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Nourishment for Excellence: A College Student’s Guide to Healthy Eating

Nourishment for Excellence: A College Student’s Guide to Healthy Eating

Eating healthy is a bit of a learning curve, especially when you are out on your own for the first time. This guide covers the basics of good nutrition (don’t worry, it’s not rocket science!) and helps you to overcome some of the biggest hurdles students have with staying on track.

What if getting stellar grades was as simple as eating a balanced meal? While it may be a bit more complicated than that, there are a number of recent studies showing a correlation between a high-quality diet and a better GPA. While a few nights of ramen likely won’t make or break your grade, what you eat can definitely have a long-term impact.

It’s overwhelming to you in charge of your own meal in college. Maybe you’re a college freshman, living on your own for the first time. Maybe your family ate super healthy, but now you’re struggling to do so on a student budget (berries cost HOW much?!). Or maybe you never really had strong nutritional guidance growing up and you want to learn how to eat healthy now. Whatever experience you have with nutrition, this guide will help you build a strong foundation for understanding healthy eating in college so that you can optimize your brain for learning. Keep reading to master the basics and learn to navigate some of the biggest obstacles when it comes to eating healthy in college.

Start Here: Nutrition Basics

We all need a variety of foods to thrive, and the building blocks of a good diet include fruits and veggies, protein, and carbohydrates. In general, the more colorful your diet, the better. This guide is not here to tell you what is good or bad foods; it is a resource encouraging you to introduce variety and moderation, and to seek out less processed foods. There’s room for everything in a balanced diet, but you must first build a strong foundation. 

When you’re eating the wrong things (or not eating enough!), you might start feeling sluggish, tired, and foggy-headed. But if you focus on eating regular, balanced meals with plenty of fiber and protein, you’ll be setting yourself up for academic success.  With higher energy, better focus, and faster brain function, eating well might be the quickest way to learning improvements. These following tips will help you get on the right path.

  • Use MyPlate as Your Guide

    Created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, My Plate is a guide to making healthier food choices. Rather than eliminating entire food groups or counting calories, My Plate encourages people to envision a plate and then aim to fill half of it with produce, a quarter with protein, and a quarter with grains. Plus, fats and oils sparingly. In addition to focusing on fruits and vegetables, My Plate suggests that eaters should make at least half of their grains whole grains (e.g., whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, etc.), and choose low-fat or non-fat dairy products instead of full fat.

  • Focus on Whole Foods

    As much as possible, aim to choose less processed foods for the majority of your meals. For example, instead of a cup of instant noodles or a frozen meal, consider cooking whole wheat pasta and adding veggies and chicken. Or when it comes to snacks, skip the packaged cookies and choose something like a piece of whole fruit, popcorn, or a handful of nuts.

  • Aim for Protein, Healthy Fat, and Fiber at Every Meal

    For every meal, aim to fill your plate with a combination of protein, healthy fats, and fiber. This power combo keeps you feeling satisfied for longer and it’s a great way to keep blood sugar stable and avoid energy crashes. A balanced plate generally consists of half produce, a quarter protein, a quarter grains, and healthy fats as a garnish.

  • Keep Added Sugar to a Minimum

    Sugar tastes good, but it doesn’t add much to a diet in terms of nutrients or health benefits. Whenever possible, try to cut out or minimize added sugar. For beverages, choose unsweetened teas, seltzers, or infused water instead of soda. If you’re in the habit of adding sugar to things like coffee or cereal, gradually scale back (i.e., if you usually add 3 sugars to your coffee, try starting with 1 or 2).

  • Stay Hydrated 

    Drinking enough water is key when it comes to functioning at your best, both physically and mentally. Adequate hydration ensures your body and digestive system are firing on all cylinders. If you’re even mildly dehydrated, you may start to experience headaches, slower digestion, and fatigue, so fill up that water bottle! If you exercise regularly or live in a warm climate, you may also want to consider adding in a source of electrolytes.  

  • Avoid Drinking Your Calories 

    When you’re running low on energy or out socializing, the calories in beverages can really add up. Soda, juice, energy drinks, and alcohol contain a lot of sugar without any health benefits. Whenever possible, choose drinks like unsweetened coffee or tea, seltzer water, or low-fat milk instead. If you can’t omit sweetened drinks altogether, try reducing the sugar intake. Something like an Arnold Palmer (made with a mix of half unsweetened tea and half lemonade) can be a tasty compromise.

  • Begin a Heavier Meal with Veggies

    Starting a meal with a salad or veggies helps fill you up with nutrients and fiber, priming your digestive system and leaving less room for things like dessert or the breadbasket. Most importantly, starting with produce helps to get your veggies and fruit servings for the day in (we should all be aiming for multiple servings of produce daily). If you’re not a fan of salad, consider some crudité and dip or a cup of gazpacho instead.

  • Supplement with a Multivitamin

    If you’re eating a variety of foods, you’ll likely get most of the vitamins and minerals you need, but sometimes a multivitamin isn’t a bad idea. This can be especially true for women who may need extra iron or folic acid or vegetarians, who may require supplemental B vitamins. If you think you might need to fill in some nutritional gaps, talk to your healthcare provider to determine if a multivitamin might help.

    There are a number of other hurdles that college students encounter when it comes to eating healthy. For tips on how to overcome these common pitfalls, keep reading.

  • Hurdle #1: Eating Healthy is Expensive

    As a student, you might be tempted to cut corners and live on ramen and frozen dinners. These quick meals are fine in a time-pinch, but most of the time you’ll want to focus on eating whole foods and balanced meals as we discussed above. Fortunately, quality ingredients don’t have to break the bank. Wondering how to shop and eat at low cost? Here are some ways to save on food to fit a student budget.

  • Shop the Sales

    You don’t have to clip coupons to save on groceries (though you can if you want to!). Just checking stores to see what is on sale before you shop can help you find bargains on your weekly meals. Choosing produce that’s in season and on sale can save a lot of money; for example, apples in autumn, citrus in winter, berries in spring, and stone fruits in the summer. And if you have the space, consider stocking up whenever basic long-lasting food like pasta and canned goods are Buy One, Get One Free (or half off).

    Have a Plan at the Grocery Store

    Go in with a list of ingredients and meals you want to prepare for the week. And stick to it. That way you don’t overbuy or give in to impulse shopping. Another way to do this is to order your groceries. Many stores offer their own pickup/delivery or you can opt for a service like Instacart. You may pay a service charge and delivery tip, but it can save you from overspending in the store if that is a struggle for you.

    Learn to Cook Simple, Healthy, and Tasty Meals

    Simple meals with fewer, but healthier ingredients are a great gateway to learning to cook healthily for yourself. If you have access to a kitchen, the following suggestions can help you learn cooking basics. If you’re looking for inexpensive meal inspiration, sites like Budget Bytes and even Bon Appetit have recipes that won’t cost an arm and a leg.  No access to a kitchen? Even with just a mini fridge, you can still stock it up with ingredients for tasty salads, yogurt parfaits, and nutritious sandwiches.

    Keep a Well-stocked Condiment & Spice Pantry

    If you have spices and condiments, you can make a variety of things. Don’t underestimate what having a well-stocked spice cabinet can do for making even the most basic foods more interesting. Browse the spice or sauce aisle of your grocery store or specialty market and pick up some vinegars, mustards, and spice mixes to jazz up home-cooked foods. Wondering where to start when it comes to spices? This list from Food & Wine is a good place to start.

    Shop Bargain Grocery Stores

    If you have access to a bargain grocery store like Aldi or Trader Joe’s, you can find plenty of healthy options for much cheaper than the standard grocery stores. Stock up on “good deal” ingredients you use frequently to avoid paying premium prices at other markets. And if buying organic is important to you, these stores often offer really good prices on dairy, produce, or meat. Keep in mind that bargain stores sometimes have a limited selection (e.g., a few types of mustard instead of an entire shelf), so you may have to make some compromises.

    Shop the Perimeter of the Store

    The perimeter of the store is where you’ll find the least processed foods (i.e., produce, dairy, animal proteins). Surprisingly enough, more processed foods are often more expensive too. For example, buying things like whole-rolled oats from the bulk bins is generally cheaper than buying boxed oatmeal packets. To save the most amount of money, try to look for an item in its least processed state: dried beans vs. canned, whole chicken vs. chicken tenders, or whole carrots vs. baby carrots.

