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College Eating 101

Hey to all the college newbies out there. As a college senior, I remember so clearly what you are going through right now. You're all done moving in, your parents waved goodbye and now you're on your own. You make your own decisions, set your own bedtime, and choose what you want to eat and when you want to eat it. Exciting! Unfortunately, it's WAY too easy to make bad choices about food at college. Fast food is prevalent, dining halls encourage overindulging, and it can be challenging to make a healthy meal for yourself when all you have is a microwave and tiny fridge in your dorm room. As a nutrition major and a Whole Foods Market intern, I've learned a few tricks to share. Imagine telling your parents about all of the smart choices you are making - that's gotta help calm them down!


I know, you want to sleep as late as possible before running off to class. But, it's absolutely vital that you grab something to munch on:
  • Eating breakfast provides nutrition and energy for the rest of the day.
  • Increasing evidence shows that skipping breakfast or eating an inadequate one contributes to weight gain because it promotes snacking and the consumption of larger meals later in the day.
Here are some simple breakfast ideas:
  • instant oatmeal - packets or cups - add a handful of sliced almonds for a protein boost
  • granola or cereal with your choice of milk or yogurt. Look for high fiber/low added sugars in your cereals.
  • yogurt
  • fresh fruit - apples and bananas are perfect
  • nut butter spread on whole grain rice crackers or sliced apple
  • protein bars - check for fiber and protein with little added sugar
  • trail mix


Many parents think that meal plans are the best way to go to ensure their college students are eating well. And it's true that having a meal plan does provide ample food. But sometimes it is simply too much. You have got to make good choices when presented with all of that abundance. Here's why:
  • High fat foods are everywhere - think burgers, fries, burritos, pizza, pasta dishes and greasy Chinese food.
  • Foods that are high in fat and calories not only affect your physical body but also seem to have negative influences on your mental clarity, sharpness, attitude and memory - not what you want at college.
So, what to choose instead? Here are my tips:
  • "Look for simple grilled or baked entrees such as chicken or fish. Seek out whole grain sides and lightly steamed vegetables.
  • "Watch portions.
  • "Frequent the salad bar, a LOT.
  • "Most dining halls offer cereal and fruit at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Another favorite tip of mine is to create some eating guidelines. Everyone needs to set their own, but having some already figured out will help you when faced with overwhelming choices. Here are some to get you thinking:
  • Eat a fresh salad at least once a day.
  • Stick to one entrée at a meal. For example, don't get pizza and lasagna and ravioli.
  • Avoid "seconds.
  • Don't skip meals.
  • Keep late eating to a minimum.
  • Splurge on dessert maybe once a week and choose sweet fresh fruit or low-fat frozen yogurt on other days.
  • At restaurants, split your meal into two. Put half of it in a to-go box as soon as it arrives.
And last but not least, remember to keep healthy snacks on hand, like whole grain bread and crackers, unsweetened nut butters, whole grain cereal, fruits, vegetables for snacking (think carrots and celery), hummus, popcorn, pretzels and granola bars. Are you making an "A" in College Eating 101? What are some of your tips on eating well for dorm life?

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screwdestiny says …

I always recommend to people living in dorms to get a small George Foreman grill. It cleans up so easy, just needs an electrical outlet, and allows them to make grilled meats, vegetables, paninis, etc. This way they can make some meals at their place instead of always relying on the dining hall.

Evan Thomas says …

This is a large part of what my blog is about. I'm lucky to go to a school with a very good dining hall, weekly farmers' markets, and 2 whole foods each within a miles walk. I tend to make a lot of my own meals and use fruits and larabars for healthy on-the-go snacks. I save labor intensive meals for the weekend and will usually make a lot of something to eat throughout the week

Mady says …

I had a hot pot in my dorms as we had the MOST anti-vegetarian friendly cafeteria. Pizza, burgers, and salad bar items that were usually frozen to the tray. Hot pot held a half gallon of liquid and is usually just used to boil water, but I would heat up canned soups and even make my own with water, bullion cubes and fresh veggies or pasta. It beats the microwave which kills all the nutrients of the already depleted canned foods.

Laura says …

I think these tips are so great! I know my biggest issue with college eating was not the types of foods I was eating, but how BIG my portions were. I think sticking to one small plate at the dining hall buffet is helpful. Also, get enough sleep! It's harder to eat healthy when you are exhausted and those late nights encourage eating a second dinner.

Dr. Josh Axe says …

Great tips and advice we could all benefit from, not just college students.

