For those headed to college, it can be a nerve-racking time of change. New housing, new friends, new classes—essentially a new start. I may not be able to help you decide which sorority to rush, or if he is really into you, but I can definitely help you avoid the freshman (or sophomore, junior or senior) 15.
I want to give you a little gift that I hope will keep eating healthy high on your priority list since your brain is bound to be overloaded with many other things.
Really, you’ll come to find out that being prepared is 90% of what you do in life. So, if you’re prepared to eat well and know where healthy foods are always available, the follow-through will come easily. The same lesson can be applied to your schoolwork, but I’ll let your parents point that out to you.
Here’s how to prioritize your well-being in order to thrive in college this semester.
How to Eat Healthy in College
1. Eat breakfast, even if you wake up at lunchtime.
Even if you get up at noon, begin every day with a healthy breakfast that includes a high-fiber carbohydrate (fruit and/or whole wheat toast, for example) and a lean protein and/or healthy fat.
Not only will it help to rev your metabolism, stabilize your blood sugar, control your hunger and boost your energy, but studies have shown (over and over) that students who eat a healthy breakfast do better in their classes. Even if you don’t have time to sit down for breakfast, keep healthy items in your dorm room for on-the-go breakfasts. For example:
- Single-serve oatmeal (easy to pop in the microwave and add your own berries and spices). Try Quaker Original, 365 Everyday Value Original. Feeling adventurous? Add some protein to your oatmeal for a fulfilling breakfast.
- Individual containers of milk (or almond milk)
- Natural peanut butter (also try packets of nut butters)
- Fruit (grab a piece from the dining hall to save as a snack later)
- Healthy, hot cereal cups, such as Wildway (you can always find some hot water!)
- Greek yogurt
- Individual hummus containers.
- Individual portions of cheese. Try Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar Snack Bars
- Hardboiled eggs (can buy pre-cooked or hard boil a big batch in your dorm’s kitchen at once)
- Individual chia seed packs
- Nuts (such as individual packets of raw cashews, almonds and walnuts).
- For makeshift breakfast ideas, try:
- Hard boiled eggs, cheese stick and a piece of fruit
- Oatmeal, packet of nut butter
- Apple, piece of cheese
- Yogurt, nuts and chia seeds
2. Navigate the dining hall with healthy finesse.
When you head to the dining hall, think of a meal game plan. Are you headed to the salad bar or the sandwich station? Are you going for the hot entree or the soup? Whichever you choose, prep yourself before you walk in and stick to the game plan. Treat this like you are prepping to write a paper or studying for your chemistry test. It’s just as important and definitely more fun! Some tips for whichever way you go:
- Eat grilled: Ask for grilled chicken (or burger or veggie burger) with a whole wheat bun or bread. Add some veggies from the salad bar and a side of brown rice. These healthy, fiber-filled carbs will keep you satisfied while providing more nutrients than other options like white bread or white rice.
- Add extra veggies: Add extra vegetables, such as beets or roasted peppers, from the salad bar to an open-faced turkey sandwich or wrap. This will make it more filling without loading up on empty calories.
- Eat the rainbow at the salad bar: See how many colors you can throw on top of your leafy greens and pair it with a good protein source. Keep this tip in mind if you have an exam after lunch! Foods like leafy greens, avocados and blueberries are great for helping you stay focused and boosting brain function.
- Avoid the rich sauces: If the hot entree appears uber-loaded with some buttery sauce, then skip it. Grab the hot veggies instead and add lean protein from the sandwich station to your plate.
- Control your portions: Pour cereal in a small coffee cup instead of those family-sized bowls and couple it with protein. It’s hard to judge how much to pour when cereal is served in huge, self-serve dispensers. Better yet, go for hot cereal like oatmeal, which is a better choice than most of the cold cereals.
- Choose seltzer over soda: Always choose seltzer instead of sodas and juices from the drink dispensers. Hydrating with water is also super important; it makes up 60% of our body, but can also help beat that seasonal slump in the colder winter months.
