Avoid the Freshman 15 Using These 10 Tips for Eating Healthy in College

How to eat healthy in college
Students eat lunch inside the Marshall Student Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla.Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder
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No matter how old you are, eating healthy is a challenge.

Not only do you have to fend off the perpetual temptation of all the deep-fried and sugar-filled goodies we’re surrounded with every day, but you also have to figure out how to work fresh, healthy groceries into your budget. Oh, and learn to cook them.

The problem only gets worse when you’re a college student.

You are already strapped for cash and may never have had to buy (or budget for) your own groceries before. And, up until now, your experience with meal planning may have been limited to being around when mom put dinner on the table.

So figuring out how to eat healthy while also balancing your new schedule, maintaining your social life — and, you know, deciding what you want to do for the rest of your life — isn’t easy.

But it is possible. And it’s also really, really important.

How to Avoid the Dreaded Freshman 15

During my first semester of college, I spent hours in the buffet-style dining hall just steps from my dorm.

You only had to swipe your meal plan card once and you could stay as long as you liked. I’d haul in all my books and call it a study day, eating whenever I felt like it. I convinced myself I was making an economical choice.

When I started seeing some weight creep on, I tried to formulate a plan to make my dining hall binges more reasonable. True story: When I’d leave after lunch, I’d take some ice cream and eat it while walking up the hill towards the classrooms, depositing the empty bowl and spoon at the second dining hall at the top.

“They totally cancel each other out, right?” I’d half-joke with my friends.

Two pants sizes later, I wasn’t laughing.

In the flurry of research you’ve no doubt done preparing for your first year of college, you’ve probably heard of the infamous freshman 15, the excess pounds so many first-year students unwittingly find themselves saddled with.

It’s not hard to see why. For most students, college is the first time away from the regular meal structure enforced by eight-hour school days and the relative wholesomeness of home cooking.

Also, um, there is literally endless food in the dining hall.

But you don’t have to resign yourself to graduating with a wider waistline — or an empty wallet.


First Things First: You Need a Budget

Whether you’ve been working as long as you can remember or have never had your own money to manage before, the key to not totally blowing your future finances while in college is creating and maintaining a budget. Now.

Otherwise, you may find yourself whiling away those hefty loans on… well, less-than-studious choices.

So sit down and make a list of all the things you absolutely must pay for regularly — each semester, quarter and month. That might include tuition, your room-and-board fees or rent. Maybe you also pay for car insurance or your mobile data plan.

(You can make this process easier by digitizing your financial life with a budgeting app. Here are some of the best budgeting apps we’ve found.)

Then, compare all your regular expenses to you income, be it through a job or, if it’s your only source of cash for now, your student loan checks.

The difference — the leftover money — is what you have to spend on everything else in your life, including food.

Obviously, there are other things you’re going to want (or need) to buy like textbooks while you’re in college.

But when push comes to shove, all the food you buy must fit inside that figure — a number that, depending on your existing eating habits, may look troublingly small.

Fortunately, you came to college to learn new things (right?), including how to stretch those food budget dollars as far as they can possibly go.

Here are our 10 best tips for eating healthy and affordably while you’re in college, both on campus and off.

Eating Healthy in College Dining Halls

Not sure how to eat healthy while you live on campus? I promise, it’s totally doable! (Hint: Walk away from the fro-yo machine slowly…)

1. Cook in Your Dorm.

You may be limited to a mini fridge and a microwave, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make delicious, healthy and super-cheap meals at “home.”

To help, we put together a list of 15 awesome dorm-friendly recipes for less than $5 each — and most are a lot cheaper than that.

Plus, many dorm halls come equipped with a full-sized community kitchen, which gives you absolutely no excuse. Get your butt in there and start cooking!

2. Take Advantage of the Buffet — but Do So Wisely.

If your buffet-style dining hall allows you to carry out food, you should absolutely do so, but you need to have a strategy. (No, bringing back three dozen donuts from breakfast isn’t a good idea.)

Prime candidates for dorm-room stockpiling include pre-packaged yogurt, handy pieces of fruit or hard-boiled eggs. If you’ve got fridge room, maybe you can heap up a box with mixed veggies, plain brown rice and lean meats to heat up later.

3. DON’T Use the Endless Buffet as an Excuse to Save Money.

As I and my new, bigger pants learned, it’s actually not a good fiscal choice to eat as much as possible whenever you can. And you won’t just blow money on your enlarged wardrobe.

Stuffing yourself with unhealthy foods could also lead to health problems down the line.

4. Load Up on Veggies.

No matter what school you go to or which dining hall you choose, there’s almost always a salad bar. So go ahead and fill up on fresh veggies before you take the bulk of your meal.

Not only will you get a helping of necessary nutrients without having to go out and buy expensive produce or supplements, but you’ll also decrease your chances of overeating the richer, more-calorie-dense main meal, creating automatic mealtime balance.

