If you’re about to be a freshman in college, chances are you’re dying of excitement to finally experience the freedom of living on your own. No parents, no (…okay, less) rules, no curfew, and, more importantly, the chance to prove that you’re the responsible young adult you always knew you could be.
Along with these newfound freedoms, however, comes the ability to eat pizza and french fries for dinner every night. While that may sound delicious, it isn’t exactly practical (or good for you). We’ve all heard of, and some even experienced firsthand, the dreaded Freshman 15—but fear not, it’s actually very avoidable.
Navigating the dining halls and learning to cook on your own (you know, out of a mini fridge and microwave) can prove to be a challenge, especially without the access to the healthy groceries you maybe took for granted at your parents’ house, but with the right knowledge, you can eat learn to make healthy food choices no matter what you’re working with.
We turned to nutritionist Rachel Paul, MS, RD, CDN, founder of The College Nutritionist, for some expert advice on how to eat and stay healthy in college. She outlined the basics on how to navigate the dining hall, the best snacks to keep in your dorm room, and other tips and hacks for healthy campus eating.
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When eating at school, Paul stresses that it's all about balance. You should be sure to include all food groups in your diet—grains, dairy, fruits, vegetables, and protein—just make sure that you're opting for the healthier options of each.
“Whole grains like whole wheat bread and pasta, fruits and vegetables with their skin, and less-processed protein sources like chicken, eggs, and nuts are all good options,” she says. “A good rule of thumb, especially for lunch and dinner, is to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with lean protein, and a quarter with whole grains. Eating from all the food groups can help you get all the vital nutrients, as well as keep you full and satisfied.”
Chances are your dorm room won’t have much in terms of a kitchen—you may not even be lucky enough to have a full-size fridge. You’ll likely end up with the standard mini fridge and microwave situation. So, in this case, what are the best foods to keep on hand?
Paul recommends baby carrots and other easy-to-eat veggies, yogurt, string cheese, pre-portioned packages of nuts, and eggs. “Did you know you can make a scrambled egg in the microwave?” she asked me. I did not. “Cook the eggs for 30 to 45 seconds twice, stirring in between."
Outside of the fridge, Paul has a few suggestions for healthy snacking too. “Microwavable popcorn of the lower fat, lower salt variety, individualized baggies of whole grain pretzels or baked chips—because who can resist eating the whole bag—and plain instant oatmeal packets. Keep salt, pepper, and cinnamon handy, too.”
It’s really all about stocking your room with healthy foods you know you’ll eat, and not overbuying. “When we overbuy foods, we often feel guilty for not eating them. Only buy what you know you will eat, which can definitely take some trial and error when first moving away from home.”
If your school offers a dining hall, chances are you’ll have an array of different cuisines to choose from. So how do you know what’s good to eat?
“It’s best to stick with foods closest to their whole, natural forms,” says Paul. “No matter which station you choose, you should always be looking for whole grains, fruits and vegetables served with their skins, less processed protein sources, and dairy foods.”
While that seems pretty easy, certain food stations may contain tempting, unhealthy foods. With this in mind, Paul provided me with some tips for eating healthy at the most common dining hall stations: “At an Asian or Hispanic station, choose brown rice over white, lots of vegetables, and beans. Stick with a protein source like chicken or shrimp that hasn’t been battered or fried. At an Italian station, go for the marinara sauce, since it’s mostly made of tomatoes. At a grill or pizza station, choose whole grain crust or bread and ask for a lot of veggies—you can even get extra for yourself at the salad bar.”
There are dining hall foods and dorm snacks that may seem healthy but really aren’t. These actually end up being some of the worst offenders because you tend to eat them more, thinking you’re in the clear. Yogurt parfaits are ones to look out for, according to Paul. “They’re often made with sugary yogurt and granola, which may not keep you full for long,” she says. “Try a plain yogurt instead and add your own fruit. Toast a piece of whole wheat bread or English muffin if you want something starchy to go with it.”
Feeling tempted by fruit-filled desserts, thinking they’ll fill your fruit servings for the day? Think again. “The crust and other fillings can be loaded with extra sugar and refined carbohydrates,” says Paul. “Instead, try microwaving an apple or chopped fruit from the salad bar and adding a sprinkle of cinnamon or brown sugar.”
Dessert, in general, is something to avoid, but hey—we all need a little treat sometimes. Paul suggests taking one dessert with you as you leave the dining hall, that way you can’t go back for seconds.
According to Paul, the best way to dodge the Freshman 15 is to avoid eating late at night, whether you’re out partying with friends or cramming in a late-night library study session.
We get it, sometimes you’re out with the girls and just really want to eat that 2am slice of pizza. “There can be a lot of social pressure to eat late at night when hanging out with friends,” says Paul. “Try sharing something instead of ordering a meal on your own, immediately packing half of whatever you ordered away in a Tupperware, or even going to bed! You’ll thank yourself in the morning.”
When it comes to study cram sessions, Paul suggests packing healthy snacks ahead of time—like carrots and salsa, vegetable soup, or hard-boiled eggs—to avoid ordering something not-so-healthy. “Finding a café open late at night that has healthy options is also a trick of the trade. Better yet—try to study ahead of time and not cram!”
Learning to live on your own, let alone shop for food and eat on your own, is not the easiest thing to do when you first move out of the comfort of home. Paul suggests letting your new friends at school know about your goals to stay healthy on campus—you may be surprised to know that they’re focusing on the same. “You can bond by choosing healthy options together,” says Paul.