Back to school time is just around the corner, and if you’re heading off to college this September you may be wondering what to do about eating well. Particularly for those of you who are going to be living in dorms, this can be a challenge. And for vegetarian college students a bit of mindfulness, a good healthy eating strategy, and preparation goes a long way.
If you’re living in a dorm room, your cooking equipment may be quite limited. Look into whether you can rent or buy a mini refrigerator for your room so you can keep a small stash of healthy foods handy. You may not be allowed a burner or hot plate in your room, but usually small appliances like electric kettles and microwaves are ok, and these can go a long way when it comes to making your own healthy food. Also, a personal-sized blender like a Magic Bullet is great for whipping up smoothies to sip on your way to class.
Also get yourself a set of cutlery, a small cutting board, some food storage containers, and a few good knives. This makes chopping up fruit and veg for snacking on a breeze, and if you’ve got a container of healthy snacks in your mini fridge you’re more likely to reach for those while studying.
Many residence halls have communal kitchens, either one on each floor or one for the building to share. If your dorm does have a kitchen you have access to, you’re in good shape. Buy yourself a couple of pots and pans to keep in your room and take them to the kitchen when you’re ready to cook.
I used to con my parents into taking me on a Costco run just before school went back, and if that’s an option for you I highly recommend doing the same. Get some of those under-the-bed storage bins and stock up on healthy foods with a long shelf life like nuts and nut butters, seeds, dried fruits, and whole-grain crackers or rice cakes.
Be mindful of “healthy” snack foods like granola bars, which can be sugar bombs, and opt for making your own snack mixes where you can control the ingredients. If you do want to keep a stash of bars or similar for grab-and-go snacks, read the labels carefully before you buy. Opt for something with a good amount of protein and dietary fiber to keep your blood sugar stable.
Also keep a small stock of produce handy. Apples can be stored at room temperature for a couple of weeks, as can most citrus fruits. If you’ve got a mini-fridge, you can keep raw veggies on hand as well.
Make friends with your microwave
I know, I know. Microwave cookery has a bad rap. But it can be key to being able to cook your own healthy food in your dorm room. If you didn’t grow up in a magical time called the 80’s you may not be aware of how much cooking you can actually do in a microwave. But seriously, from oatmeal to scrambled eggs to rice to steamed veggies, you can do it in a microwave. You can also buy frozen steamer bags of rice, vegetables, and pasta that you can quickly nuke. No pizza pops here!
Surviving the food hall
If you’re on a meal plan and eating in the campus food hall, maneuver your way around the French fries and pizza and hit up the salad bar first and foremost. If you load up your plate (and fill your belly) with fresh produce and whatever protein is on offer (tofu, nuts, hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese, etc) you’ll be able to make healthier choices when it comes to the rest of the meal.
If vegetarian and vegan options are scarce, talk to the staff and see if you can arrange special meals or have them set something aside for you. Although they’re producing food on a large scale, most food halls will be quite accommodating when it comes to special dietary needs, and most schools will always have at least one vegetarian or vegan option for a main meal.
You can also use one of your handy food storage containers to mix and match food hall finds with your own stash of healthy options. And don’t be afraid to swipe the fruit! Often there’s a basket of produce hanging out somewhere near the exit. Take it! Throw an apple or a banana in your bag for a quick snack later in the day.
I’m not talking pizza here! These days there are lots of great options for food delivery services, from ready meals to grocery delivery services, and even a local CSA. You can split the costs with your dorm mates and get some really delicious healthy food delivered right to your door.
Also, look into what alternate services your college might have. The university where I did my first nutrition degree had a small farm, and during harvest season they put on weekly farmer’s markets in the main part of campus. There was also a student-run food co-op that sourced all kinds of harder to find (in those days) health foods. Places like these often have volunteer opportunities as well, which is a great way to meet people and get involved in the food scene on your campus.
Don’t skip meals!
Whether you’re eating at the food hall or becoming a dorm-room cooking ninja, be sure to get into a healthy eating routine. Skipping meals because you’re busy studying will only set you up for unhealthy eating when you’re too hungry to eat mindfully. AND, your brain functions better when it’s well fed!
Keep healthy snacks on hand for those times (midterms, I feel ya) when things get a little bonkers and you may not be making time for a proper sit down meal. But also put those food storage containers to good use or ask the food hall to pack your meals to go if needed. Eat foods that fill you up (like oatmeal) and always remember a serving of protein (about the size of your fist) along side your salads and vegetables.
Water, water everywhere. Drink up! But try to avoid sugary and caffeinated drinks and stick to water most of the time. Invest in a good refillable water bottle that you can schlep around campus, and add slices of cucumber or citrus to spruce it up.
Sometimes it can be tough to tell whether you’re actually hungry or if you’re thirsty instead, so if you’re feeling the munchies in the middle of a study session, start with a big glass of water and then re-evaluate your hunger.
Good luck this year, you guys got this!
Cafeteria food photo via Shutterstock