Eating well as a co-ed is hard. And why wouldn’t it be? “College is a place where you’re often set up for food failure,” says Atlanta-based health coach Chelsea Hunter. For the first time in your life, you’re on your own, making decisions about what you should and shouldn’t eat. You’re surrounded by salty snacks and sweets, you’re almost always in a rush, and controlling what you consume without a kitchen at your disposal can be majorly challenging.
But college is also the place where you can start establishing good eating patterns that will last a lifetime (and where you can break the bad ones, too!). Here are 10 ways to improve your dorm-dwelling diet.
Stock up on healthy staples.
Yep, that mini-fridge is definitely not going to accommodate all the prepared (and expensive) options your Whole Foods has to offer. But that doesn’t mean your dorm room needs to be filled with high-preservative, high-calorie snacks. Chelsea recommends buying healthy foods with a long shelf life, like nuts, seeds, dried fruit, rice cakes, and multi-grain crackers. Apples and citrus fruits can sit out for up to two weeks, and raw veggies and hummus are good options too.
Your college dining hall probably doesn’t encourage students to take food to go, but typically there’s a fair-game basket of produce hanging out somewhere near the exit. “Take the fruit!” says Chelsea. “Always, always take the fruit, even if you don’t think you want it.” If you’ve got it in your bag, you’re going to eat it, and chances are it will keep you from grabbing something less healthy on the go. Another reason to reach for that banana? You’re paying for it—it’s literally included in the price of your meal plan. So every time you walk past that basket, you’re essentially leaving perfectly good, already-purchased groceries in the checkout aisle.
Eat high-quality junk food.
If there’s one thing we remember about the campus cafeteria, it’s that french fries and ice cream were readily available all day, every day. But if you’re going to indulge in food you know isn’t especially good for you, you’re better off going with something a little higher quality and really savoring it. Love pastries? Find yourself one that’s made with fancy ingredients. You’ll feel more satisfied, and it will make eating a delicious, buttery croissant more of a treat than an everyday habit.
Think of the dining hall as a classroom.
You’re at college to learn, right? Then take your education beyond your political science lecture: Get in touch with the cafeteria nutrition info and teach yourself something. This isn’t about calorie-counting though! Determining where your food is coming from and what it’s being made with is a step towards really owning what you eat, which of course can lead to making responsible, informed decisions about your diet. You can also reach out to the campus health department and take your questions about the dining hall food to your school’s nutritionist—you might be surprised what you learn.
Listen to your body.
We’ve all heard that late-night snacking isn’t a particularly smart choice, but if you’re hungry, you’re hungry. Denying yourself isn’t going to change that, but rethinking how you’re eating throughout the day might. Learn to eat until you’re full so that you’re not creating an opening for cravings later on in the day. Also, fullness comes in different forms! Eat foods that are sustaining (like oatmeal), and make sure that when you grab a salad, you’re also including an appropriate (i.e. card deck-sized) serving of protein and not just a big bowl of greens that will leave you wanting more in an hour. And what if you spend the whole day eating well and you still want that late night snack? “Go for it,” says Chelsea—but instead of packing away a piece of pizza at 1 a.m., pick something a little lighter like popcorn or even some dark chocolate.
Experiment with what you’re eating.
Eat mindfully and pay attention to what works for your body and what doesn’t. “I always ask: How does that food affect my mood, my energy, my sleep, and my digestion?” Chelsea says. Particularly in a day and age when we’re more conscious than ever about food sensitivities and allergies, it’s important to keep track of what impacts you, both negatively and positively. Do you always have a brain fog after pasta, or does your morning yogurt seem to make your nose stuffy? Keep note and adjust accordingly.
We’re not talking about Chinese takeout. Whether you’re on an urban campus or in a small college town, there are a myriad of options for ordering great food straight to your dorm door. From Fresh Direct and Good Eggs to your local CSA, look for options that will consistently help you make healthy eating decisions. Concerned about costs? Consider splitting orders with your roommates or other people on your floor. You’re probably not the only one with better eating on the brain!
Find your food confidence.
A nutritionist once shared this little golden nugget of advice: When you make good decisions, you teach yourself that you can be trusted to make good decisions, but when you tell yourself that you’re going to make a good decision and do the opposite, you’re effectively letting yourself down. This negatively impacts your self-confidence, and you literally trust yourself less. So when you say you’re not going to have ice cream for the third night in a row at the dining hall, don’t do it. As you begin to trust yourself more, you’ll become more confident in your own ability to make healthy choices—which eventually makes skipping that sundae a little easier.
And find food-spiration!
“When I look at my Instagram and see all these healthy recipes and pictures of amazing food,” says Chelsea, “it puts me in a good place throughout the day.” It works like this: You see an awesome-looking quinoa salad in your Insta feed in the afternoon, and because you’ve got that on your mind, maybe you skip tonight’s cheeseburger and go with a grain and roasted butternut squash mix from the salad bar instead. Need some recs? We’re particularly fond of Chelsea’s feed, and we’re also obsessed with Milking Almonds and Deliciously Ella.
Establish a routine.
Still wondering what healthy eating on campus really looks like? We’ve pulled together a one-day guide, from breakfast through a midnight snack, to get you started. As time goes on and you get to know what works for you, you can customize this food plan to your personal tastes and preferences!
Head down to the cafeteria and grab some fruit and nuts (if it’s an exam day, we’d recommend grapes, berries, and walnuts for optimal brain health and focus!), and if you have time, some oatmeal or eggs which will fuel you for the next few hours. Heed this beginning-of-the-day rule: When in doubt, go for something high in fiber and protein.
It’s easy to skip lunch, but it’s the meal that can set you up for success for the rest of the afternoon. A salad and hearty soup combination or a wrap (check the calorie count though—it should hover around 500) will fill you up and keep you running at full power.
That feeling where you know you have to eat something fast, but you’re not sure what? We call that snack stress, and it’s to be avoided at all costs. That means always having a plan for what you’re going to scarf down and thus not giving yourself the option to grab something random from the convenience store aisle. Throw a baggie of nuts or a snack bar (pick one that has less than 15 grams of sugar per serving!) in your backpack. And remember, you can never go wrong with raw veggies.
For your biggest meal of the day, go with a serving of salmon, chicken, or steak with a side of veggies (or, if you’re not a meat-eater and/or lover, a tofu stir-fry with plenty of vegetables and just a little oil). Going easy on carbs will not only help you stay focused and alert, it can also ensure you get higher-quality sleep.
It’s silly to think you’re never going to indulge, and eating late at night isn’t as big of a deal as what you’re actually eating. Keeping almond butter and apples on hand in your room is a good end-of-day tactic, as is enjoying a really decadent piece of chocolate. And if you’ve got a pizza craving, skip the pepperoni and sausage. Extra salty things have a tendency to make you feel bloated and tired the next day.
Written by Elizabeth Kiefer