While in school, even the most conscientious eaters can be swayed by the sight of soft-serve ice cream and smell of French fries, especially when trying to be careful with spending. While these are fine to enjoy sometimes, integrating nutrition-packed foods into your diet is important.
For many students, eating on the go can be a challenging feat. Sixty-nine percent of Canadian respondents to a recent Student Health 101 survey said they found it difficult to eat healthy on campus. Juggling life’s responsibilities with classes leaves little room to think about making healthy dining decisions.
“[There’s] lots of pizza, fast food, and Starbucks-type restaurants. There’s only one healthy smoothie place on my campus, and it’s super expensive,” says Nick N., a second-year undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia.
Instead of waiting for the sluggishness caused by a fried-food diet to set in, start making healthy decisions right now: at the start of the school year. Develop a plan for preparing, packing, and bringing food wherever each day takes you. Armed with some nutrition basics, you can build meals that’ll keep you energized and focused.
Try out these tips to optimize how you eat.
We come in different sizes and shapes—that’s a fact of human diversity. So it makes sense that there’s not a “best” or even “healthiest” way to eat for everybody. Your caloric and nutritional needs depend on your size, activity level, and individual biology. And the non-nutritional roles of food—social, emotional, mental, and even spiritual—are equally important.
Getting to know your own personal food needs is a learning process. Eating well isn’t about counting calories or following a fad diet. In fact, that can actually distract you from listening to what your body has to say. Instead, focus on getting to know what kind of food fuels you best.
- How much energy do I need to fuel my activities?
- What types of food help me feel my best? E.g., Do I feel most satisfied after a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, or do I feel best when I eat more protein, such as peanut butter toast or two eggs?
- How do particular foods affect my mood? My digestion? My clarity of mind?
- Will my last meal sustain me through my classes, or do I need to pack a snack?
- Do I eat differently when I’m getting enough sleep (or not)?
- What’s my body’s response to hunger?
- What does fullness feel like? What does satisfaction feel like? Do fullness and satisfaction feel the same or different?
- What kind of flavours and textures—sweet, savoury, salty, spicy, crunchy, smooth—are most satisfying to me?
Now that you’ve spent some time getting to know your body, it’s time to explore your food options. Keep these tips in mind:
Research shows that curiosity improves memory and makes us better learners, according to a 2014 study published in Neuron. Why not bring this quality into your eating experience? Being open to new possibilities helps us think, live, and eat more flexibly.
To up your curiosity game, try out
- A cultural cuisine that’s new to you
- Experimenting with spices and condiments
- Tasting at least one new fruit or vegetable a week
Scan the cafeteria or dining hall for foods you know you like from every food group—fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, heart-healthy oils (e.g., olive oil), and dairy (or calcium-containing alternatives like fortified soy milk). Your plate doesn’t have to look a certain way, nor does every meal have to contain all the food groups. Instead, think of balance as a big-picture goal to guide your choices throughout the day and over the week.
Make healthy eating affordable
Making healthy food choices takes some effort, especially with a busy schedule, not to mention it can be pricey. For cost-effective, healthy meals, use what’s available on or near campus as additions to what you bring from home. If you’re an online student or you live off campus, capitalize on what your neighbourhood has to offer and the fact that you can cook at home.
And never underestimate the power of leftovers. “Preparing larger amounts of food at [dinner] allows me to bring healthier lunches and even save some money,” says Kristina J., a second-year graduate student at the University of Manitoba.
- Aim to get at least three food groups in a meal and two in a snack. For example, lunch might be a grilled turkey and veggie sandwich, a pear, soda water, and a brownie. Great options for afternoon snacks could be pita with hummus, veggies and chips with bean dip, or a yogurt-and-fruit parfait.
- Eat regularly throughout the day and do your best to eat breakfast to avoid feeling sluggish in your morning classes.
Eating well is about finding food that suits your tastes, supports your needs, and honours your values.
