10 Tips for Eating Healthier On a College Meal Plan

Eating clean in college is HARD, especially when you have limited options and never really know what’s in the food you eat/where it’s coming from. Since drastically cleaning up my diet this past year, I’ve found ways to make my dining plan a little bit more healthy. While there are many things that we can’t control (where ingredients are coming from, what oils the food is cooked in, etc.), we can pick and choose healthier options. So, here are 10 tips that have helped me maintain better nutrition:

  1. Avoid sauces and/or dressings.
    This is something that many people struggle with in general, and it’s even harder when eating dining hall foods. Many of the foods that college campuses make are drenched with sauces to make them taste better. And often times, we as students add dressings to salads because salads taste very bland and often not even very good without them (trust me, I totally understand this). But the problem isn’t having sauces and dressings in general, it’s that typically colleges buy cheaper sauces and dressings because they do have to feed thousands of students a day, so they’re not going to buy the nice low-sugar, clean ingredients kind. And these are the main problems with dressings and sauces: they are full of hidden sugars and bad ingredients including preservatives and weird artificial additives that are going to damage your gut, cause inflammation, and are definitely not going to help your physique.
  2. Avoid eating a lot of packaged snacks from your dining hall.
    While many health food companies are popping up everywhere and coming up with healthier/cleaner snacks, chances are your campus dining halls aren’t going to have them. While I’m lucky enough to have RXBARs at my dining hall, that’s pretty much one of the only snacks I’m more comfortable with putting in my body – and even then it does have a good amount of sugar (14g). Instead, get some veggies or keep some healthier snacks from off campus with you if you really need something to hold you over between meals. Also keep in mind that a lot of snacks will spike your insulin levels (which is a whole different topic), so it’s honestly best to just avoid snacking between meals at all.
  3. Mix and match foods from different stations to create your meals.
    You’re mostly likely not going to get an entire healthy meal from just one place. At least at my school, there are different ‘stations’ within each dining hall that offer different kinds of food. I typically like getting grilled chicken breast from the grill-style station, any veggies and rice they are offering at another station (we have a station that offers more home-cooked type of food), and then extra veggies at the salad bar. This allows you to get a variety of healthy foods to make sure you’re getting all of the micro-nutrients that you need. If you are lucky enough to hit up the grocery store at some point throughout the week, I’d recommend keeping other veggies in your fridge to supplement your meals even more (I like cucumbers and avocados).
  4. Don’t eat too late at night.
    I know how easy it is to get caught up in activities or studying and completely forget to eat until you hear your stomach growl at 8 or 9 PM. While there are many opinions regarding eating too late at night, I’ve found that my body definitely does not react well to it as I usually wake up pretty bloated the next day. There are some studies that say when you eat later at night, your body will more likely store the food as fat instead of using it for energy. Instead, I like scheduling a time to eat. Whether it’s after the gym or as a study break, I personally like to make sure I finish eating dinner around or before 7:30 PM and try to not snack at all afterwards.
  5. Avoid super oily foods.
    If your college is anything like mine, your foods are probably cooked/fried in vegetable oil or sprayed with PAM before going on the grill. This is something that just can’t really be avoided, especially if you’re eating cooked foods like grilled chicken and other meats. But, this is even more of a reason to avoid extra oily foods like fries, bacon, and even omelets that really absorb these cheap oils. They consist of a lot of bad fats and can cause a lot of damage inside your body (leading to inflammation, fatigue, brain fog, and increase in the risk of diseases), especially over time.
  6. Be careful with the buffet.
    While all-you-can-eat sounds great to get your money’s worth of food in college, it’s not always the best for your health overall. I’m not one to track calories/macros, but I am always keeping in mind what I’m eating, and how much of each food I’m eating. Instead, I like doing dine-out options because I’ll get larger portion sizes (since I usually don’t eat until later in the day) but also limit each item that I’m getting (especially carbs or protein). If you do end up dining-in a lot in buffet-style dining halls, try making only one or two trips and get all your food then, so you have a better idea of how much of each item you’re eating.
  7. Make sure you’re actually hungry.
    College students tend to snack….ALL THE TIME. I’m definitely a bored snacker and that can hold me back from a lot of my health goals. It’s important to make sure you’re actually hungry when you eat, and when you are, to eat a full meal. Like I mentioned in tip 2, your dining hall snacks also aren’t going to be very healthy, so it makes it very difficult to maintain clean eating. When you first think you’re starting to feel hungry, it’s most likely that you’re actually thirsty, since your body can’t actually distinguish between the two at that point. However, if you’re stomach has been growling for a while, chances are you’re actually hungry. 
  8. Don’t eat carbs in the morning.
    Dining hall foods consist of A LOT of carbs, especially the breakfast foods. Carbs and sugars spike your insulin levels, and lead to a crash later on in the day. That 3-4 PM nap you feel like you always need? Probably the results of having carbohydrates in the morning. And personally for me, I work the best on a low-carb diet, so I’d rather not eat all my carbs in the morning when I know I’ll probably want carbs in the evening. In general, I would avoid the sugar all together, and keep the carbs to dinner time.
  9. Always check for allergens if possible.
    Many people have allergies to things including gluten, soy, and dairy. But even more people have intolerances and sensitivities to those same allergens without even realizing it. One thing that I have seen at my dining hall is items that are supposed to naturally be allergen-free (like green beans) somehow have a tag next to it that says: Contains soy, wheat, and gluten. Even if you aren’t sensitive or allergic to any of those, the fact that somehow the school has put soy, wheat, and gluten in the green bean dish should be a warning that it might not be a very healthy option (even if it’s vegetables).
  10. Find foods/meals that work for you.
    All the steps above are helpful when trying to maintain good nutrition, but chances are it won’t work without this tip. Consistency is key. Finding meals and foods offered at your dining halls that your body reacts well to is the biggest way to maintain healthy eating in college. Take time to ask questions and look at labels to see if the foods are actually the best foods you can get given your choices. And then stick to them. Don’t cheat and eat a slice of pizza or a burger, because that will only temporarily set you back every single time you do it. Once you’ve found healthy foods that you actually enjoy, be consistent, and you will most likely see amazing changes.

Keep in mind that none of these are hard and fast rules of eating healthy in college. They are tips that have worked for me and that I continue to follow in my life as a student. Everyone is different, so test some out and see which ones work for you!

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