5. Ditch the Soda Fountain.

Even if you’ve been drinking soda your whole life, there’s no time like the present to break the habit.

Soda is a super-easy way to waste boundless empty calories and ingest a truly disturbing amount of sugar without even thinking about it.

Your body will be happier, and your head will be clearer if you switch to water. Heck, it might even improve your grades. Nobody does well at a 3 p.m. exam while experiencing a sugar crash.

Incidentally, water is also available for free out of your tap, unlike Coke.

Eating Healthy Off Campus

If you’ve already moved out of the dorms, it’s a lot easier to eat healthy, but it’ll take a little bit of planning and commitment on your part.

Here’s how to take control of your food budget and your health — you adult, you!

6. Make Your Meals at Home!

Yes, this is the first piece of advice in pretty much everything ever written about how to save money on food, but it’s especially pertinent for students.

College towns are always filled with a ton of tempting and convenient restaurants. And when you’re balancing work, studies, sports, friendships and the occasional hour or three of sleep, it’s an understandable temptation to give in to.

But although it’s easy to just go to Chipotle for the fourth time this week — and yes, $8 might seem like a decent deal for what you at least plan to parse out into two meals — you can make an even-bigger, equally delicious burrito bowl for a fraction of the price at home. I promise.

And don’t forget. when you’re the chef, you have complete control over the ingredients, including how much fat and sugar goes into your dish. Even “healthy” restaurants likely add more oils and additives than you would in your own kitchen.

Plus, if your town’s Chipotle line is anything like mine was, cooking at home probably won’t even take you that much longer.

7. Strategize When You Do Go Out.

Of course, you’re going to go out to eat occasionally — and you should. Even for the frugal, socializing is an important part of the college experience.

But don’t blow your restaurant dollars on crappy bar food and beer you can buy more cheaply at the grocery store.

Hit a restaurant that serves big portions of nutritious, high-quality food. As America becomes increasingly health conscious, there are more and more of these cropping up. Think make-your-own-salad stations or light Asian and Mediterranean fare.

Then, instead of stuffing yourself, eat until you’re comfortable and take the rest home for later. You’ll save money and keep those extra pounds at bay.

8. Keep it simple.

This might be the first time you have a kitchen of your “own,” so it can be exciting to get creative and make all the extravagant dishes your parents would scoff at.

But if a recipe calls for just a pinch of an expensive ingredient that spoils quickly (i.e., every fresh herb ever), your kitchen experiments can easily become a drain on your food budget. And maybe there was some method to mom’s madness in not making deep-fried bacon macaroni and cheese sandwiches every single night.

Base your meals on simple, affordable, and healthy basics, like chicken breast and fresh veggies. Keep a small, but solid, arsenal of spices at hand, and you can easily infuse your meals with exotic flavor profiles with just a simple sprinkle.

Because, listen: Unless you become mega-wealthy, you’re going to be cooking for yourself for the rest of your life. You can wait to become a gourmand until after you have to pay for college textbooks.

9. Get Smart About Grocery Shopping.

The way you approach grocery shopping can have an incredible effect on how much you end up spending and how healthy you’re eating, so it’s a good idea to have a plan.

But don’t worry. Since you follow The Penny Hoarder, learning to save money on groceries doesn’t have to take up a whole credit hour’s worth of your time.

Check out our tips for how to save money on groceries, and consider running your very own supermarket comparison — here’s a worksheet to make it easier.

And we know you’re busy, but if you have time, consider making multiple stops on your grocery trips. You might be surprised at how much you could save!

Finally, don’t dismiss couponing and always check for rebates on Ibotta. The app is simple to use and has great cash-back deals, often even for super-healthy foods like fresh veggies. All you have to do is snap a quick pic of your receipt!

10. Team Up With Your Roommates.

If you share your apartment with roommates, you have a whole host of savings opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise.

Buying ingredients in bulk can be much cheaper, and planning and prepping meals ahead of time saves money, energy planning and time during your busy week.

But if you live alone, you’ll likely be mighty sick of whatever you’re eating by Thursday, even if it looked divine on Sunday.

If you can split the task of meal planning — and the cost of the groceries — with your roommates, you’ll avoid that problem. Try having each member of the household make a cheap, but delicious, batch meal at regular intervals throughout the week.

For instance, maybe you make chicken and wild rice on Sunday, Jill throws a roast in the crock pot on Wednesday, and Nathan pulls together his famous jambalaya on Friday. Everybody shares everything, including grocery costs, and no one is deathly sick of any dish after 15 servings.

Another option open to you if you have roommates: You could even go in for a warehouse club membership together, which can help you save on healthy staples like grains or bulk servings of frozen veggies and meat.

Just make sure to read the fine print and make sure the membership will work for non-familial households.

There you have it, Penny Hoarders, a crash course on healthy eating! Was than a easy A, or what?

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere.