Eating Right In College

Updated October 25, 2022

Eating Right In College is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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How to Stay Healthy in College

Whether they're eating most of their meals at the campus cafeteria or making their own meals in a dorm or apartment kitchen, few college freshmen are immune to the dreaded “Freshman 15,” those extra pounds that creep up during the first year of college because of unhealthy diet habits and a lack of exercise. Eating healthy in college can improve your ability to focus and achieve good grades, reduce stress levels, and also supports a healthy immune system to prevent future problems. There are several things college students can do to clean up their diet and ward off bad dental hygiene, terrible skin care, and weight gain throughout their college years. Making smart nutrition and fitness choices now can make it easy to maintain a healthy weight during college and beyond.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and sticking to a proper nutrition plan in college can be challenging, especially if the student doesn't know how to cook or tends to grab items on the go. There are several ways to master the art of healthy eating and proper nutrition so that it's not only easy to maintain a healthy weight, but also to stay focused and productive on those long days and nights of studying and attending classes. Even the busiest of students can set themselves up for success with the right tools, knowledge, and resources. Here are a few common roadblocks for the typical college student and practical solutions for overcoming them:

Challenge: “I'm stuck with a meal plan!

Students who are locked in to a meal plan, whether this is paid for by their parents or part of a scholarship program, have access to a buffet of items – many of them likely unhealthy – every day of the week. Making healthy choices in the college cafeteria can be challenging when a student is presented with tempting offerings including fried foods, junk food, sugar-laden desserts and carb-loaded snacks. While convenient, these foods offer little to no nutritional value and can cause weight gain relatively quickly.

Still, there are some ways to reduce the diet damage in the cafeteria line. Requesting some simple substitutions and making healthy swaps can help hungry college students enjoy great meals without derailing their diets. Here are some examples of healthy food swaps on a typical college meal plan:

Unhealthy-to-Healthy ItemDescription
Unhealthy ItemChicken SandwichA fried chicken breast, usually slathered in mayo, with cheese on a bun.
Healthy SubstituteChicken Breast Lettuce WrapA grilled chicken breast sans bun and sauce, with extra lettuce. Most cafeterias will have no problem making the quick substitution, and eliminating the bun reduces food waste.
Unhealthy ItemWafflesProbably topped with butter, syrup, and other toppings.
Healthy SubstituteButtermilk Pancakes w/ Light SyrupGriddle pancakes with light or sugar free syrup on the side and top it with fresh fruit.
Unhealthy ItemBeer Battered Cod w/ FriesDeep fried cod filet covered in thick batter, served with a side of french fries.
Healthy SubstituteGrilled Fish Filet w/ VeggiesGrilled salmon or white fish filet with a side of steamed or baked vegetables. It's a satisfying and well-balanced meal that will also keep you focused because it's high in protein.
Unhealthy ItemExtra Cheese or Meat Lover's PizzaDeep dish pizza loaded with cheese and toppings.
Healthy SubstituteFlatbread PizzaPita bread or flatbread topped with healthier toppings such as vegetables or grilled chicken. Many dining halls offer this light alternative to traditional pizza.
Unhealthy ItemLoaded OmeletOmelet cooked in butter and stuffed with cheese, meat and sautéed veggies.
Healthy SubstituteEgg White Omelet or ScambleAsk for an omelet or scrambled eggs made only with egg whites or an egg substitute to cut back on the cholesterol. Request no butter or oil to prepare this item and load it up with fresh veggies like spinach, and salsa.
Unhealthy ItemHot Fudge Brownie SundaeWarm brownie topped with ice cream, whipped cream, candy and other toppings.
Healthy SubstituteChocolate Pudding CupSkip the sundae line in favor of the refrigerated section where you can take care of that chocolate craving with lower calorie chocolate pudding. Mix in some berries or top with fat-free whipped for a treat.

Challenge: “I'm stress eating!” or “I don't have time to eat!”

Stress can wreak havoc on a student's body and may cause a loss of appetite or cravings for sugary and high-fat foods. Many students develop a stress eating habit when trying to get through those difficult days of juggling classes and other responsibilities or when working late nights to meet deadlines. Some may eat compulsively to wind down after a long day. When those unhealthy eating habits turn into more serious problems, such as eating disorders like binge eating or bulimia, it's important for the student to address mental health issues with a professional. Many college campuses have a wealth of wellness and mental health resources available for students struggling with eating problems and can help the student develop healthier eating habits.

For those who are simply stress eating, learning how to deal with stress without turning to food needs to be high on the priority list. Students need to be proactive about seeking out wellness resources and activities that combat stress. The following are few ideas to consider:

Ideas to Combat Stress

For those who are simply stress eating, learning how to deal with stress without turning to food needs to be high on the priority list. Students need to be proactive about seeking out wellness resources and activities that combat stress. The following are few ideas to consider:

Better time management.

