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What Students Should Know About Eating Healthy In College

Written in June 2015 | Updated in July 2020

High school graduation has come and gone and I find myself wondering if my daughter knows about eating healthy in college. I’m running a checklist in my mind about her skills in the kitchen and knowledge of food and nutrition.

Picture of a college girl holding a book. In What students should know about eating healthy in college

Does she know everything she needs to know about eating healthy in college?

I’m not worried about which classes she’ll take in college, or whether she’ll get along with a new roommate she’s never met.

As college looms on the horizon, I find myself thinking about whether she can manage her own eating. Whether my lessons about balanced nutrition have taken hold. Whether she has the skills to feed herself food that will keep her healthy, support her learning, and fend off illness.

Did I teach her enough about food, nutrition and cooking? 

Many mothers (and dads) worry about how their new college student will eat in college.

In this article, I’m covering what’s important for new college students to know about nutrition and why, including 6 tips to keep in mind.

Our Conversation About Easy College Meals

“Do you know how to make eggs?” I asked my daughter the other day.

“Yes, mom,” she said.

“How about oatmeal, grilled cheese, and chicken stir fry?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Rice?”

“You know I don’t like rice,” she replied.

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“You don’t have to get fancy. A sandwich and soup, or a bowl of brown rice with beans or veggies works,” I reminded her, “Even a salad with some protein on top will do.”

Did I remember to mention picking a fruit and veggie with every meal? Not eating too late? Keeping an eye on the sweets? And that beer has calories? And, don’t forget to exercise!

There’s so much to know!

Is College Weight Gain Real?

As a registered dietitian and mom, I get asked about how to help college students who have gained too much weight at school, or who are prepping to leave, but feel afraid of gaining too much weight.

According to a 2017 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, college weight gain is real. In fact, weight and body mass index (BMI) measured at the end of the senior year was significantly higher than it was at the beginning of the freshman year.

The average weight gain in college over four years was 9.6 pounds.

Why Do Students Experience Weight Gain in College?

There are many reasons for weight gain in college, commonly referred to as the Freshman 15 (which studies show is really more like the Freshman 8).

Late night eating, a lack of regular exercise, and the uptick in alcohol intake are some of the most common reasons for weight gain.

Personally, I have always felt that part of the reason teens gain weight during their first year of college (and throughout the college experience) is because they don’t really know how to feed themselves.

After all, many teens have had someone else take care of that for them for a long time!

And, the newfound freedom with eating doesn’t help the situation.

two female high school graduates ready for college

Tips for Eating Healthy in College

As a mom of a few college students myself, there are a few things to know before budding college students hit campus:

1. Focus on Food Groups

Food groups make eating healthfully and in a balanced way easier. Work in as many food groups as possible at each meal. The food groups include grains (preferably whole grain versions), dairy (or non-dairy substitute), protein, fruit and vegetables. These should make up 90% of what is eaten everyday.

2. Quality Counts

When deviating from nutritious foods in favor of processed or fast food (which will inevitably happen), make sure the choices reflect quality ingredients. For example a whole wheat pizza crust will be more satisfying and filling than one made with white flour. (And your college student will hardly notice the difference!)

Some students favor large quantities of food, and this can get them into trouble with overeating.

3. Stay on a Schedule

Encourage your student to eat with a schedule in mind. This keeps his appetite in check and helps to prevent extreme hunger and overeating.

Intervals of 3-5 hours between meals works well for busy college students.

4. Make Easy College Meals

Teach your student how to cook or assemble a few easy, nutritious meals such as high protein breakfasts including eggs (hard-boiled, scrambled); quesadillas; grilled sandwiches; soup and salad; and more!

There are many healthy options available now that just require a zap in the microwave, and are much healthier for college students then snacking on chips, crackers or popcorn.

5. Alcohol and Weight Gain

Some college students don’t realize –or they forget –that alcohol has calories. When imbibing, students may not make the healthiest food choices, and may also overeat.

Alcohol always adds to the total caloric consumption, so be mindful of this.

6. Move More

College students may walk around more, but that may not be enough, especially if they were playing sports in high school and retired for college.

Walking around campus probably may not counter-balance the extra food and drink indulgences college students inevitably partake in.

Try to encourage an exercise routine.

They Can Survive Without You

Maybe you have nagging thoughts, especially this one: I wonder if I taught my teen how to survive without me.

I know I did.

I think it’s natural. After all, you won’t be preparing her food. You won’t be assuring a balanced meal is served. You won’t be there to set the structure of meals in place. And you won’t be the sounding board should she have questions about what to eat, how to cook something new, or when to slow down and take care of herself.

She will be doing it all by her big self.

And that’s OK.

She’ll survive.

What would you like your college student to know about eating healthy in college before he or she leaves the nest?

More to Read about Food in College

Farewell, College Girl

Does Food Freedom Cause College Weight Gain?

Podcast interview with cookbook author, Katie Morford, of PREP: The Essential College Cookbook

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