    Use Cheaper Protein Sources

    Sure, steak may sound good, but usually, it’s not in the budget for college students. Cheaper sources of protein include eggs, ground meats, tofu, beans, and peanut butter. You can do a lot with these options, so don’t be afraid to experiment. From comfort dishes like lentil sloppy joes to aromatic African-inspired peanut stew, the options are nearly unlimited. Going meatless for some meals each week can also cut your budget down as well.

  • Hurdle #2: You Don’t Know How to Cook

    Getting comfortable in the kitchen might be one of the most important things you can learn in order to begin eating healthy in college, and as an adult. Sure, you can eat healthy when you eat out, but chances are that won’t help your budget much. Thankfully, by learning to do a few basic things, you can gain confidence and skills you need quickly. Don’t have access to a full kitchen yet? There’s plenty you can learn and do with just a knife, cutting board, and microwave.

  • Get a Few Basic Tools

    Walk around a kitchen supply or home goods store and you might be tempted to spend hundreds of dollars on supplies. Fortunately, there are only a few cooking basics that you actually need. To get started, focus on the essentials like a sharp knife, peeler, cutting board, measuring cups/spoons, a saucepan, and a skillet. These items can be purchased new from an online retailer like Amazon or you may be able to find good used items at a consignment store or Goodwill.

    Choose a Few Simple Dishes You Want to Learn

    Your first attempts in the kitchen should be relatively easy; save the beef bourguignons for later! Think about your preferred proteins, grains, and flavor profiles and then seek out some beginner recipes that you can try. The internet has a wealth of information when it comes to easy recipes, but if you prefer an old fashioned cookbook, the library is a great place to start.

    Start with YouTube

    If you’re more of a visual learner, cooking channels on YouTube are a great place to get tips and inspiration. Whether you want to learn cooking basics or ideas for frugal meals, this platform has something for everyone. Want something shorter than a YouTube video? Cooking TikTok can also be helpful (and kind of addictive!).

    Ask Friends or Family to Help

    Learning to cook with people you know and love can also be a great way to hang out and spend time together. Ask your parents or other relatives to share one or two of their favorite recipes – even better if they can walk you through the recipe while you’re in the kitchen together. If family isn’t an option, consider teaming up with a few friends or roommates to form a dinner club.  You can make a new recipe and then eat together afterward. Have a friend with a ton of cooking experience? Offer to wash the dishes in exchange for some lessons.

    Take a Class to Learn the Basics 

    See if cooking classes are offered in your community or on campus. These tend to be fun and interactive if you have the time. From knife basics to bread baking, classes can be a good way to learn a skill and meet new people. If classes aren’t offered in your area, check out online classes. Sites such as MasterClass offer tons of options that you can either take solo or with a friend.

  • Hurdle #3: You Don’t Have a Lot of Time to Cook

    As a college student, you’ve got a lot on your plate: studying, exams, maybe even a job. Time is at a premium, so you don’t have hours to spend in the kitchen. While cooking all of your own meals can be time consuming, it doesn’t have to be. You can absolutely put together something tasty and healthy in just a few minutes. Use these tips to cut down on your cooking time to make eating healthy much easier.

  • Find a Handful of Quick Meals You Can Rotate

    Simplify your week by making a meal plan and sticking to it. For example, Mondays can be breakfast for dinner (scrambled eggs, pancakes), Tuesdays can be taco or quesadilla night, and so on. By adhering to a theme, you’ll remove some of the decision making and be able to use any spices or condiments you’ve stocked up on. No one wants to buy expensive items they only use once!

    Add Extra Veggies to Pre-Packaged Meals

    Sometimes a hectic day necessitates convenience food. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional frozen meal or pizza but try to add some extra produce to up the fiber and nutrient profile. For example, make a side salad along with a frozen burrito or add some frozen veggies and a soft-boiled egg to a cup of ramen. Remember, to stay satiated, a meal should have a combination of protein, fiber, and healthy fats.

