While in school, even the most conscientious eaters can be swayed by the repeating siren song of soft-serve ice cream and waffle fries, especially when trying to be careful with spending. While these are fine to enjoy sometimes, integrating nutrition-packed foods into your diet is important.
For many students, eating on the go can be a challenging feat. Juggling life’s responsibilities with classes leaves little room to think about making healthy dining decisions.
“As someone trying to stray away from the land of processed food, I’m limited to yogurt and chicken breasts for lunch,” says Jaclyn C., a third-year undergraduate student at The College of New Jersey. “Sure, there’s pizza and pasta, chicken fingers, and Chinese galore, but with a healthy lifestyle in mind, I’m torn on how to curb my hunger.”
Instead of waiting for the sluggishness caused by a fried-food diet to set in, start making healthy decisions right now: at the start of the school year. Develop a plan for preparing, packing, and bringing food wherever each day takes you. Armed with some nutritious basics, you can build meals that’ll keep you energized and focused.
Try out these tips to optimize how you eat.
We come in different sizes and shapes—that’s a fact of human diversity. So it makes sense that there’s not a “best” or even “healthiest” way to eat for everybody. Your caloric and nutritional needs depend on your size, activity level, and individual biology. And the non-nutritional roles of food—social, emotional, mental, and even spiritual—are equally important.
Getting to know your own personal food needs is a learning process. Eating well isn’t about counting calories or following a fad diet. In fact, that can actually distract you from listening to what your body has to say. Instead, focus on getting to know what kind of food fuels you best.
- How much energy do I need to fuel my activities?
- What types of foods help me feel my best? E.g., Do I feel most satisfied after a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, or do I feel best when I eat more protein, such as peanut butter or an egg?
- How do particular foods affect my mood? My digestion? My clarity of mind?
- Will my last meal sustain me through my classes, or do I need to pack a snack?
- Do I eat differently when I’m getting enough sleep (or not)?
- What’s my body’s response to hunger?
- What does fullness feel like? What does satisfaction feel like? Do fullness and satisfaction feel the same or different?
- What kind of flavors and textures—sweet, savory, salty, spicy, crunchy, smooth—are most satisfying to me?
Now that you’ve spent some time getting to know your body, it’s time to explore your food options. Keep these tips in mind:
Research shows that curiosity improves memory and makes us better learners, according to a 2014 study published in Neuron. Why not bring this quality into your eating experience? Being open to new possibilities helps us think, live, and eat more flexibly.
To up your curiosity game, try out
- A cultural cuisine that’s new to you
- Experimenting with spices and condiments
- Tasting at least one new fruit or vegetable a week
Scan the cafeteria or dining hall for foods you know you like from every food group—fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, heart-healthy oils (e.g., olive oil), and dairy (or calcium-containing alternatives like fortified soy milk). Your plate doesn’t have to look a certain way, nor does every meal have to contain all the food groups. Instead, think of balance as a big-picture goal to guide your choices throughout the day and over the week.
Make healthy eating affordable
Making healthy food choices takes some effort, especially with a busy schedule, not to mention it can be pricey. For cost-effective, healthy meals, use what’s available on or near campus as additions to what you bring from home. If you’re an online student or you live off campus, capitalize on what your neighborhood has to offer and the fact that you can cook at home.
And never underestimate the power of leftovers. “Preparing larger amounts of food at [dinner] allows me to bring healthier lunches and even save some money,” says Kristina J., a second-year graduate student at the University of Manitoba in Canada.
- Aim to get at least three food groups in a meal and two in a snack. For example, lunch might be a grilled turkey and veggie sandwich, a pear, seltzer, and a brownie. Great options for afternoon snacks could be pita with hummus, veggies and chips with bean dip, or a yogurt-and-fruit parfait.
- Eat regularly throughout the day and do your best to eat breakfast to avoid feeling sluggish in your morning classes.
Eating well is about finding food that suits your tastes, supports your needs, and honors your values.