Erin says …

I realize that every dining hall has a different set-up, but take advantage of a microwave and items from the salad bar. Often vegetables that were a sides to an entree were cooked in butter or were smothered in a cream sauce. When this happened, I went to the salad bar, piled on the broccoli, red onion, carrots, zucchini, in a bowl added a little bit of water and steamed veggies in the microwave. College eating is VERY difficult. Be creative! :)

Yuri says …

Keep bags of greens and a small onion, a couple of tomatoes, cucumber, etc. in your fridge and a small bottle of dressing. You can buy some boiled eggs at school cafeterias and such, and chop yourself up a really yummy and very nutricious salad. I used to make guacamole in my dorm room all the time since it involves nothing more than cutting (bought forzen garlic portioned out into 1 tsp squares too). Also I eat a lot of fresh veggies or microwave-steam them as a side; I make delicious chicken/turkey sandwiches with high quality cheeses and a healthy serving of veggies but flavor it with salt, pepper, mayo, dijon, and classic white sandwich bread (fortified, of course!). Also, nowadays steel-cut oatmeal is widely available. To avoid cooking, buy the frozen discs! At trader Joe's they're $1.50 for two perfect, hearty portions, and are delicious after 2 minutes and 30 seconds with a sprinkle of brown sugar, salt, and half of a sliced banana. Make yourself a smoothie with some frozen fruit, OJ, and a little bit of silken tofu. Great tasting, loaded with protein, vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and totally portable, too. I could go on and on!

Lola says …

I wish I had these guidelines when I was in college. I think all I used to eat for dinner was the cake they set out every night. Hello, freshman 15!

Ashley Lauren says …

I'm a college freshman this year, and I'm so so glad that my parents bought me a mini fridge with a small freezer compartment and a little microwave. It's only the first week and so far I've had many meals made in my dorm. I've made healthy noodle bowls in the microwave and I keep Morningstar Farms sausage patties in my freezer to cook for breakfasts. Also in my fridge is plenty of water, a carton of Silk, baby carrots, Whole Foods almond butter, Mix1 protein drinks and nonfat Greek yogurt.These are all great for either snacks or breakfast and I also keep mini Clif bars and Kashi bars on hand for healthy snacking. When I go to the dining hall, I always get a salad, some fresh fruit and usually something like the Mongolian stir-fry that my caf has with plenty of fresh veggies and lean meats to choose from. I think a microwave and a fridge are a must, thought, at least for me!

Lisa says …

Mix up what you eat. If you eat the same thing every day you are likely go get bored of it and switch to something unhealthy that you know you like (like pizza), or ordering take out everyday which is expensive and calorie laden. Also go to the gym. My college offered classes (everything from spinning to yoga to kickboxing) that were part of our tuition (aka we did not pay extra for them). Even if classes are not an option try something new at the gym (take up running or swimming). It will help keep you in shape and is a really good study break. Plus you end up meeting people (especially in classes), which is a great thing as a freshmen (and beyond). I think a lot of people gain "beer weight" or weight from alcohol in general. So while you should obviously have fun in college (trust me as a recent graduate it goes by faster than you could imagine) just keep that in mind when you go to parties. Also don't be afraid to treat yourself every once and a while. After a week of midterms or for your roommates birthday, don't be afraid to go to that awesome Italian place in town and order your favorite high calorie pasta as long as it does not happen all that often. College is hard and stressful and it is perfectly okay to treat yourself every now and then.

Kate says …

I think these are great tips. Wish I had them before I left for college several years ago!!!!... but remember fresh is always better than frozen. Enjoy! (both school and food)

Cate says …

I recommend exactly what Erin said below me - use the cafeteria's microwave to steam vegetables from the salad bar. Add a little salt and pepper and you're good to go! I do this with broccoli and it's amazing, so bright green; your vegetables will look 10 times better than the overcooked buffet line vegetables. Other people were kind of jealous when I did it :)

Beth says …

Freshman year can be tricky if you don't have a great dining hall. I used to keep healthy snacks in my room like yogurt, cheese sticks, veggies, rice cakes, etc. and avoided chips and cookies. I also had Clif bars for busy mornings. Trying to keep a balanced plate in the dining hall was key- and you're absolutely right salads are key! Also avoid the regular soda, and make sure you regularly say no to the desserts at lunch and dinner. But I also find that exercise is absolutely key. You can watch what you eat in the dining hall, but your walk to and from class isn't enough exercise for your body, use your school's athletic center!

Grace says …

Add a lot of toppings to a salad, but NO dressing, thinking beets, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, tofu, hard-boiled eggs, jicama, avocado (a major plus for a salad that substitutes good fat in place of bad-for-you dressing!), and maybe some almonds or walnuts or raisins too! I go crazy with salad toppings, then enjoy a healthy-full feeling for hours! A big salad can last a person three dinners...trust me, dressing is not needed ever! A salad bar should have many salad toppings to choose. Also, at night, instead of always getting ice cream or a brownie, keep a fancy dark chocolate bar by your bed or on a desk and enjoy 2-3 squares a night for antioxidants, a good after-feeling, and pure enjoyment! Last, keep pizza to once a week, and NEVER EVER eat donuts or more than 2 handfuls of fries! Both are so bad for you, as are potato chips! Keep it classy college students :)

Dee J says …

Hi - Do some (urban) school include Whole Foods on their meal plans? If so, how can I get more info (in NYC)>

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@DEE - At this time I have not heard of us selling any of our items that are included in meal plans. I would check with your school directly to see what they have to offer!