Back when I was a freshman at the University of Vermont, the cafeteria and campus food was provided by Saga Corporation. I’ll be the first to admit that healthy eating at college was not a priority for most of my crew. Nonetheless, the dismal quality of the offerings left me and my friends with no choice but to rename Saga to “SAGA,” an acronym for “Soviet Attempt to Gag America.” I remember frisbee size M&M cookies, meats covered in mystery sauces, doughy pizza and iceberg lettuce that was, honestly, disgusting.
Food quality along with improved variety and healthier options on college and university campuses is vastly different these days (just check out UVM’s Discovery Kitchen which is part of their new Central Campus Dining Hall!). However, I still hear many complaints from college students regarding the lack of healthy choices at school. With students returning home for their fall break this month, it’s a great time to learn how to navigate the pitfalls of all-you-can-eat meal plans and find nutritious and simple ways for healthy eating at college.
New “food” freedom, no restrictions.
“Kids eat what they want to eat, not what they should eat,” is what my 18-year old freshman told me when he was home for his fall break. Indeed, the freedom that comes with being unsupervised by parents leaves many teenagers in a free-for-all mode when it comes to eating. Faced with lots of options and no restrictions, it’s easy to see where students get into trouble. Layered on top of that is the potential anxiety of forming new social connections and friendships. Many of these blossoming friendships are formed during those first few weeks on campus. They often involve a group of students from the same residence hall heading to the cafeteria together. Communal dining and a plethora of social activities at the beginning of freshman year revolve around or include food, adding to the eating frenzy.
Many students skip meals and develop poor dietary habits.
Skipping regular meals is another pitfall many freshman face. One freshman told me he wasn’t eating consistent meals because of his class schedule. For him, classes starting later in the day means sleeping in rather than getting up and eating breakfast. Eating a protein bar or something he can keep in his dorm room isn’t happening either. “Most protein bars are pretty disgusting,” he admits. I hear similar stories from sophomores. Looking back at their freshman year, they identify not having a regular meal routine as a key reason for adopting some pretty unhealthy dietary habits. For many students, eating well at college is an afterthought and it’s only until things get out of control that they realize where they went wrong.
Seeking out healthy food options isn’t always a priority.
I was also bit surprised when my son requested “lots of greens” when he arrived home (in addition to “a good steak and a decent piece of fish-preferably sushi!”). Despite the fact that his university is known for its culinary offerings, he was unimpressed. I quizzed him further on the cafeteria situation. His response sheds some light on the dining hall environment: “The salad bar where I eat on campus is “all the way in the back corner of the cafeteria,” he explains. So, the healthier food options are there, he just feels the extra effort to get to them is not exactly worth it. Hmmm.
Fact or fiction: The Freshman 15.
What about the infamous “Freshman 15?” Research shows that nutrition education does play a roll when it comes to eating healthier for college students. A 2016 study concluded that “students with greater nutritional knowledge consumed less unhealthy fats and cholesterol.” Unhealthy fats such as trans fats, along with processed foods made with refined sugars and flours are undeniably at the root of most weight gain. Reading up on the latest dietary guidelines or nutritional science can go a long way when trying to maintaining a healthy weight.
Furthermore, it’s really important to know that the Freshman 15 isn’t actually true. According to research conducted on over 7,000 students by Ohio State University, not everyone gains that much weight during their freshman year. Their study concluded that the average weight gain for freshman is only between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds!
5 Healthy Eating Tips Every College Freshman Needs to Know
- Have a consistent meal routine and don’t skip meals. If there is one piece of advice that I feel is the most critical, this is it! A normal meal routine should include breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yes, all three. Ideally, try to eat meals at the same time every day to the extent it’s possible. It’s important not to skip breakfast either. Becoming hungry later in the day leads to poor choices all around. Are you insistent on skipping breakfast or practicing intermittent fasting? If yes, make sure to choose nutrient dense foods and avoid empty calories.
- Actively seek out the resources provided by the school. Nutritional information, menus, and resources are almost always available online to all students, including those with food allergies and those requiring religious accommodations. A simple google search of the college name followed by “dining options,” “nutrition,” or “wellness” can yield lots of information. Nutrition-related mini-classes or informational sessions are typically offered free of charge. Did you know that many schools have personnel such as Registered Dietitians or Nutritionists who will give complimentary consultations? Free resources focusing on healthy eating at college exist, but require a student to seek them out.
- Be creative. Sometimes the vegetables served with hot meals are smothered in fattening sauces. So, grab your protein and hit the salad bar. For example, chickpeas are a good source of protein and fiber. So, if you don’t like the look of the chicken that day, you can still find ways to get protein into your meal. Also, “eat the rainbow” of fruits and veggies. A variety of deeply colorful fruits and vegetables will help the body get the many different vitamins, minerals and antioxidants it needs. See the resource guide below for more creative ideas on what to put on your plate and what to avoid.
- Watch what you drink. Soda, energy drinks filled with caffeine, and even some healthier-looking juices contain artificial ingredients that can easily cause weight gain. Be mindful of so-called “sugar-free” beverages as well. Often the sugar is replaced with artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols. These ingredients may reduce calories on the label, but still wreak havoc on your microbiome. A healthy gut can keep inflammation at bay, improve mood, and keep your immune system in top shape!
- Learn how to make healthy smoothies, snacks, and mini-meals in your dorm. One of the perks of college life is that first-year students have a lot of unstructured time on their hands. Learning to make the most of one’s free time is a skill not everyone figures out right away. Filling some of those hours with dorm room cooking and group dinners is a great way to control what ingredients are in your food and incorporate healthier alternatives into your diet. Students eating at college don’t have to give up on tasty or nutritious meals if they don’t want to. It’s just a matter of learning a few simple strategies!
Dorm Room Meals:
The Five Ingredient College Cookbook by Pamela Ellgen
Dining Hall Tips:
Check this out: Is your college or university participating in the Real Food Challenge? This national program encourages schools to commit to purchasing at least 20% real food, which means the food is locally sourced, ecologically sound and supports humane food practices.
If you have questions about healthy eating at college or are interested in having a private, one-on-one session (phone, Facetime or Skype available for students) to customize a plan for your individual needs, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please post any healthy recipes you make at school or dining hall hacks you love in the comment section below!