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How to Eat a Healthy Diet in College

Updated on September 27, 2013
Healthy eating will help you get the most out of your time at college.
Healthy eating will help you get the most out of your time at college. | Source

The college years are an exciting time of learning. Unfortunately, they can also be a time for learning some not-so-great eating habits.

As I was recently putting together a care package for my nephew, a freshman at NYU, I remembered how quickly I gained weight my first year of school. In September I was at my goal weight. By November I'd put on about 10 pounds.

Living away from home for the first time, I indulged in all sorts of yummy things because I could. And I soon became a mindless eater, noshing junk food while studying. Weekend dorm room pizzas beckoned me, and I responded more often than not.

My problem was that I hadn't made plans for eating well at school. I didn't think ahead so that I would be ready to deal with temptations. And, most basically, I hadn't made a decision to take care of myself.

Following a healthy diet while pushing through days full of classes, labs and sometimes even a shift of work is vital. Keeping your body strong and functioning well really will have a positive effect on all you do. Plus, you'll enjoy the fun times more!

Whether you live on campus in a dorm room or an off-campus apartment or house, there are ways to make sure you're getting the nutrition you need to stay healthy and focused.

To eat healthy living on campus, you'll need a good game plan.
To eat healthy living on campus, you'll need a good game plan. | Source

Eating Healthy On Campus

Some dorms prohibit cooking. Others provide small kitchenettes and limited use of equipment. Find out ahead of time what the circumstances will be so you can prepare.

With all the choices in the dining hall, in vending machines and nearby restaurants that deliver, you'll need to plan ahead to keep your diet on a healthy course. Awareness is key: Print a list of daily nutrition requirements and calorie goals and keep it handy. Stay aware of your eating tendencies during the day, especially any low-energy points where you might want to reach for sugar or caffeine - both work quickly but cause a dip later.

Also, make your dorm room (or your part of it) a "healthy zone". Invest in some large plastic canisters, the kind used for flour or sugar, then fill them with good-for-you snacks like homemade trail mix: Combine equal amounts of walnuts, yogurt covered peanuts, dried cranberries, and sesame seeds. (Feel free to substitute in your favorite nuts and dried fruit.)

There are lots of granola bars and cereals you can buy on a budget that can fuel you up for a while. Sesame sticks and low-fat graham crackers fill you up without adding a lot of empty calories.

Eating Healthy Off Campus

In an apartment or house, you'll probably have more access to a kitchen. But time is at a premium for you. Making meals will have to fit in somewhere between classes, studying and working, not to mention other activities.

Coming to school with a recipe book of quick-fix dishes will get you started off right. The magic mix for a healthy meal includes some protein, carbs and dairy. You can keep the ingredients simple, your prep time short, and the combos will still come out satisfying.

Breakfast could be a blueberry & yogurt smoothie with a slice of grain toast. Pack yourself a lunch like a wrap with smashed black beans, diced tomato and avocado slices plus a piece of fruit. Then enjoy a simple dinner of pasta with pesto with steamed frozen peas.

Wherever you're living, start by getting some basics:

  • 2 sets of utensils, bowls and plates
  • A couple of Mugs for soup as well as hot drinks
  • A Can and bottle opener
  • Large, medium and small cooking pots
  • Pot holders
  • A large colander

Some Smart Foods To Buy, Even If You're On A Budget:

  • No or Low Salt Tomato Sauce - like Francesco Rinaldi
  • Pasta - Some store brands offer the whole grain as cheaply as
  • Canned beans - cannellini, chick peas, black, etc.
  • Wheat bread and crackers - 6 or 12-grain has the most fiber
  • Raw walnuts & almonds - shelled and chopped for easy use
  • Brown rice - Minute Rice has several varieties, buy unflavored to get less salt
  • Canned salmon and chicken - like tuna, they pack nutrition and have a long shelf life
  • Canned fruit and vegetables - packed in light syrup or fruit juice
  • Dried herbs - parsley, basil, rosemary, garlic powder, etc
  • Pepper/salt
  • Bottled water and low-sugar ice teas - good substitute for soda

Shopping Tips

- If you can, sign up for coupons online.

- Going shopping with a friend can be a great way to share costs.

- Make a list. You're much more likely to avoid temptation in the store.

