Eating healthy at college

Eating healthy at college

As a plant-based food blogger, I was a bit taken aback by the food choices available to my son away at college for 4 years.  There are various small restaurants and “hubs” on campus which are mostly filled with the usual fare of cold cuts, fried chicken, pizza, and very well-done broccoli that is a pale shade of it’s once-vibrant green.  How do you communicate with an 18-year old about eating healthy?  Fast-forward 3 years, where he is now going into his senior year, and has been the beneficiary of my talks and lectures about how to eat healthy in college. The main point of all my speeches has been that he doesn’t have to be on a diet to eat healthy, nor does he need to cut out all the junk.  So here’s a list of suggestions for dorm-dwellers to eat healthy and stay healthy:

Eating healthy doesn’t have to mean dieting

What does that mean, exactly? The time for your college kid to diet is not while he is in college, unless he is dealing with specific medical issues that require a weight loss plan, and then he should be under the care of a physician. For the most part, though, it is important to remember that he can eat healthy by making healthy choices.

For example:

  • Salad with dinner, go light on the dressing;
  • Choose whole wheat bread instead of white, and mustard instead of catsup  (less sugar);
  • Oatmeal for breakfast (unsweetened with cinnamon instead of sugar) instead of sugary cereals;
  • Grilled chicken instead of fried, and baked potato instead of french fries;
  • Club soda or water instead of diet sodas, and fruit for dessert instead of cookies;
  • Veggie wrap with grilled vegetables instead of chicken caesar.

Then, when he goes out with his friends, it’s not so bad if he chooses to have ice cream or chips, because he was able to make healthy choices during mealtimes.  The thing to remember is that it is so important at this age for them to feel like they are part of a community, so you don’t want to discourage them from eating the snacks and junk foods that are part of every college kids’ repertoire.  As long as they are balancing that out with healthy choices during the day, then it’s fine.

Stock the dorm with healthy un-junk food

Your college kid is going to eat late at night, when she is in her dorm or hanging with friends — the best thing she could do is to stock the dorm with healthy choices.

    • Low-salt, low-fat popcorn
    • FigBars or other types of all-natural bars that are not high in sugar or fat
    • Low-salt raw almonds and dried, un-sulphered fruit
    • Fresh fruit

My son always enjoyed having Fig Bars, Lara Bars or other tasty snack in the dorm for late night munchies.  Little containers of peanut butter, along with an organic apple, makes a great mid-day or late night snack as well.

What about protein?

There are considerable arguments about protein and if it is necessary for every meal. The answers are as widespread as the question, but I would narrow it down to this: if your college kid is eating a healthy amount of whole grains, brown rice, beans, veggies and fruits over the course of a week, then it’s okay if they don’t have animal protein at every meal, or even every day.  They are getting protein in the grains and beans, legumes and other vegetables that we can only hope they are eating. So if a couple of days go by without lean chicken or fish, it’s truly okay.

I want to add, too, that if they don’t eat animal protein, even better!  Lots of college kids are finding and experimenting with their limitations and belief systems, so what better time for them to realize that they don’t want to eat animals!  If that’s the case as it often is, you don’t want them filling up on fatty cheeses and pasta – but rather – all sorts of combinations of soups, vegetables, whole grains, and brown rice, which their on-campus dining halls may be happy to prepare for them.

I’ve asked my son to talk a little bit about how he learned to make healthy choices while away at college:


Speaking of dairy…

The temptation is to fill up on pizza, and drown every dish in melted cheese, especially if they have their own apartments or their living arrangements provide for a small kitchen area.  Again, this brings us back to the beginning — it’s all about making healthy choices.  While dairy isn’t the best choice to begin with, make sure your son or daughter knows to choose low-fat or no-fat cheeses, and fat-free milk or yogurt.