    Meal Prep One Day a Week to Make Busy Weekdays Easier

    Whether you can devote an entire weekend day to it or just a few evening hours, meal prep can save a ton of time and money. Meal prep can go beyond just washing and chopping produce; consider making a big batch of grains, roasting a chicken, or hard-boiling a dozen eggs. If your fridge is packed with ready-to-eat foods, it will be that much easier to put together a tasty and nutritious meal. Throw on your favorite music or podcast while you prep to make the experience more pleasant.

    Make Meals a Communal Effort

    If you share a living space with roommates, there are a number of ways to collaborate on meals. You can plan on prepping and cooking together (you’ll finish cooking in half the time!) or take turns preparing meals throughout the week. Beyond being more efficient, this strategy turns cooking and eating into a fun, social experience. To avoid unpleasant surprises, be clear about how you will divide up labor as well as the cost of groceries.

    Cook in Large Batches & Freeze Portions for Later

    Making a big batch recipe that you can eat now and then freeze for later is a great way to save time. Certain things like soups, stews, and casseroles freeze really well and are easy to reheat on a busy evening. But think outside lasagna: you can also prep and freeze things like muffins, breakfast sandwiches, and grains. Portion meals into single serving containers to make reheating easier later on.

  • Hurdle #4: You Live on Campus & Eat in the Dining Hall

    Eating on campus is notorious for not supporting good nutritional habits, however, just because a food is offered doesn’t mean you have to eat it. Focusing on the basic nutritional habits above and a few other tips below can help. Here is how to navigate the dining hall food choices.

  • Focus on the Nutritional Basics Above

    You don’t have to eat perfectly 100% of the time. Balance is important in life, especially as a busy college student with a social life. Aim for an 80-20 ratio; about 80% of the time, choose nutritious foods. The other 20% of your diet can be fun because what’s life without dessert? Beyond the 80-20 approach, you can also aim for a certain number of servings of produce per day or a target number of protein grams. Focus on a few key metrics and try to relax about the rest.

    Hit the Salad Bar First

    Most dining halls have extensive salad bars, so this is a spot to focus on. Starting your meal here helps to make veggies (and their accompanying vitamins, minerals, and fiber!) a priority. It’s a good idea to have a salad bar strategy; for example, skip the macaroni salad and bacon bits and instead load up on things like greens, colorful veggies, hard-boiled eggs, and nuts.

    Everything in Moderation

    This is such a great mentality to try and focus on when it comes to eating on campus. Sure, you want to eat good high-quality healthy food to help you feel good and give you energy, but it’s important not to be too hard on yourself if you have to grab a less-healthy option or enjoy a night of junk food with friends. One meal or day of eating won’t make or break your health: it’s all about long-term balance.

    Watch Portion Sizes on Treats and Processed Foods

    While moderation is important (have the occasional cookie!), it’s a good idea to keep an eye on portion sizes. Thanks to biology, it’s very easy to overdo it on highly palatable foods (think: salty, sweet, creamy). Try measuring out a serving of ice cream instead of eating it from the pint or put a handful of chips on a plate instead of reaching into the bag. Once you can recognize what a serving looks like, you’ll be able to eyeball it going forward.

    Make Mealtimes Social

    Instead of mindlessly scrolling TikTok while you eat or gobbling a sandwich on the go, consider taking a break to share a meal. Eating with others is a great opportunity to connect with friends and classmates plus it has the added bonus of slowing you down and creating mindfulness. All of these factors can contribute to your meal’s satisfaction (and make you less likely to reach for thirds).

  • Quick & Healthy No-Cook Meals ANYONE Can Make

    No kitchen? No time? No problem. The following recipes require only a few tools (a fridge, blender, a knife) and can be whipped up in just a few minutes. So, whether you’re looking for a high-powered breakfast or a late-night snack, these nutrient-packed recipes will do the job.

  • Fruit & Yogurt Parfaits

    This classic combo offers an ideal ratio of carbs and protein and with plenty of flavor options, you’re unlikely to get bored. Use unsweetened or Greek yogurt to up the protein content and keep sugar low. Then add fresh fruit and granola to add fiber and texture. If you don’t want to make your own granola, feel free to use a store-bought variety.

  • Overnight Oats

    If you’re looking for a one bowl meal that does it all, overnight oats can be just the ticket. To make this no-cook dish, oats (and sometimes add-ins like nuts, chia seeds, or dried fruit) are soaked in milk or water in the fridge overnight. In the morning you’ll have a creamy, nutrient-packed meal waiting for you.

