The stereotype of a typical college student’s diet is pretty grim. Ramen and fast food. Keggers and pizza at 2 a.m. Sleepless nights fueled by Red Bull and Cool Ranch Doritos®. Mainly tragic dining room food.
As with most stereotypes, this is not an accurate characterization. Oh, there’s plenty of pizza and energy drinks, but college isn’t really the health wasteland it’s supposed to be. Many students eat regular meals at regular times most often. They make at least some attempts to choose healthy dishes. The dining rooms try to present a variety of nutritious options – by conventional standards, not Primal of course, but they try.
That is to say, it is entirely possible to eat healthy in college. Granted, we might want to adjust our standards based on what “healthy” looks like in this context (occasional sleepless nights are better than frequent sleepless nights). And even then, it’s not always easy. Children who live on campus are limited to what they can cook in cramped dorms and feed on campus food services. Time is often precious. Grocery bills are piling up and getting to the grocery store isn’t always easy. Many students are simply not prepared to take on the responsibility of procuring and preparing their own food.
The purpose of today’s article is to share some tips on how to eat healthy in college dining halls or on a budget. Be inspired by these ideas, but know that you, dear student, do not have to follow them to the end to be healthy. We’re not trying to turn you into social outcasts unable to enjoy the occasional late-night drive-thru with friends or movie night with heaps of candy and popcorn.
You have young people on your side, so you can probably get away with more excursions than us older people. Yet good nutrition is vitally important. Your body and brain are still developing, and the rigors of college mean you’re often sleep deprived and very stressed. Eating a nutrient-dense, satisfying diet is one way you can support yourself and, to some extent, offset (or at least not increase) the stressors you can’t control.
How to make healthier food choices in college
1. Get to know your surroundings.
Finding the best dining options at the best prices means shopping around.
Explore dining options. Even if you plan to eat primarily on campus using a meal plan, larger universities often have multiple dining halls and convenience stores for students. You might find that the campus dining hall has far superior breakfast options, but you prefer to stay closer to your dorm for dinner.
Discover local groceries, delicatessens and markets. Find out which ones have the best prices. Sign up for club cards and coupon apps. If you’re not thrilled with the deals, consider ordering periodically from places like Thrive Market or Amazon. Maybe your roommate or other students on your floor will want to place orders together.
Locate restaurants within walking or biking distance.
Look for farmers’ markets on or near campus. It’s one of the best ways to get fresh fruits and vegetables at a good price.
2. Stock your dorm.
Create a mini kitchen in your dorm room with a few essential tools for preparing quick meals and snacks. This could include:
- Mini fridge with freezer
- Small blender, like a Magic Bullet or Ninja Personal Blender
- Single cup coffee maker
- Basic kitchen utensils (cutting board, knife)
- Plate, bowl, utensils
This simple and compact configuration allows you to prepare all kinds of meals requiring little or no cooking: salads, smoothies, soups, protein oatmeal, and more. Many dorms also have shared kitchen spaces. Look to see what type of appliances and tools they provide and if there is a fridge/freezer you can use.
Keep a selection of groceries on hand that you can turn into a quick breakfast on the go (smoothie bowlmicrowave egg bites) or for snacking between courses (trail mix, peanut butter apple and cheese stick). Here’s a basic shopping list to get you started:
- frozen berries
- Spinach and other frozen vegetables
- protein powder
- Salad mix
- Canned tuna or other fish
- Canned or pre-cooked chicken
- Nuts and trail mix
- Nut butter
- Beef sticks, dried
- Fresh fruits and vegetables that can be eaten raw
- Dips (ranch dip, hummus, guacamole)
- Cheese sticks, sliced cheese, cottage cheese
- Soup, bone broth
3. Make the most of the dining room.
I still think of the fabulous salad bar in my college dining hall where a chef would assemble a killer big ass salad to the exact specifications of the student. The dining room also had good hot food, fresh fruit and of course pizza, fries, giant sweet cereal dispensers and Chik Fil-A.
There are always options. Pick the ones that serve you best…most of the time, anyway.
4. Build meals around protein and produce.
When it’s time to eat, think protein and production first. Try to eat a good portion of protein and at least one vegetable or fruit at each meal. This general rule will help you prepare meals that contain the nutrients you need.
5. Take the time to eat good meals.
College life gets hectic, but try to minimize the number of meals you eat when running from class to class. Don’t skip breakfast, only to end up starving and grab something from the vending machine at 11am. Dine before sit down to cradle for tomorrow’s exam. Eating in a relaxed, stress-free state improves digestion, and keeping regular meal times helps your circadian rhythm.
Speaking of your circadian rhythm, eating too late – and certainly eating in the middle of the night – really throws your internal clock off. The occasional late-night meal probably isn’t a big deal, but it shouldn’t become an every weekend thing.
6. Eat fish once in a while.
It’s easy to get by with burgers, lunch meat, and chicken fingers, but you need fish for these essential foods. Omega 3. It doesn’t have to be fresh fish. Canned fish (tuna, sardines, salmon, cod liver) are fantastic and easy to store in your dorm.
7. Make simple exchanges.
Don’t complicate it too much. Ask for a lettuce wrap instead of a bun. Get grilled chicken fingers instead of fried. Get a side salad instead of tater tots. Opt for a burrito bowl instead of the nacho plate. Not necessarily every time, but look for obvious opportunities to make a healthier choice and seize them.
8. Watch alcohol intake. Coffee too.
This one needs no explanation. Also consider budget benefits.
9. Control what you can; don’t worry about the rest.
Eating in dining rooms means giving up some control over ingredients and options. You probably won’t be able to avoid seed oils, for example. While not ideal, it’s not something to stress about. Use avocado oil, olive oil and butter or ghee when cooking yourself. Big props if you don’t mind bringing a bottle of avocado oil dressing into the dining room. But as long as you do the best you can with what’s available, it’s a “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” situation.
The goal is not to be a perfect Primal eater, and we certainly don’t want food to be a source of anxiety and misery. What you eat, however, plays a huge role in how you feel. Therefore, it behooves you to pay attention to how you nourish your body and to make autonomous choices more often than not. Instead of thinking about what you “can’t” or “shouldn’t” eat, look for foods that will help you feel physically good, mentally sharp, and energized.
Sometimes the self-sufficient choice will be to embrace the social experience of going to the all-you-can-eat buffet with your dorm mates at 11 p.m. If you do this a few times a week, week after week, you’ll feel like hot garbage after a while. Remember the 80/20 principle: Strive to make healthier choices most of the time, recognizing that college life is messy and fun and sometimes inherently unhealthy. Just as I would never suggest that students to have to get 8.5 hours of sleep every night because that would be unrealistic for a myriad of reasons I would never suggest that you to have to make healthy eating your top priority at every meal. University life is not made for that.
You don’t have to be the stereotype of an unhealthy college student, either. Look for people who, like you, want to strike a good balance between enjoying your time at college and taking care of themselves so they can really get the most out of every part of the experience.
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