Developing good time management skills can reduce stress by helping the student stay on top of deadlines and keep track of that ongoing to do list. Students can benefit from apps like Focus Booster that helps keep track of where time goes so the student can get more done with less stress – including preparing healthy and nutritious meals for the busy day.

Connecting with friends or family.

Reaching out to friends and family to check in, set up a coffee or lunch date, or just to chat can help reduce stress and improve a student's mood. Scientists say that cultivating social networks of friends and family can foster trust and also help with relaxation.

Getting more sleep.

Sleep isn't always a priority for the deadline driven college student but is absolutely essential for overall health, mental wellbeing and for keeping cravings at bay. Experts say that a lack of sleep can make it harder to fight food cravings and the stress endured from lack of sleep can lead to emotional eating.

Group yoga classes.

Signing up for a weekly yoga class, or a few classes a week, at the on-campus fitness and recreation center can help to keep stress at bay.

Practicing meditation.

Taking a stress break by practicing meditation can keep distracting thoughts about food and cravings at bay. Students new to meditation can use apps like the Take a Break!, a guided meditation for stress relief app by Meditation Oasis, to enjoy the benefits of deep relaxation any time of the day or night.

Regular exercise.

Research shows that exercise can reduce stress and anxiety. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that jogging, walking, biking or dancing three to five times a week for just 30 minutes can help to better manage stress.

Yoga practice in the dorm room.

If joining a group yoga class doesn't work with their schedule or isn't offered on campus, doing a yoga routine in the dorm is another option. Students can use sites like DoYogaWithMe that provide hundreds of streaming videos for all levels free of charge, or buy a yoga DVD to practice yoga at their leisure.
1. Shop with a grocery list
It's important to walk into the grocery store with a purpose instead of being driven by hunger or swayed by clever marketing and advertising practices. Students can make a list of ingredients and staple items they need and can store easily in their dorm room each week. This can be an ongoing list stored on the smartphone or laptop computer of easy access. Trello is a great app – both desktop and mobile – for this purpose.
2. Shop in the right aisles
Shopping the perimeter of the store is one of the easiest ways to discover healthy, unadulterated foods and stock up on the basics faster. Shopping the perimeter means the shopper will walk through the produce section, dairy section, and meat sections first; these areas of the grocery store typically have the most nutritious items available. Everything else filling the aisles is typically highly processed and packaged for sale – and far less healthy.
3. Head to the farmer's market
Many college campuses are located near a local farmer's market which can be the perfect destination for students to stock up on fresh, seasonal produce at a lower cost than prices at the grocery store. Many farmers' markets also host vendors that sell organic, vegan, and other healthy items that a college student can enjoy as a treat or healthy snacks throughout the week.
4. Reconsider bulk buying
Unless the student plans to cook in bulk, it's generally not a good idea to buy anything in bulk because there is a risk of spoilage. Students can save money and prevent food waste by only buying what's needed. For example, it's better to purchase single servings of yogurt instead of larger containers and small packs of refrigerated chicken breast instead of family size trays that cannot be frozen.
5. Keep things simple
Sticking with plain foods opens up the opportunity to make multiple meals using a few key ingredients. Instead of spending more money on blackened chicken, crusted salmon filets, marinated vegetable packs, and other packaged items, students need to stick with the basics – chicken breast, fresh salmon, and fresh or frozen veggies without additives – so they can cook up a variety of meals and food combinations using different seasonings of choice.
6. Make full use of coupons
Students who do need to buy dry goods, canned items and other items from the center aisles of the grocery store can seek out coupons to cut the cost of each shopping trip. Many stores offer in-store coupons and special deals on certain items throughout the week and give shoppers a chance to double up on savings in the event they also have a manufacturer's coupon. Sites like make it easy to find coupons on a variety of grocery items in a few clicks.
7. Don't shy away from generics
Students stocking up on oatmeal, rice, pasta, noodles, canned foods and other staples to make those everyday meals can pare down the grocery bill by sticking with generic brands. Store brands are just as good as top brand names and significantly cheaper.
8. Head to the food co-op
Students with large appetites and those who want to experiment with a variety of healthy ingredients can load up on basics at a fraction of the cost of the grocery store by shopping at the co-op. Food co-ops are member owned food distribution outlets where members can get a discount on locally sourced foods in return for participating in co-op decision making processes.
9. Go meatless
Every college student needs plenty of protein in his or her diet but these don't have to come solely from chicken, turkey, red meat or egg whites. Going meatless several days of the weak means students can get their protein needs met from whole food protein sources, including lentils, beans, tofu and soy products. These are significantly cheaper than meat-based protein and contain other nutrients to round out the diet.
10. Read food labels closely
Even granola bars and snacks labeled as “healthy” may contain hidden sugars such as brown rice syrup, corn syrup, fructose and dextrose. Eliminating extra sugar from the diet can prevent sugar highs and crashes that only trigger hunger. Reading food labels closely makes it that much easier to eat nutritious and wholesome foods.