- Don’t hang in the dining hall. Use it to eat. Lingering can cause you to eat more than you need just because you are there.
- Don’t forget to look around and assess what is really available. Often there are many options that are baked, broiled, steamed, roasted, or grilled. This will make it easier to avoid foods that are fried, sautéed, breaded, crispy, creamed, batter-dipped, or buttered.
3. Make sure you take exercise 101.
When you plan your semester and know your schedule, plug in where and when you’ll exercise, just as if it were a class you couldn’t miss. That’s right, treat physical activity in your schedule with the same importance as your classes, study sessions, group meetings, social events, and other appointments.
Whether you go to the gym, walk to class, join an intramural sports team, take a fitness class for credit, or set up a workout corner in your room, daily exercise can improve your mood, help relieve stress and anxiety, increase your energy, promote better sleep, and help you maintain your weight.
4. Keep your caffeine in check.
While 1 to 2 cups of coffee per day are fine, don’t depend on soda, coffee or energy drinks as a substitute for sleep. This can actually backfire and cause insomnia, disrupt concentration and cause restlessness and anxiety. Instead, try to get adequate sleep (8 hours a night), and take mental breaks while studying to refresh yourself. A good, consistent exercise regimen and consuming nutrient-dense snacks throughout the day will help keep your energy up too.
5. Never leave home without healthy snacks.
Keep healthy snacks on hand to fuel your brain between classes and stabilize your blood sugar. Set yourself up for success by stocking your pantry and making sure there is always a healthful and non-perishable snack in your bag. Ask loved ones to send you healthy care packages and write down the snacks you’d like to receive. They’ll love to do it. Promise.
Some examples of non-perishables that you can keep in your dorm room (in addition to the breakfast items above) are:
- Single-serve nut butters, or pack a few tablespoons to go (pair with the apple or banana you grab on your way out of the dining hall). Try RX Bar, Justin’s, 88 Acres, Crazy Richard’s, Wild Friends.
- Add some crunch with seaweed snacks. GimMe Snacks Organic Roasted Seaweed Snacks are made with simple ingredients (just organic seaweed, organic sunflower oil and sea salt), are low in sodium, and high in vitamin C.
- Seed packets will boost the nutrient profile of any smoothie, oatmeal bowl, yogurt or small salad from the dining hall. They also come in easy-to-carry individual packets. Try Manitoba Harvest Organic Hemp Hearts and throw 3 tablespoons in a baggie, Chia Co. Shots individual packets, or Carrington Farms Organic Milled Flax Paks for added protein and healthy fats.
- You can also eat seeds on their own as a snack.
- Single-serve quinoa and rice cups are microwave-friendly, easy to throw in your bag for a snack that looks fancy and time-consuming, but takes minutes to make. You can also make a cold quinoa side salad with your fruit and greens from the dining hall. Try Minute Rice Brown Rice, Minute Rice Brown Rice & Quinoa, Minute Organic White & Red Quinoa, or Minute Rice Ready to Serve Multi Grain Medley.
- Popcorn is a classic snack, but did you know that it’s a whole grain and full of fiber and antioxidants too? Pipcorn Classic Sea Salt Popcorn is ready-to-eat and provides 3 grams of fiber and 3 grams of protein per serving.
- Protein bars have been a go-to snack for as long as we can remember, but finding quality protein bars is important. Try Epic Chicken Sesame BBQ for a beef jerky flavor without the cheap meat, sugar and nitrates, GoMacro Protein Purity Sunflower Butter & Chocolate for a sweet treat, or Oatmega Chocolate Coconut for a crunchy, tropical twist.
I hope you have a great semester. Prepare yourself to be successful and you will be cum laude in the healthy diet department in no time. Practice the grown up habit of making healthful choices now and they’ll set the foundation for when you hit the working world.
But, all that said, enjoy sleeping late, having Fridays off and new experiences as much as possible right now, because you’ll miss those collegiate perks after graduation.
—Additional reporting by Emily Merklen, MS, RDN