and green leafy vegetables), drink lots of water, and eat a healthy snack before bed!

Grocery store tips for easier healthy eating at a savings

  • Eggs are super inexpensive- even organic and cage-free eggs can be priced around $4.00 a dozen! I’d often hard-boil an entire carton at a time and eat a few of them throughout the day to keep me satisfied.
  •  Buy frozen fruits and vegetables! In fact, frozen fruits and vegetables are actually picked when they’re perfectly ripe so they still have all the nutritional value and flavor. They are also reasonably affordable and easy to store in your freezer for very long periods of time. Frozen fruits are perfect for a fast and nutritious smoothie recipe.
  • Adding a plant-based protein option to your grocery list can be significantly cheaper than buying animal products. While you don’t necessarily have to be a vegetarian to maintain a healthy diet, you can seriously save some cash by going meatless a few days a week.
  • Buy food in bulk such as rice, pastas, and nuts. This will not only save you money, but also save you time consuming trips to the grocery store.
  • If you have roommates, consider investing in a food delivery service (Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, etc.) and splitting the cost. It’s a fun activity to cook your meals together and it’s super convenient! It is delivered every week right to you with pre-measured out ingredients and instructions on how to make every meal. Also, it will save you a trip to the grocery store, giving you more time to study or have fun with your friends.

Planning your eating at home and out

cooking at home

  • Meal prep is a key strategy! Meal prepping helped me so much in college because after spending long periods of time preparing meals for myself, I felt less tempted to eat out. Also, your groceries will be used up and won’t go to waste.
  • Obviously you don’t want your healthy eating getting in the way of going out to eat with your friends. I feel I’ve been most successful when I look up the menu beforehand to make sure there is something healthy that I can eat on the menu. If you find there isn’t anything on the menu, you can always suggest a different restaurant or eat a meal beforehand and just order something small. I try to never let my dietary choices get in the way of having a fun night with my friends. When I plan accordingly, I always seem to find an option that works out for everyone. Here are some more tips for healthier dining out.
  • Try to avoid late-night junk food snacks and fast food runs by keeping plenty of healthy snack options at your disposal. You will save money and feel better the next day.
  • Don’t 100% limit yourself to only eating super healthy foods all the time. Treat yourself to your favorites every once in a while. Everything in moderation is key.
  • Lastly, train yourself to bring a reusable water bottle with you everywhere. Drinking enough water and staying hydrated plays a very important role in staying healthy and feeling your best. It’s also great for your skin (more eating tips for great skin)!

Take-Away

While college is all about adjusting to a new and independent lifestyle, it’s OK to have a less than perfect diet. Being on your own and learning how to nourish yourself appropriately are important college lessons too!  A healthy diet is a challenge at college, but key to preventing that feared “Freshman 15.”  Knowing how to make better dorm food choices and provide for healthier food options are important in the beginning of college as you navigate your first few years on campus. As you branch out on your own as an upperclassman, shopping know how and planning are key. Learning healthy eating strategies now will be a useful lesson for your entire life.

Please share your healthy eating tips for college! And, please share this post if you learned something.