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Eating as a College Freshman: Healthy Not Wealthy

As college acceptance letters find their way to stressed high school seniors all across the nation, we may now shift our attention (and stress) from working on applications to actually preparing for the drastic shift to college life.

While, roommates, social groups, financial aid, and class selections may be the first things you worry about, it is important to not forget something we all have to do: eat.

Colleges throw together students with a vast array of culinary skills, food preferences, cultural foodways, and family structures into one big system in which they all live and eat together. Because of this drastic variation in what each student was used to eating prior to college, dining halls and vending machines will often fuel their college student body with standardized, overly-processed, and not very healthy culinary options. 

As most teenagers begin this major transition to college, their food and their health are the last things on their minds. When combined with the standard dining hall or vending machine fare at most universities, this creates an environment that breeds unhealthy lifestyles well into adulthood. Sadly, according to an extensive government survey, college freshman gain about 8 lbs during their first year, and that change in weight is even more drastic for students who are overweight prior to entering college. 

College is essentially the first step into life as an adult, and part of that independent decision-making includes how and what we decide to eat and cook. This article outlines some important ways to prepare and practice for the transition to eating as a college student, without worrying about falling into a pattern of unhealthy eating.

  • You can never go wrong with fruits and vegetables

While this may seem quite obvious to many of you, it is easy to forget how important produce is in your own diet! When browsing the dining hall for options try to take a look down at your plate and make sure that about half of it is a fruit and/or vegetable. 

When looking for those good produce options in your dining hall, consider what fruits are in season and taste delicious when eaten raw, as eating seasonally can be healthier for you and make your food taste better! Also, when choosing vegetable dishes always try to pick something that looks delicious, because forcing yourself to eat your most hated veggies is not going to make you happy or fulfilled at the end of the meal.

Beware of fruit options that are loaded with added sugar, like Raisin Bran, or vegetable options loaded with saturated fats, like french fries. Instead, enjoy your favorite fresh fruits, steamed or sauteed vegetables, roasted potatoes, and even try making your own mason jar salads.

  • Learn how to budget and shop for food

Every college student will be in a different place with their finances, but it is safe to assume that the average student will not have a lot of money. That is just a reality we are all going to have to deal with. Our monetary needs though can vary greatly depending on what scholarships we got, which schools we end up going to, and whether or not we plan to work our way through college. Because of this variation nobody’s budget is going to be the exact same, but there are some general things all college students should remember when figuring out their food budget. 

You can begin by figuring out how much money you have coming in each month. After subtracting your fixed expenses (like rent or students loans) from that, and taking out the amount you want to keep in savings, you are left with the money you can spend on non-fixed expenses, including food. From what is left try to designate a reasonable amount for food, and when determining that amount it may be helpful to know that the average American college student spends about $42-55 on food each week. Make sure to consider your lifestyle, where you plan to buy groceries, how many meals you eat in a day, and how much money you would like to have left on other items like clothes or concerts.


Not only will budgeting help you stay afloat financially, but if you learn how to shop smarter as well you can get more bang for your buck and save on your food budget! To shop smarter try:

      1. Utilize coupons (and download coupon apps like RetailMeNot)
      2. Buy generic items instead of name brand, as it is often cheaper and sometimes made by the exact same manufacturers
      3. Shop seasonally when buying produce
      4. Look at what is on sale!
      5. Check out your local dollar store for steals on generic goods
      6. Buy frozen if you can’t go through all the food you buy before it goes bad normally 
      7. Take and save the seasoning packs, sauce packets, sweeteners, and on-the-go products from your dining hall or takeout orders for later use.


  • Eat low-budget superfoods

As mentioned, college students don’t have a lot of money to their name, and it is super important to learn how to budget when buying groceries or eating out. However, if your budgeting goes awry and you don’t have much left for food, you are still going to want to figure out how to fit in some nutrient-dense, minimally-processed foods into your diet.

Some of the cheapest superfoods out there include eggs, bananas, rice, beans, peanut butter, oatmeal, and apples. If you stick these on your grocery list while shopping smart and figuring out your budget you can still have delicious, healthy meals on your table. 

If you are less concerned about shopping and budgeting because you plan to get most of your food from the dining hall, you can still try to incorporate these superfoods into your diet, but just load up on them at the dining hall instead of buying them at a grocery store. For vegetarians, rice and beans provide a complete, filling, and delicious protein. If your dining hall has dishes that include typically more expensive superfoods, like blueberries, avocados, or sweet potatoes, then enjoy them while you can as a college freshmen!

