33 Healthy Eating Habits Students Will Appreciate
Spoiler: Mac and cheese and ramen are involved.
posted on Sept. 19, 2015, at 7:00 a.m.
In the land of dining halls, all nighters, and free pizza, it can seem almost impossible to eat healthy while in college.
Yes, campus life is crazy and stressful and ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean you can just eat whatever you want. Plus, this can actually be a great time to start eating healthier foods if you don’t already.
So we asked nutrition experts and members of theBuzzFeed Community for tips on eating well when you have a college schedule, budget, and lifestyle.
Keep in mind that everyone’s needs will vary, so this is by no means a complete guide to healthy eating for every student. If you are concerned about your eating habits, nutrition, or your relationship with food, we suggest checking in with a doctor or nutritionist to address your individual needs and health.
OK, let’s get to it:
1. Eating healthfully does not have to mean dieting.
“My biggest advice is to not start dieting when you get to college,” Ryan Andrews, R.D., Coach at Precision Nutrition in Toronto, Canada, told BuzzFeed Life. At least, not on your own. That’s because without the proper supervision of a nutritionist you may end up adopting unhealthy eating habits, body image issues, or other health problems.
However, if you are interested in losing weight, gaining weight, or changing your body composition, make sure to check in with a doctor and nutritionist first so that they can help you set realistic goals and offer support and guidance along the way.
2. Focus on adding whole nutritious foods instead of restricting the “bad” ones.
Instead of thinking about what you shouldn’t eat, think about what you should eat. “It’s best to take a whole food approach and focus on adding fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins, and good fats,” says Andrews. “You should still eat as little processed foods as possible, but with a whole food approach you don’t have to worry as much about calories and extra bad stuff because you’re hitting all the nutritious food groups and getting the vitamins and minerals you need.”
3. And choose healthy foods that you actually love to eat. (They exist.)
“You should enjoy your food and go into it thinking ‘what do I like and how can I build healthy meals from that?’ and it’s so much easier,” says Andrews.
Plus, certain foods affect people differently, Andrews says, so it’s also important to pay attention to how different foods affect your body and energy levels. Just because a food seems healthy, that doesn’t mean it’s right for you and your digestive system. “Before you worry about cutting fat and sugar, learn the basics of which nutritious foods make your taste buds and body happy.”
4. Don’t let your class schedule dictate your meals.
Ideally you would be hungry when you get up, break for lunch, and sit down to dinner — but sometimes your six-hour clump of classes isn’t conducive to that. So try to plan your meals around your schedule to the best of your ability and stick to it, Rachel Paul, M.S., R.D., founder of The College Nutritionist, told BuzzFeed Life. Then don’t forget to pay attention to body cues and eat when you’re hungry — even if that means packing a lunch and some snacks for your five-minute breaks.
5. Stock your dorm with all of the snacks that aren’t junk food.
“The two years I lived in dorms I would stock up on apples, baby carrots, cans of vegetable soup, oatmeal packets, things like that and just keep them by my desk.” — Emily Anne Hart, Facebook
6. Always keep an emergency granola bar in your backpack for when you’re hangry.
“Hanger is the ultimate downfall of healthy eating. When I wait to eat until I’m starving, I end up grabbing any quick foods I can, including candy, chips, or other junk foods! Always have an emergency snack in your purse or backpack, such as a Lara Bar, so you never get to that ‘hangry’ point! — Ellie Jane Holcomb, Facebook
Some granola bars are better than others, so Paul recommends bars with whole ingredients, about 10 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, and no added sugar.
7. Sneak protein into every meal or snack to stay fuller longer.
— Alexandra Vermooten, Facebook
8. Beans and rice are a perfectly acceptable, cheap, and nutritious meal.
“Beans and whole grains are often forgotten but they’re super important because they’re full of fiber, protein, and they’re satisfying,” Andrews says. “You can do Mexican beans and rice, lentil soups, chickpeas from the salad bar — even tofu and tempeh because they’re soybean-based.”