  • Cooking spoons
  • Disinfecting wipes
  • Eating utensils
  • Hand sanitizer
  • MugsSingle plate and bowl set
  • Small cutting board
  • Microwaveable bowls
  • Kitchen knife

1. Be Knowledgeable about what is HEALTHY

Heading into college you will meet many different people who will have their own view of what is healthy. The pressure of college life may have some turning to crash or fad diets. My number one tip is to know what is healthy, what works well for your body. In the end it is your body that will benefit from the research or suffer from the lack of effort. Good nutrition is not only important in avoiding the Freshman 15 but also will give you energy to get through long classes and busy days.

2. Plan and prepare

College is exciting! You are on your own for the first time, making your own decisions, and temptations are everywhere – Should I skip class for a little extra sleep? How about some mac and cheese at 2 a.m.? Planning and preparing helps keep you on track to help avoid the pounds that seemingly can sneak up on you. Plan your meals and your schedule for eating. Prepping food ahead can be a challenge in the dorms, but food courts and cafeterias are often jammed packed with healthy options. Make sure you know when they are open and which locations have healthy options so that you're not wasting time searching for good choices. I also find it helpful to have a nutritious go-to snack when I get really busy. For instance, I drank protein shakes made from Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey. All you need to make a tasty shake is a shaker cup and water or milk – here's no need for a blender. It's affordable for a college student (about one dollar a shake), can help curb cravings, and helps fill you up, and one shake has 24 grams of protein to support your muscles.

3. Be consistent with exercise and nutrition

Consistency is key to seeing results and avoiding weight gain. If you get in a groove with your nutrition and exercise it becomes second nature. Remember that it's much harder to start over than it is to keep going. Yes, you are bound to have a night of Chinese food or pizza, but hop up the next day and continue with your healthy choices. I was a Division I athlete heading into college so I had set workout times with the trainers to keep me at my best for my sport. If you aren't playing a competitive sport in college, consider joining a club sport. That way you are getting a good workout in, meeting friends, and creating memories (which is what college is about!).

Why is it so challenging to eat right in college?  

For me the challenge was all the options at my fingertips. I could have anything I wanted for my meals. College food courts are great for variety, but they aren't always healthy and it's easy to give in. At home, most of my dinners were with my family so often consisted of lean meat, vegetables, and a carb – a balanced meal. In college you don't have to eat the veggies if you don't want to and no one is going to make you sit at the table until you do. Keep those "family dinner" traditions going. Throw some veggies on your tray and eat them. Start meals with a salad filled with greens.

 How can students eat healthy when they're on a college meal plan?

There are always healthy options. I personally loved the salad station when I was in college – I could build my own salad, add grilled chicken and as much/little dressing as I wanted. At most food courts there is a grill station where you can get grilled chicken, a good option for lean protein. In between meals I usually would have a Gold Standard Whey protein shake. It helped curbed my cravings and helped give me energy for my athletic training. I also recommend having a healthy snack option that doesn't require a lot of preparation on-hand all the time.

How can students eat healthy on a budget?

Some college campuses have community grills. Get a few friends together to chip in and do cook outs, grilling meats and vegetables. Fresh fruit and produce or even steam-in-bag vegetables that you can prep in a microwave are healthy items you can find on a college budget.

How can students make eating healthy a priority when they are juggling so much?

Consistency will make it a habit! Arriving at college is a whirlwind in itself. From day one, work in healthy choices and consistent exercise. Healthy eating and daily workouts will keep you feeling and looking your best. Freshman year is SO exciting; don't let unhealthy choices make you a drag!

Nutrition Tips: With Expert Lauren Blake

Portrait of Lauren Blake

Lauren Blake

Lauren Blake, RD, LDN, earned a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from Miami University and currently works as a Sports Nutrition Manager, specializing in wellness, health coaching, and weight management, at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center's Health & Fitness Center. Her previous experience includes Human Nutrition Dietetic Intern at OSU and Inpatient Dietitian.

What are three top tips that will help college students stay fit and avoid the freshman 15?

Make the dining hall work for you.

Students may feel overwhelmed by the endless amount of options available to them when they first step foot in their university's dining hall, but most colleges do offer some healthy options. Choose foods that are baked, broiled, steamed, grilled, or roasted, and try filling half of your plate with fruits and veggies first. The salad bar can be a great option; just beware of extra calories from items like cheese, bacon, croutons, and cream-based dressings.

Limit calories from beverages.

One of the major reasons for weight gain during college years is alcohol consumption. Alcohol can pack on pounds quickly, so for those over 21, it is best to enjoy in moderate amounts and avoid drinks mixed with regular soda or other sugar-sweetened beverages.