Rotate between food stations to get the best variety
If the grill is your default stop, consider the deli, salad bar, or stir fry station for your next meal.
Add vegetables wherever you can
Pasta stations, sandwich stations, salad stations—wherever you can throw in some veggies, do it.
Explore condiments, herbs, and spices
If you don’t have access to these at school, purchase a few of your favourites to keep at home.
Find out what your friends are into and ask for their advice
You might discover a cool new takeout spot or a genius dorm room food hack.
Getting to know your local grocery store also comes in handy when you need to fuel a late-night study sesh or when the campus dining services are closed. On-campus food stores are a good option too, though they may have a limited selection and can be a bit pricey.
“When ordering food on campus, I try to choose whole grain/wheat breads and tortillas for sandwiches and wraps and add as many veggies as possible. I also opt for water instead of soda or a sports drink,” says Susannah R., a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Wyoming.
- Keep a few staple foods on hand, such as low-sugar cereal, nuts, yogurt, fruit, chopped veggies, and low-sodium canned beans and soups. Keep your eye on the expiration dates of perishable foods and try not to buy more than you’ll use within a week or so.
- Pita bread, a whole-grain wrap, or an English muffin make excellent bases for a variety of toppings. Try tomato sauce with feta and cherry tomatoes, peanut butter with banana and honey, or mashed beans with avocado.
- Add some excitement to instant oatmeal cups by mixing in nuts and fresh or dried fruit or berries.
- If your home or residence hall has a stove, use it! Cook some pasta, add in veggies, a splash of olive oil, and that leftover chicken from lunch, and you’ve got a full meal.
- No stove? No problem. You’d be amazed at what you can make in a microwave. Try these nutritious and tasty mini meals you can make in a mug.
- Get a portable grill press (if your res hall or apartment allows it). They’re great for hot sandwiches, quesadillas, and even grilled veggies.
Vegetarian or vegan?
If the vegetarian entrée doesn’t appeal to you (how much pasta can one eat?), make a meal out of side dishes. Grab foods from different areas of the cafeteria, making sure you’re balancing carbohydrates, protein, and fats. A healthy diet (for anyone) also includes a variety of plant-based proteins, such as tofu, beans, soy, lentils, grains, and nuts, as well as heart-healthy fats, such as nut butters, olive oil, and avocado.
Adhering to cultural or religious food guidelines?
Speak with the food service director or dining manager to help you find foods that meet your needs.
Need support for allergies, a medical condition, an eating disorder, or a disability?
A health care professional can be your ally and advocate. Your dietitian, doctor, nurse, or therapist can work with dining services staff to make sure your meals will be accessible, appropriate, safe, and satisfying.
Chowdhury, E. A., Richardson, J. D., Holman, G. D., Tsintzas, K., et al. (2016). The causal role of breakfast in energy balance and health: a randomized controlled trial in obese adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 103(3), 747–756. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.122044
Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron, 84(2), 486–496. Retrieved from https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(14)00804-6?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0896627314008046%3Fshowall%3Dtrue
Lenasi, A., Mohammadpoorasl, A., Javadi, M., Esfeh, J. M., et al. (2016). Eating breakfast, fruit and vegetable intake and their relation with happiness in college students. Eating and Weight Disorders—Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 21(4), 645–651. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-016-0261-0
Smith, K. J., Gall, S. L., McNaughton, S. A., Blizzard, L., et al. (2010). Skipping breakfast: Longitudinal associations with cardiometabolic risk factors in the Childhood Determinants of Adult Health Study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92(6), 1316–1325. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2010.30101
Will, M., & Stock, J. T. (2015). Spatial and temporal variation of body size among early homo. sapiens. Journal of Human Evolution, 82,15–33. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047248415000287?via%3Dihub
University of Cambridge Research News. (2015). Earliest humans had diverse range of body types, just as we do today. Retrieved from https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/earliest-humans-had-diverse-range-of-body-types-just-as-we-do-today