Better yet, let’s kick that up a notch:

  • Instead of fat-free yogurt, how about organic fat-free, no-added-sugar yogurt?
  • Instead of low-fat or fat-free milk, how about almond or rice milk? There are lots of varieties out there, but stick with ones that don’t have added sugar, and brands that don’t have carrageenan in them. According to Dr. Weil, Carrageenan is a common food additive that is extracted from a red seaweed, also known as Irish moss. Carrageenan, which has no nutritional value, has been used as a thickener and emulsifier to improve the texture of ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, soy milk, and other processed foods. The type of Carrageenan  that is widely used in foods – has been associated with malignancies and other stomach problems.  So just tuck it away in the back of your mind, that when given the choice, choose the nut milk without Carrageenan. 

<< Here is a link to my favorite Rice Milk, and it doesn’t have Carrageenan, so it is a sure bet, and organic, too! >>

Don’t hang around the dining hall…!

We know that the kids are busy with overbooked schedules, classes and activities, but the temptation is to hang around the dining halls. While a great thing to do for their socialization and esteem, not so great for eating habits.  Suggest to your son or daughter to always carry a water bottle to refill with water, and always carry fresh (organic) fruit in their backpacks. They probably have a refrigerator in their dorms or apartments, so a weekend trip to the supermarket means that they can fill their little fridge with organic goodies.

Can they cook?

It’s real important that these college kids know how to cook, and here are some ideas that will not only save them (you) money, but will allow them to make healthy choices during the course of their day.  Chicken breast, toast with avocado and tomato, thin-sliced vegetable pizza, stir-fry, with chicken or without, grilled, low-fat cheese, oatmeal and green smoothies – will all go a long way toward keeping them healthy and keeping their brains in tip-top form.

One last thing:  

If your son or daughter drinks coffee, it goes without saying that too much caffeine can be addicting, and can sometimes create some serious health issues for the student that doesn’t know how, or can’t manage the intake of coffee. Having said that, the reality is that most college students are drinking coffee, and most of them are doing so in a responsible way.

In order to mitigate the expense of their daily trips to Starbucks, a Keurig may be a great solution for their dorm. Neuric coffee machineIt will save money, and will allow them to purchase organic, decaf, and flavored options, making them feel more in control of what they are drinking. Not only that, it will probably prevent the over-use of sugar and other sugary syrups, which are added to most store-bought coffees without most people even being aware of it. Those are empty calories that do nothing but add weight and clog those young, beautiful arteries!

Here is a link to the one I purchased for my son at college, and it allowed him to drink coffee responsibly, in his favorite mug-to-go, without an onslaught of additives and sugars.




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7 thoughts on “Eating healthy at college”

  • Hi Amy.

    I found this post interesting; even though I don’t have any children in college. I have one granddaughter in college; but she commutes. It is important to eat properly even in those younger years. I think you gave some very viable alternatives to some of the unhealthy meal choices. It seems like some students practically live on hoagies, pizza and chips. It is hard for the ones who want to eat healthy to order a salad while smelling the delicious aroma of pizza. Lol. I love that you say if they make healthy choices on a regular basis that they can indulge at times. Great post.


    • Thank you, Jeannie…. it took my son a few years but he’s doing pretty well navigating the system. Thanks for writing

  • I’m in college and it is really difficult to stay healthy. Junk food seems like the easiest and quickest possible way to fill yourself between classes.
    Most of the places do not have healthy options and that is the reason it is really difficult to choose healthy options because of most of the times there is no choice. Either eat unhealthily or stay hungry.

  • Great advice for all those dorm dwellers! I remember when my daughter started college a decade ago how hard it was for her to find healthy and varied vegetarian choices.

  • Thanks for these helpful suggestions, esp keeping a Keurig in the dorm! Great idea to cut down on the sugar intake from those caramel macchiatos from Starbucks, not to mention all those Starbucks charges! ($$). My nephew lives in the college dorms and he keeps healthy snacks such as individual packets of nuts and granola bars in those plastic stackable drawers that fit so well under his dorm bed. Thanks again for your helpful post!

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