9. Fill half your plate with your favorite salad or veggies first.
“Always take a loop around the dining hall and load up your plate with veggies FIRST. Then go from there and try to add in a protein and some kind of starch.” — Rosie McWilliams, Facebook
“Use whatever you like — cooked veggies like broccoli and carrots, or a big salad — and fill up half your plate, or start with a quarter if half is realistically too much for you,” says Paul.
10. Build tasty and nutritious salads you actually look forward to eating.
“It’s a waste to eat food that you don’t like,” says Paul. Whether you’re at home or the dining hall, top a bed of leafy greens with your favorite raw veggies, meat, beans, and cheese — just remember to keep everything in moderation.
“You should still stick to protein sources without a lot of added cream, like grilled chicken or plain tuna, and choose clear salad dressings that are oil and vinegar based.” Paul says to avoid falling in the trap of using “low-fat” or “fat-free” dressings because they often have a ton of added sugar, and the good fats in olive oil help keep you satiated.
11. Use your fist as a portion-size guide for protein, whole grains, fruits, and fats.
“Aim for roughly a palm of protein, a big handful of veggies, a fist of whole grains,” says Andrews.
Here’s a great resource with more helpful photos.
12. Don’t hang around the dining hall too long after you’re done eating.
“I’m a fast eater so I’d always be done before my friends in the dining hall, then get more food out of boredom!” —amyl4087ef404
13. …And leave with all the pieces of fruit and vegetables you can fit in your backpack.
“Don’t be afraid to look like a weirdo grabbing free fruit from the dining hall. I’ve grabbed armfuls of apples before, and was set for a week. Plus if you’re already paying for a food plan, snagging a couple apples won’t hurt.” —Kathleen Marie Herbstritt, Facebook
14. If your dining hall doesn’t have good healthy options, or you have a food allergy, make a special request.
“A lot of dining halls will accommodate you if you make friends with the cooks, especially on small campuses where they know your face and name. You can also ask for the raw ingredients and prepare items on your own if they don’t have time.” — Anna Alvarado, Facebook
15. Try not to drink your calories.
Paul suggests first cutting out juice or soda, or diluting it with water and ice to slowly taper off your favorite sugary drinks, which can be super tempting if they’re all available in the dining halls.
16. Bring your favorite reusable water bottle with you everywhere.
“Put cool stickers on a big water bottle. Just by having it with you all day you will get in the habit of being so hydrated.” — Annagalg
17. When you’re buying your go-to packaged or frozen foods, opt for the healthier or less processed version.
“This is the easiest swap ever,” says Andews. “There are so many options that taste very similar to your favorite mac and cheese or frozen meals, but the ingredients are much better — like skim milk, whole wheat pasta, or reduced sodium and sugar.” Just because a food has a long shelf-life and it’s easy to prepare, that doesn’t mean it has to be unhealthy.
18. Always have a jar of natural peanut butter around for quick protein.
“When all else fails: Peanut butter + spoon.” — Taylor Barry, Facebook
If you’re trying to limit sugar, opt for natural nut butters on your oatmeal, apples, celery, pretzels, spoon…
19. Pick a cereal with whole grains and less than 10 grams of sugar per serving.
“Many college students rely on cold breakfast cereal every day,” Andrews says. Instead of super sugary options, he suggests finding a cereal with whole grains as the primary ingredient and 10 grams or less of added sugar per serving.
