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4 Tips for Healthy Eating in College

A hand holds a glass filled with yogurt, oatmeal, and blueberries.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

Let’s face it: there is no such thing as good dining hall food. Everyone knows it, and yet we go on eating it.

Students living on campus may be forced to have a meal plan, it is mind-bogglingly expensive to eat out with any regularity, and there is usually no time to consider any alternatives. Despite this, I am a firm believer that students do not have to be constrained by the cafeteria’s whims.

Here are a range of suggestions, from cooking your own food to modifying the existing options.

Remember that the grocery store is your friend. There are the cheap staples that require little more than a pot or a microwave: ramen and other noodle dishes, tea, coffee, rice, canned soups, popcorn, and ready-to-eat frozen meals.

Coffee in particular is an overlooked point. Why spend $2.50 on a black coffee when you can make a pour-over with nothing more than a piece of plastic, a filter, a cup, a pot or kettle, and a cheap bag of ground coffee beans?

However, these staples I mentioned are just the bare minimum, and even those prices add up. They are still viable choices for when the alternatives just aren’t cutting it.

If you invest in basic cooking tools like a pot, a baking sheet, some spices, reusable cutlery, and aluminum foil, you can spruce up these college basics. Ramen? Add some extra spices to your taste or an egg for some extra protein. 

Keep an eye out for discounted vegetables or frozen meals at the grocery store. If you are forsaking the dining hall entirely, it is a good option to meal plan to accommodate your time and budget so you don’t get entirely buried in packets of instant ramen.

A similar option would be a meal kit service. So long as you have the right equipment, you can prepare the ingredients they provide right in your hall. However, these run the risk of not being exactly what you want or need, and they may end up being more expensive.

Despite that, most services provide discounts for college students which can be worth checking out. See about signing up for your local grocery store’s loyalty programs. Requiring little more than a phone number and email address, they can provide access to further savings.

How To Make The Most Of Your Meal Plan

Grocery shopping can still be too expensive, both in terms of time and money. Fear not! There are still possibilities to modify and save the food provided at the dining hall.

Acquiring a range of spices is especially handy. From salt and pepper to garlic and cumin, spices and sauces can make a huge difference in the flavor and enjoyability of a meal. They are small enough to transport into the dining hall and cheap and long-lasting enough to save you some heartache.

Here are a few specific things my peers and I do that put the above theories into practice. A popular option in my hall is to save supplies for days the dining hall is unsatisfactory, and we make a simple soup, pasta, or dessert for dinner.

A favorite recipe is to slice up some pre-made chocolate chip cookie dough and bake it in the communal oven for a cheap and easy snack. Here I have to insert a safety disclaimer. Too often the entire hall has had to evacuate during finals season because of a burnt homemade meal. Please, pay attention to the warnings and instructions provided for the dorm oven, and never leave a live oven unattended!

The appliance that has benefitted me the most, however, does not have that risk, and is authorized for use in my dorm. That special appliance would be the electric kettle.

I am not much of a chef, so for my coffee and ramen feasts, this kettle is all I need. They usually come cheap in big-box stores, and mine always gets the job done.

Another option if there is nothing available is to order something with friends. That way, the delivery costs and other fees are mitigated by splitting up the total cost, causing less stress than if you ordered something on your own.

A last desperate option that I have witnessed occurs, interestingly enough, on one of the few days the cafeteria food may be classified as good. Students arrive at the cafeteria holding huge plastic containers, the purpose of which is soon revealed.

They stockpile food from the hot bar in the containers and leave. I commend the innovation and enthusiasm for vegan chicken tenders that lead to this point, as well as the cunning to stretch that meal swipe as far as it can go. I am not sure if this practice is authorized per se, but it is tolerated.

The trials and tribulations of the dining hall are a rite of passage for college students, but I hope some of these ideas can ease the stress. Above all, it is essential to learn how to prepare your own food and work with what you have. Good luck!

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Author: Rebecca Hanson

I'm currently a sophomore English major at Lewis & Clark College in sunny Portland, OR. Alongside my writing for Niche, I also contribute to LC's student newspaper and radio. I'm passionate about writing, playing bass, and taking care of my dog, Howie (not pictured).