  • Smoothies

    As long as you have a blender, you can make an endless number of smoothie combinations. Start with a bit of liquid (milk, milk alternative, juice) and add your favorite fruit, veggie, protein powder, or nut butter. Whether you’re looking for a meal replacement or a healthy snack, smoothies are a busy college student’s best friend.

  • Sandwiches

    Whether you prefer turkey, hummus, or PB&J, the sandwich is the original on-the-go meal. Sandwiches are easy to prep ahead of time for busy days and the bread and filling options are nearly endless. Whether you’re a vegetarian or looking for a protein-packed option, there’s a sandwich for everyone.

  • Lunchtime Snack Boxes

    Looking for variety? Consider packing yourself a bento box of foods. While you can use any container, one with several compartments can make the process easier. Prep these containers in advance for quick and easy meals on the go. Most boxes contain fruit and veggies, meats and cheeses, and a form of carbs, but the ingredients are up to you!

  • Salads

    A big bowl of greens might not sound like much fun, but with the right toppings, a salad can be a satiating (and enjoyable!) meal. Start with a variety of vegetables and add different textures such as cheese for creaminess, nuts for crunch, and beans for protein.

  • Interview with a College Nutrition Expert

    There’s a ton of information online and while most of it is solid, there’s no substitute for a nutrition expert. Kelly Hogan is a Registered Dietician who regularly works with college students, including dancers, actors, and musicians at the Juilliard School in New York City. We recently chatted with Kelly to get the answers to some of the trickiest nutrition issues young adults often face.

    A professional portrait of a smiling woman with long blonde hair, wearing a white lab coat and a blue top, against a light gray background.

    Kelly Hogan

    Kelly Hogan, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian in New York City. Kelly is a member of the performance nutrition team at The Juilliard School, where she works with students to develop nutrition plans that best support performance in dance, drama, and music. She is also a part-time clinical dietitian at the Hospital for Special Surgery and runs her own private nutrition counseling practice, focusing on sports and performance nutrition. She completed her dietetic internship and Master’s degree in Clinical Nutrition at New York University.
    • Q: How can a college student maintain a balanced diet while dealing with a limited budget and time constraints?

      Take advantage of meal plans, which are often the most budget friendly, and if their cafeteria allows, leaving a meal with extra snacks (like fruits or yogurt) for later. Grocery stores nearby can also be a great source for budget friendly snacks like fresh fruit, or quick meals like bread and sandwiches, or frozen options. 

    • Q: What are some healthy snack options that are convenient and can be easily prepared or carried on campus? Related: any good finds that can be purchased at a convenience store or bodega in a pinch?

      I often recommend students keep a jar of nut or seed butter in their dorms for easy preparation of things like peanut butter sandwiches, or paired with a fruit, bagel or crackers. Trail mix is another easily portable option, as well as applesauce squeeze packs, granola bars or string cheese.

    • Q: What role does hydration play in a student’s overall health and academic performance? What can a student choose if they don’t like plain water?

      Dehydration can leave you feeling sluggish and low energy, which can have an effect on how well you do in the classroom. If they don’t like plain water, students can try lower sugar electrolyte mixes, seltzers, and iced teas for additional fluids. Fruits and vegetables, soups and smoothies also contain water and are a good way to supplement hydration.

    • Q. What are the potential long-term effects of poor nutrition and unhealthy eating habits during college years, and how can they be mitigated?

      This really depends on other lifestyle factors as well, but long-term poor eating habits can contribute to risk for chronic diseases down the line. A poor relationship with food or disordered eating can increase risk for eating disorders and other physical and mental challenges that can impact quality of life. The good news here is that college students are so young, and now is a great time for them to cultivate a positive relationship with food and incorporate healthy and sustainable eating habits into their lives.

    • Q: What’s the biggest mistake you see college students and young adults making when it comes to nutrition?

      Skipping meals, especially breakfast, is hands down the biggest mistake I see college students and young adults making. This often results in an eventual blood sugar drop and intense hunger, which can impact concentration, mood, and energy levels. I always recommend eating at least every 3-4 hours to avoid this, and always having snacks on hand!