eating healthy at college

Healthy Eating in College

By Stephanie Reyes, dietetics student at California State University Northridge

Reviewed by Jinan Banna, PhD, RD

The dietary behaviors of a college student

A college student’s dietary behavior can be influenced by many factors. Some of these include financial stability, location, stress, and busy schedules. College students are often very busy, leaving them a limited amount of time to eat a balanced meal. Busy college students may find themselves skipping meals, which can have a negative effect on academic performance and health. 

The importance of eating healthy 

Consuming a well-balanced meal provides you enough energy to perform daily tasks. Eating well will also help reduce your risk of disease. Your dietary behaviors can also affect your ability to learn. Students who have good dietary behaviors will have the energy necessary to feel awake in their classes, which will help them learn better. Having good dietary habits will help you maintain your weight as well. Students with a poor diet may feel more tired, gain weight, and have a harder time trying to retain information in class. They may be more at risk of being diagnosed with a chronic disease. To help prevent disease, it is critical for you to maintain a healthy diet.

As a college student, you might not know where to start when it comes to choosing healthy foods. Below are a few strategies to help you eat more healthfully.

Ways to improve your healthy eating as a college student

1. Planning meals ahead of time

Take a look at your school schedule for the week and identify the times where you have a break. Make those breaks the designated time for you to eat. Plan out what you will be eating and how you will acquire the food. For example, decide whether or not you prepare your meal at home or purchase food at your school. Taking the time to plan out your meals will help ensure that you do not skip meals.

2. Bring healthy snacks to school

Snacks are great to have on hand, especially for college students who are always on the go. When choosing snacks, it is best to avoid snacks that are high in sugar and sodium. Snacks that are high in sugar and sodium include fruit snacks, candy, or potato chips. Instead, bring snacks that are lower in sodium and sugar, such as fruits and almonds. These snacks can be consumed on the go, and their preparation is simple. Be sure to check out our blog posts 16 healthy sweet snacks and high-fiber snacks to learn more about choosing healthy snacks.

3. Remember to eat breakfast

  • Regardless of what time you wake up, it is important to start the day off right by eating breakfast. As a college student, your mornings may be very busy, leaving you little time to enjoy a healthy breakfast. Check out our breakfast on the go ideas to start your day blog post to learn more about eating a healthy breakfast.

How you can eat healthy with a college meal plan 

Some students have a meal plan through their school. The meal plan is prepaid and it allows the students to eat at several on-campus restaurants. These restaurants may offer a wide variety of meals. You may be one of many who have a school meal plan. So, how can you eat healthy on a college meal plan? Below are several tips on how to eat healthier while eating on campus.

  1. Include vegetables in your meal
    • When looking at the menu, look for meals that include vegetables. Vegetables provide the body with many vitamins and minerals that aid the body in carrying out important bodily functions. Vegetables are also generally low in sodium and calories. Vegetables should be included in most of your meals.
  2. Avoid fried food
    • Fried foods contain a high amount of fat, sodium, and calories. Instead of purchasing the fried food, try grilled food that has less fat content and calories.
  3. Reach for non-sugary beverages
    • Looking for beverages that are low in sugar is a great way to help reduce your sugar intake. Water is always a great option; however, if you are looking for another option with more flavor I suggest looking at our low sugar drink alternatives blog post to find out more about choosing low sugar drinks.  
  4.  Try whole grains instead of refined grains 
    • Refined grains such as white rice and white bread go through a process that takes away many nutrients. Try purchasing foods that contain whole grains. Whole grains contain more nutrients that are very beneficial to the body, such as fiber and B vitamins. Instead of white rice and white bread, try brown rice and whole-wheat bread.
  5. Don’t forget about fruit
    • Fruit not only provides good amounts of vitamins and minerals, but it also has a natural sweetness. If you are looking for something with a sweet flavor, fruit can be a good substitute for processed foods that are sweet, such as candies and sodas.

Tips for eating healthy on a budget

Many college students struggle financially, which may cause them to purchase foods that are fast, convenient, and very affordable. However, most of those foods offer little to no nutritional value. It is important to know that you can eat healthy while on a budget. Below are some tips for eating healthy on a budget.

1. Avoid eating out

Eating out at a restaurant or a fast-food chain can seem very affordable; however, it can become very expensive over time. The food served in a restaurant or fast-food chain is also very likely to be high in sodium, fat, and sugar. Avoid eating out and make a plan to cook at home. Cooking at home can be cheaper than eating out. Avoiding eating out will help improve your health and save you money.