Rotate between food stations to get the best variety
If the grill is your default stop, consider the deli, salad bar, or stir fry station for your next meal. “Combining stations in the dining hall is a good way to switch things up,” says Kelly L., a third-year undergraduate at The College of New Jersey. “I would take grilled chicken from the grill, and then lettuce and Caesar from the salad station, and take it to the sandwich station to be put into a whole-wheat wrap.”
Add vegetables wherever you can
Pasta stations, sandwich stations, salad stations—wherever you can throw in some veggies, do it. “I like to add veggies to pasta dishes, pizzas, stir fry, anything else where the option is available,” says Emma D., a fourth-year undergraduate at Ohio State University.
Explore condiments, herbs, and spices
If you don’t have access to these at school, purchase a few of your favorites to keep at home.
Find out what your friends are into and ask for their advice
You might discover a cool new takeout spot or a genius dorm room food hack.
Getting to know your local grocery store also comes in handy when you need to fuel a late-night study sesh or when the campus dining services are closed. On-campus food stores are a good option too, though they may have a limited selection and can be a bit pricey.
“I use the on-campus food store quite often, especially since I work there myself. The freshly made sandwiches and salads and fruit are way better than the fast food places on campus.”
—Jazmin C., fourth-year undergraduate, California State University, Channel Islands
- Keep a few staple foods on hand, such as low-sugar cereal, nuts, yogurt, fruit, chopped veggies, and low-sodium canned beans and soups. Keep your eye on the expiration dates of perishable foods and try not to buy more than you’ll use within a week or so.
- Pita bread or an English muffin make excellent bases for a variety of toppings. Try tomato sauce with feta and cherry tomatoes, peanut butter with banana and honey, or mashed beans with avocado.
- Add some excitement to instant oatmeal cups by mixing in nuts and dried fruit.
- If your home or residence hall has a stove, use it! Cook some pasta, add in veggies, a splash of olive oil, and that leftover chicken from lunch, and you’ve got a full meal.
- No stove? No problem. You’d be amazed at what you can make in a microwave. Try these nutritious and tasty mini meals you can make in a mug.
- Get a portable grill press (if your res hall or apartment allows it). They’re great for hot sandwiches, quesadillas, and even grilled veggies.
Vegetarian or vegan?
If the vegetarian entrée doesn’t appeal to you (how much pasta can one eat?), make a meal out of side dishes. Grab foods from different areas of the cafeteria, making sure you’re balancing carbohydrates, protein, and fats. A healthy diet (for anyone) also includes a variety of plant-based proteins, such as tofu, beans, soy, lentils, grains, and nuts, as well as heart-healthy fats, such as nut butters, olive oil, and avocado.
Adhering to cultural or religious food guidelines?
Speak with the food service director or dining manager to help you find foods that meet your needs.
Need support for allergies, a medical condition, an eating disorder, or a disability?
A health care professional can be your ally and advocate. Your dietitian, doctor, nurse, or therapist can work with dining services staff to make sure your meals will be accessible, appropriate, safe, and satisfying.
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Chowdhury, E. A., Richardson, J. D., Holman, G. D., Tsintzas, K., et al. (2016). The causal role of breakfast in energy balance and health: a randomized controlled trial in obese adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 103(3), 747–756. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.122044
Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron, 84(2), 486–496. Retrieved from https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(14)00804-6?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0896627314008046%3Fshowall%3Dtrue
Lenasi, A., Mohammadpoorasl, A., Javadi, M., Esfeh, J. M., et al. (2016). Eating breakfast, fruit and vegetable intake and their relation with happiness in college students. Eating and Weight Disorders—Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 21(4), 645–651. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-016-0261-0
Smith, K. J., Gall, S. L., McNaughton, S. A., Blizzard, L., et al. (2010). Skipping breakfast: Longitudinal associations with cardiometabolic risk factors in the Childhood Determinants of Adult Health Study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92(6), 1316–1325. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2010.30101
Will, M., & Stock, J. T. (2015). Spatial and temporal variation of body size among early homo. sapiens. Journal of Human Evolution, 82,15–33. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047248415000287?via%3Dihub
University of Cambridge Research News. (2015). Earliest humans had diverse range of body types, just as we do today. Retrieved from https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/earliest-humans-had-diverse-range-of-body-types-just-as-we-do-today