Get Moving!

It is common for many students to go from playing sports or being involved in other activities year-round in high school to quickly stopping once their last season is over. It's important to make exercise a regular part of your routine, especially if you find yourself indulging more often. Find a club or team to be involved with or visit your school's fitness center for a workout a few times per week. Walking or biking to class instead of driving or taking the bus also adds extra activity to your day.

Why is it so challenging to eat right in college?

There are so many options available to students when they get to college – it can sometimes be overwhelming. Many schools are starting to offer healthier choices, but foods like pizza and ice cream are almost always readily available and visible as soon as you step through the dining hall doors. Most dining halls also serve food buffet style, meaning students can pile as much food as they want on their plate for just one meal “swipe” or ticket. This not only leads to overeating, but most often to overeating unhealthy foods, for the sole fact that less nutritious options are right there in front of them.

How can students eat healthy when they're on a college meal plan?

Don't skip out on breakfast

Eating breakfast will help you start your day off right and give you the energy you need to power through morning classes. You'll also be less likely to overeat later in the day because you won't be ravishing by the time you get to lunch or dinner.

Snack Smart

Stocking your dorm room with healthy snacks that combine a carbohydrate with a protein or healthy fat will keep you satiated and less likely to reach for unhealthy snacks like chips or cookies. Try keeping pre-portioned fruit like an apple or banana with peanut butter.

How can students eat healthy on a budget?

Embrace Leftovers

Most portions at college dining halls or restaurants are much larger than what is really needed for a single person. Save money by boxing up half of your dinner entrée for lunch the next day to get two meals for the price of one.

Meatless Monday

Foods like beans, eggs, yogurt, and nut butters are all great protein sources and can be great meat-alternatives for planning budget-friendly meals.

Compare brands

Generic brand foods are typically cheaper than name-brand foods, and are almost always identical (or at least very similar) when it comes to ingredients and taste. Try testing out store-brand cereals or pastas to save some money on your next grocery trip.

How can students make eating healthy a priority when they are juggling so much?

Remember that eating well means feeling well, and feeling well helps you to perform better in your everyday activities. Whether it's in school, a sport, or a club, fueling yourself properly will help you thrive in every aspect of your day.

On-Campus Student Health Resources

College students don't have to drive off campus to join an expensive gym or worry about paying a premium for healthy meals at a restaurant, or from a meal delivery service, to stay in great shape year round. Many colleges provide several on-campus resources for health conscious college students, such as access to nutrition centers, multiple gyms and fitness classes, and health centers to help students learn more about nutrition and make informed choices. Here are some valuable on-campus resources college students can take full advantage of during their freshman year, and beyond.

Fitness and recreation centers on the college campus promote healthy lifestyle choices by providing students with full access to fully equipped gyms, swimming pools, tennis courts and other recreational amenities. Some also offer group fitness classes such as indoor cycling, bootcamp, yoga and dance fitness programs to give students a chance to learn new skills and interact with fellow students in a non-competitive environment. Many colleges host running clubs and other social groups based around fitness, such as dance fitness clubs and tennis. Membership is usually free and can be a great opportunity to socialize with like-minded people. Some centers support intramural sports where students can join a league regardless of their skill level. Joining an intramural sports team can help students stay active and enjoy a competitive sport without stress or pressure, and is an attractive alternative for many students who simply do not like working out at a gym or taking group fitness classes.

Campus nutrition centers are typically associated with nutritional science degree programs and may offer an array of services at little to no cost to enrolled students. These may include nutritional consulting services and dietary assessments, weight management support, eating disorder counseling, sports nutrition services, and meal planning resources. Nutrition centers can be a valuable go-to resource for students who may be struggling with eating disorder issues, obesity, poor body image, and health issues directly related to nutrition and food intake. Certified nutritionists and dietician canprovide guidance and meal planning resources to keep students on a healthy track.

Nutrition and health go hand in hand. If a college doesn't have a nutrition center, students may be able to get help from a health center that provides nutritional guidance and support for students struggling with overeating or an eating disorder. Some health centers also provide services such as: medical nutrition therapy for health issues such as heart disease, diabetes prevention, and food allergies; obesity screenings; nutrition workshops and education; behavior counseling related to food issues; and sports and performance nutrition programs. Certified nutritionists are usually available by appointment and may be able to refer the student to a specialist when needed.

Here are some other ways to stay healthy and fit on campus:

Other Fitness and Nutrition Help & Resources

Today's tech-savvy college student can also be proactive about their diet, fitness and health by making use of free apps and online resources to keep themselves on track. There are abundant free resources available for students who want to take better care of their health, stick to an exercise program, reach their weight loss goals, and enjoy a better quality of life. Here are some valuable fitness and nutrition resources for any college student:

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