2. Plan your meals ahead of time and buy your own groceries

Before buying your groceries, make a list of the meals you plan to make for the next two weeks. Once the list has been completed, you should only buy the foods that are on the list. Avoid buying foods that are not on the list. This strategy helps ensure that you do not spend any more money than you need to on food, and it helps you avoid purchasing processed foods.

3. Buying frozen fruits and vegetables

Frozen fruits and vegetables last longer than fresh fruits and vegetables. They are very affordable and are similar in nutritional quality to fresh fruits and vegetables. 

4. Buying canned fruits and vegetables

  • If it’s difficult for you to keep fresh food on hand, canned fruits and vegetables are a great option because they last longer than fresh fruits and vegetables and are also very affordable. Canned foods are also similar in nutritional quality to fresh fruits and vegetables, but you want to watch out for added sugar and salt. I choose canned food that is BPA-free as well.  
  • If you are not sure how to incorporate canned foods into your meals, check out this resource: Jessica Ball, M.S., RD shares how she adds nutritious canned foods into her meals

5. Avoid purchasing ultra-processed foods

Foods such as cookies, cupcakes, soda, and candy may generally be considered ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are higher in calories and have low nutritional quality. Avoiding ultra-processed foods will help improve your health and save you money.

6. Buy foods that are in season

Purchasing foods that are not in season can lead to food waste and money loss. Foods that are in season are at their best flavor and are more nutritious than out of season foods. Foods that are in season are known to be cheaper than out of season foods. Buying foods out of season might not have the desired taste when you take your first bites, resulting in you not finishing the food and throwing it away. The food was wasted, and you did not get your money’s worth. To prevent wasting food, research what foods are in season before making a trip to the grocery store.

7. Use coupons

Coupons are great resources to help you save money on grocery items. If you are using a coupon, make sure to use the coupon before it expires to receive the discount.

8. Buy the generic brands

Purchasing generic or store brand products can be just as good in quality as the popular brand items. The generic brand costs less than the popular brands, and it will most likely taste the same.

9. Purchase a reusable bag

  • Purchasing a reusable bag for your groceries can help save you money. Many stores charge you per bag and it may not seem very expensive. However, after years of buying plastic grocery bags, the economic advantage of using a reusable grocery bag becomes worth it. 

Nutrition-related resources that may be available to you

Your school may offer health services related to nutrition for students, such as nutrition counseling with a registered dietitian (RD) or nutrition-related workshops. Nutrition counseling with an RD is a great option for those who want a more detailed and personalized path to eating healthy. Having the guidance of a RD can help you continue to eat healthy and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Your school may also host nutrition-related workshops such as cooking classes. These workshops can be very helpful to college students who have never cooked for themselves. Research the resources that your school offers related to nutrition to see if your school offers these types of services. 

Another great resource for college students is a food pantry. A food pantry provides free food to families and individuals in need. Some universities have their own food pantries available for their students. There are also local food pantries that are available to people in a specific area. Check if your college has a food pantry available to you and if not, research where your nearest food pantry is located. If you are not able to purchase food and are in need, food pantries are a great resource to obtain food. The food distributed by the food pantry will help you meet your needs for essential nutrients.

Websites are great resources to help you eat healthier by providing fast and credible nutrition information. Some useful websites include Nutrition.Gov and Eatright.org.

Nutrition.Gov offers many nutrition-related resources. Some resources include basic nutrition information, recipe ideas, and the USDA Food Central Data tool. The USDA Food Central Data provides nutrient information on many foods. To use it, type in the search box the food you wish to research and press enter. Within seconds you will be directed to a page listing all the foods similar to what you typed. Look for a match and click on the link. The link will take you to a page that lists the nutritional facts of the food.

Eatright.org is another website that provides the public with many resources, such as basic nutrition information, food safety information, and recipe ideas. This website also provides a referral service for Registered Dietitians. To use this service, go to the homepage of the website, and on the top right, there is a red link titled, “Find an Expert”. Click on that link, and it will direct you to the referral service. It allows you to search for Registered Dietitians that are in your area. Both of the websites listed offer many other nutrition-related resources. 

Final Thoughts

If you are a college student, healthy eating will benefit you in many ways. It will improve your alertness in class, help reduce the risk of disease, help you manage your weight, and give you the necessary amount of energy needed to complete school-related tasks. Eating healthy does not need to be costly. Eating healthy can be done on a budget, and it allows you to stay away from processed foods. Taking the time to plan your meals ahead of time can be helpful if you are on a very tight schedule. Eating healthy is part of living a healthy lifestyle along with maintaining good sleep habits and physical activity. Take advantage of the nutrition-related resources that are available to you through your school. Maintaining good dietary habits by eating healthy will help improve your health and your overall performance at school.

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