20. Or try overnight oats packed with fruit in your mini-fridge.
“Overnight oats and chia seed puddings! Best breakfasts and easy to make before bed. The topping choices are almost endless.” —Diana Ghidanac, Facebook
21. If you worry about buying produce that will go bad, keep bags of frozen fruits and veggies instead.
“They’re a super simple way to boost the nutritional value of your foods. Heat up frozen vegetables and add them to pasta, pizza, etc. Add frozen fruit to your oatmeal, on top of your ice cream or frozen yogurt, or make a quick smoothie using both fruits and vegetables!” — Christa Nowicki, Facebook
22. And try to add those veggies to basically everything.
“Canned and frozen vegetables are your friend. I add those suckers to everything. Mac and cheese, ramen, cheap canned soup, tuna helper, hamburger helper, microwave rice sides, Chef Boyarde, EVERYTHING. It’s a little extra nutrition, texture, and flavor.” — Girlwonder1966
23. Make lightning fast stir-fries and rice bowls in the microwave.
“My lazy go to-is frozen stir fry veg mix + peanut butter + chilli sauce. Zap it in the microwave and stir then BAM = satay vegetables! Add coriander to season or sesame seeds if you’re feeling fancy.” —Kirsten Garcia, Facebook
24. Upgrade your beloved packages of ramen with spices, fresh veggies, and protein.
“Ramen is amazingly versatile (and you don’t need to use the flavor package — or you can only use half). If you can get grilled chicken (or other meat) from the dining hall, you can add that to the ramen, as well as veggies that boil well, and any dairy that melds well with the flavors can typically be stirred after microwaving.” — Becca Sager, Facebook
25. Invest in so much tupperware.
“When I make dinner, I make extra and immediately pack it in containers for lunch and/or dinner the next day. It saves so much time the next day and it keeps me from eating the whole pot of rice (or whatever I’m making).” — luannaime
26. Buy nutritious, whole grains like brown rice or quinoa in bulk so you can cook as much or as little you need.
“Quinoa. It’s versatile, cheap, and it doubles when you cook it. Just don’t buy it in a box/bag. Those are almost always overpriced. Get it in the bulk section, and then you can make only what you need.” —writergirl1029
27. Try to pack a lunch as often as you can.
“It’s a total social pressure to buy lunch when you’re in college,” says Paul. “If you pack your own lunch it’s likely healthier, you can control portions, and you’re saving money.” Paul suggests either bringing a tupperware with the previous night’s leftovers, or making a quick lunch that covers a few food groups (protein + carbs + veggies) — even if it’s just a sandwich.
28. Cook one giant meal on Sundays, like a casserole or lentil soup, and freeze separate portions for a week’s worth of dinner.
“I make bulk batches of a hearty spaghetti sauce (my go-to is bolognese with lentils swapped for the meat) and freeze it in portions before school starts. That way all I need to do is defrost it and cook some pasta on a busy night.” — Felicia-Marie Gauthier, Facebook
29. Or boil a dozen eggs.
“Hard boiling a dozen eggs on Sunday is so easy,” says Paul. “Then you have a filling whole food and big protein source to quickly eat for breakfast or take with you as a snack.” Eggs are also cheap and you can boil them exactly to your yolk-softness preference.
30. Pre-portion big bags of snacks into individual baggies.
“Buy a bag of anything — pretzels, nuts, even chips — and immediately look at the serving size and pre-portion the snack into baggies,” says Paul. Not only does this prevent you from eating half a box of Wheat Thins in one sitting, but your snacks don’t go stale as quickly and they’re portable, so you can grab one and go in the morning.
31. Brew your own coffee or tea and take it in a to-go mug.
“Every morning, I would brew myself hot or iced black or green tea and have it in a large tumbler to keep me energized during a whole day of classes. It was a better option than getting sugary drinks at Starbucks. Plus, I saved a lot of money!”
— Patricia Isabel, Facebook
32. Eat something before you go to an event with free pizza or sweets so you don’t overindulge.
“ALWAYS say no to free pizza.” — Sara Mikovic, Facebook
…OR just don’t go on an empty stomach, so you only end up eating one slice instead of three, because it’s still free food and the college struggle is real.
33. Don’t beat yourself up if you slip, especially during finals.
“Don’t beat yourself up for a few days of eating out and going out with friends. Life happens and sometimes the grocery store is just too far away.” — Calli Hansen