If you are stuck in your dorm room with only a microwave, you can also make this cheap burrito bowl using some of the aforementioned cheap superfoods as well.


  • Aim to always eat breakfast, even if that breakfast is at 12pm

A myriad of studies have shown that students who eat a healthy breakfast actually do better in their classes, and for many of us that is one of our biggest goals in college. Breakfast itself is essentially your first meal of the day (yes, even if you are getting up at 1pm and eating then). This meal starts up your metabolism, stabilizes your blood sugar, controls your hunger, and boosts your energy!

Because of how important breakfast is you should always strive to eat a high fiber starch or carbohydrate (like fruits or whole grains) with a lean protein or healthy fat. Some options you may find in your dining hall include: hot oatmeal, scrambled eggs, yogurt with fruit, toast with peanut butter, or a hearty smoothie. 

Also, if you are constantly running late (like me), there are ways for you to still grab a quick bite as you walk to class. Some fast breakfasts you can keep in your dorm include: a banana, instant oatmeal packs, individually-packaged yogurts, cheese sticks with apple slices, or hard boiled eggs.

Again if you are stuck with a microwave in the dorm and are trying to make a healthy breakfast you can try to make these “scrambled” eggs or overnight oats in a jar



  • Stock up your dorm room with cheap, healthy snacks

Keeping healthy snacks around you may sound like the most “vlogger mom” thing to do, but it is truly important to consider. When studying in your dorm or sitting in long classes, the craving for a yummy snack is inevitable. If you come prepared, and either purchase or cook your snacks smartly, then you never have to worry about eating an entire family size bag of Cheetos when studying for finals.

Enjoying a great snack can help stabilize your blood sugar and fuel your brain for a long day ahead, as well as help improve mood. 

There are many different types of snackers out there, so hopefully one of these recipes suits your taste. This microwave popcorn hack is perfect when you are looking for something crunchy. These quick homemade potato chips are perfect for a salty snack. Finally, these no-bake energy bites will satisfy your sweet tooth. 

If you don’t want to make any of these recipes you can always stick to purchasing your snacks, but just choose wisely. Try to go for minimally processed items like fruit, cheese sticks, whole grain chips and crackers, or yogurts. Also look out for items with sneaky amounts of added sugar or salt. Besides that, feel free to grab a whole grain granola bar or baked potato chips and enjoy!


  • Cook, meal prep, or host a potluck with friends

In college it is often rare to have a chance to eat home-cooked meals, prepare food from your culture of origin, or simply eat with a close-knit group. Despite this, there are always ways to organize more opportunities for that in your life throughout college and into adulthood. 

First, by cooking as a group with your friends to meal prep for the week you can all split the cost of ingredients, build new friendships, and strengthen social connections. This saves you time, money, and effort. Plus there is the added bonus of getting to cook with your new friends.

If you want to go beyond that, hosting a potluck gives you a chance to try everybody’s favorite foods, attempt to cook some of your family’s cultural recipes on your own, learn more about the culinary traditions of other cultures, and expand upon your social experiences through their food. 


  • Lastly…Leave room to indulge!

This article may have just sounded list a strict set of rules, but we always have to remember to enjoy ourselves, love our bodies, and appreciate every meal or snack that is set down in front of us. Eating healthy is not a restrictive diet, but merely a mindset and lifestyle that can be incorporated to varying extents in your life, even if you are a newly broke college freshman.

If you are dying for that slice of chocolate cake from the dining hall, go for it! Just try to be mindful of how many days in a row you may be eating a highly sugary dessert and possibly figure out alternative options to meet that craving on a few of those days. That sort of mindfulness can be applied to any food and easily incorporated into your decision-making at the dining hall. 


When transitioning from highschool to college, remember to enjoy the food, enjoy the independence, enjoy the decision-making, enjoy the new friends, enjoy the healthy options, enjoy the unhealthy options, and enjoy every new opportunity for growth, learning, connection, and engagement. 

Food is there to fuel your body and mind, and as you enter college that is even more important. Congratulations to all the seniors, and consider making yourself some homemade popcorn to celebrate and prepare for that ~college lifestyle~.


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