The stereotype of a typical college student’s diet is pretty grim. Ramen and fast food. Keggers and 2 a.m. pizza. All-nighters fueled by Red Bull and Cool Ranch Doritos®. Mostly tragic dining hall food.
As with most stereotypes, this isn’t an accurate characterization. Oh, there’s plenty of pizza and energy drinks, but college isn’t really the health wasteland it’s made out to be. Many students eat normal meals at normal hours more often than not. They make at least some attempt to choose healthy fare. Dining halls try to present a variety of nutritious options—by conventional standards, not Primal ones, of course, but they do try.
This is to say, it’s entirely possible to eat healthy in college. Granted, we might want to adjust our standards for what “healthy” looks like in this context (occasional all-nighters are better than frequent all-nighters). And even then, it’s not always easy. Kids who live on campus are limited to what they can prepare in cramped dorm rooms and forage from campus dining services. Time is often at a premium. Grocery bills add up, and getting to the grocery store isn’t always easy. Many students simply aren’t prepared for the responsibility of procuring and preparing their own food.
The purpose of today’s post is to share some tips for how to eat healthy in college dining halls or on a budget. Use these ideas as inspiration, but know that you, dear student, don’t have to follow them to a tee to be healthy. We’re not trying to turn you into social pariahs who are unable to enjoy the occasional late-night drive-thru run with friends or movie night with piles of candy and popcorn.
You have youth on your side, so you can probably get away with more excursions than we older folks. Still, good nutrition is vitally important. Your body and brain are still developing, and the rigors of college mean you’re frequently low on sleep and high on stress. Nutrient-dense, satisfying food is one of the ways you can support yourself and, to some degree, offset (or at least not add to) the stressors you can’t control.
How to Make Healthier Food Choices in College
1. Get to know your surroundings.
Finding the best food options at the best prices means shopping around.
Explore the dining hall options. Even if you plan to eat mostly on campus using a meal plan, large universities often have multiple dining halls and minimarts for students. You might discover that the dining hall across campus has far superior breakfast options, but you prefer to stick closer to your dorm for dinner.
Check out the local grocery stores, delis, and markets. See which ones have the best prices. Sign up for club cards and coupon apps. If you’re not thrilled by the offerings, consider ordering periodically from places like Thrive Market or Amazon. Perhaps your roommate or other students on your floor will want to go in on orders together.
Scope out restaurants within walking or biking distance.
Look for farmer’s markets on or near campus. This is one of the best ways to get fresh fruits and vegetables at good prices.
2. Stock your dorm room.
Create a mini-kitchen in your dorm room with a few essential tools to prepare quick meals and snacks. This could include:
Mini-fridge with freezer
Small blender, like a Magic Bullet or Ninja Personal Blender
One-cup coffee maker
Basic cooking implements (cutting board, knife)
Plate, bowl, utensils
This simple, compact set-up lets you make all sorts of meals that require little or no cooking—salads, smoothies, soup, protein oatmeal, and more. Many dorms also have shared kitchen spaces. Look to see what kind of appliances and tools they provide and whether there is a refrigerator/freezer you can use.
Keep a selection of groceries on hand that you can turn into a quick breakfast on the go (smoothie bowl, microwave egg bites) or to snack on between classes (trail mix, apple with peanut butter and a cheese stick). Here’s a basic shopping list to get you started:
I still think about the fabulous salad bar in my university’s dining hall where a chef would assemble a killer big-ass salad per student’s exact specifications. The dining hall also had good hot food options, fresh fruit, and, of course, pizza, french fries, giant dispensers of sugary cereal, and Chik Fil-A.
There are always options. Pick the ones that serve you best… most of the time, anyway.
4. Build meals around protein and produce.
When it’s time to eat, think protein and produce first. Try to get a decent serving of protein and at least one vegetable or fruit at every meal. This rule of thumb will help you put together meals that have the nutrients you need.
5. Make time for proper meals.
College life gets hectic, but try to minimize the number of meals you eat while running from one class to the next. Don’t skip breakfast, only to end up famished and grabbing something out of the vending machine at 11 a.m. Eat dinner before sitting down to cram for tomorrow’s exam. Eating in a relaxed, unharried state improves digestion, and keeping regular-ish meal times helps your circadian rhythm.
Speaking of your circadian rhythm, eating too late—and certainly eating in the middle of the night—really messes with your internal clock. The occasional late-night meal probably isn’t a big deal, but it shouldn’t become an every weekend thing.
6. Eat fish once in a while.
It’s easy to get by on hamburgers, lunchmeat, and chicken fingers, but you need fish for those essential omega-3s. It doesn’t have to be fresh fish. Canned fish—tuna, sardines, salmon, cod livers—are fantastic and easy to keep in your dorm room.
7. Make simple swaps.
Don’t overcomplicate it. Ask for a lettuce wrap instead of a bun. Get grilled chicken fingers instead of fried. Get a side salad instead of tater tots. Opt for a burrito bowl instead of the plate of nachos. Not every time necessarily, but look for obvious chances to make a healthier choice, and take them.
8. Watch the alcohol intake. Coffee too.
This one needs no explanation. Consider the budgetary benefits, as well.
9. Control what you can; don’t worry about the rest.
Eating in the dining halls means ceding some control over ingredients and options. You’re probably not going to be able to avoid seed oils, for example. While not ideal, this isn’t something to stress about. Use avocado oil, olive oil, and butter or ghee when cooking for yourself. Big props if you don’t mind schlepping a bottle of avocado oil salad dressing to the dining hall. But as long as you’re doing the best you can with what’s available, this is a “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” situation.
The goal isn’t to be a perfect Primal eater, and we definitely don’t want food to be a source of anxiety and misery. What you eat plays a huge role in how you feel, though. Therefore, it behooves you to pay attention to how you’re nourishing your body and to make self-supporting choices more often than not. Instead of thinking about what you “can’t” or “shouldn’t” eat, seek out foods that will help you feel physically well, mentally sharp, and energetic.
Sometimes, the self-supportive choice will be to embrace the social experience of going to the all-you-can-eat buffet with your dorm buddies at 11 p.m. If you do that a few times a week, week in and week out, you’ll feel like hot garbage after a while. Remember the 80/20 principle: strive to make healthier choices most of the time, recognizing that college life is messy and fun and sometimes inherently unhealthy. Just like I’d never suggest that college students must get 8.5 hours of sleep every single night because it wouldn’t be realistic for myriad reasons, I’d never suggest that you must make healthy eating your top priority at every meal. College life isn’t set up for that.
You don’t have to embody the stereotype of an unhealthy college student, though, either. Seek out people who, like you, want to find a good balance between relishing your time at college and also taking care of themselves so they can truly get the most out of every part of the experience.
About the Author
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life.