If you have use of a fridge, also pick up:

  • Greek or regular yogurt
  • Grated parmesan cheese
  • Whole grain cereal
  • Small container of low fat milk
  • Frozen and fresh produce

For days when you're crunched for time and/or energy, the microwave can be one of your best tools for creating healthy meals.

Microwave Cooking Tips

  1. To prevent the food from drying out as it cooks, cover with plastic wrap, turning back a small area to let air out.
  2. When cooking food with skin - meats like chicken or veggies like tomatoes or potatoes - cut a couple of slits in each piece to allow steam to escape.
  3. To get some browning on the food, lightly brush on canola oil and before cooking and leave that section uncovered.

Effective Microwave Cooking Techniques

Put 1 head chopped broccoli into a bowl. Add 3 tbsp water and cover bowl with a plate. Heat on high for 3 minutes.
Put 2 1/2 cups of pasta into a bowl. Add 11/2 cups of water. Cook on high for 8 minutes, stopping the process once to stir. If the pasta is not quite done, let it cook for another 1-2 minutes. Drain any excess liquid.
Put up to 4 cups of corn in a bowl and cover the kernels with water. Use plastic wrap to cover the top. Cook on high for about 8 minutes. Drain the corn and put it immediately into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Use or store in plastic freezer bags.
Raman noodles can be a part of healthy and delicious dishes.
Raman noodles can be a part of healthy and delicious dishes. | Source

Cheap Ingredients That Make Good Meals

Raman noodles

These noodles can actually be the foundation of some delicious and even healthy meals. Take away the flavoring packet. It adds lots of sodium. You can try diluting it with water to use some other time in soup stock, but better to skip it altogether.

Next, choose two vegetables to add in (try a mix of different colors - carrots & peas or broccoli & cauliflower) and blanch or steam them.

Then, create a light and easy topping, like this creamy microwave Béchamel sauce: Heat 4 tbsp of butter or margarine in a bowl to melt, about 1 minute. Add 4 tbsp of flour and stir until it is blended and smooth. Cook for another 20 seconds. Pour in 2 cups of low fat or skim milk, heating again for 2-3 minutes on high. Sprinkle in 1/2 tsp each of nutmeg and black pepper. If you want, gently stir in 1 cup of cheddar cheese.

Store leftover sauce in airtight containers or freezer bags.


There's a reason diners offer breakfast on their menu any time. Eggs are not only good tasting, but are a great source of protein, Vitamin D, Riboflavin and Phosphorus. And whether you like them hard boiled, fried or scrambled, you can cook eggs in a microwave as easily as on the stove.

Potato wedges and other veggies provide important antioxidant nutrients to the diet.
Potato wedges and other veggies provide important antioxidant nutrients to the diet. | Source


French fries are pretty easy to find at any dining hall, but those tend to come with a lot of salt and fat as well. Homemade fries give you the fiber, potassium and Vitamin C and flavor without the additives you don't want.

To do: Cut up a whole white or sweet potato into wedges. Lay them in a single sheet on a plate, and drizzle canola oil over them. Cook them on high for 8-10 minutes. Sprinkle some grated cheese on top if you like.

Fun Cooking Activities

Cooking and eating is always more fun with others. And your healthy habits may rub off on someone else!

Batch Cooking

If you have a few hours on the weekend, think about prepping ingredients or pre-making whole dishes for the week ahead. Store them in single-serving containers, so you can pop them right into the microwave or oven when you get home from class. Better yet, cook with a friend and you can both share in the bounty!

Cooking Competitions

Some groups of friends now join in friendly contests in the style of Bobby Flay's "Throwdown" or other Food Network shows. In your version, instead of going for fancy or rich foods, put the focus on healthy ingredients combined in fun and creative ways.

Potluck Weekend Dinners

Gathering for meals together can chase away homesickness, and it can help everyone eat better too. Even if you end up being assigned desserts, there are lots of delicious low-fat and low-sugar options. Try some microwave "baked" fruit: wash 4 golden delicious apples and take out all but the bottom 1/2 inch of the core. Put them into a deep bowl. Mix together 3 tbsp of brown sugar and 2 tsp of cinnamon and spoon an equal amount into the center of each apple. Sprinkle some water on top of each apple and cover with plastic wrap. Microwave on high for about 4 minutes. Serve warm.


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