Healthy Eating Tips for College Students (Part 1)

How to eat well when time, money, and space are tight.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #108

When it comes to eating healthy, college kids face some unique challenges. They may be living on campus and at the mercy of a school meal plan. Or, they may be living on their own for the first time, BUT without a lot of space, kitchen equipment, or cooking skills to draw on. Mostly, they’re short on funds and time—although this is hardly unique to college students. So, as a new school year gets underway, I’ve got some advice for college kids and anyone else who finds that their ability to eat well is hindered by a lack of money, time, kitchen space, or cooking skills.

How to Eat Healthy in College

College kids are always complaining that they don’t have enough money to buy healthy food. It may have been a few years since I was in college but I live within spitting distance of six universities so I see plenty of college kids every day—and virtually all of them are carrying Venti Frappuccinos.

Tip #1: Brew Your Own

(Coffee, that is.) If money is tight, spend your food dollars on nutrition, not four dollar cups of caffeine. Brew your own coffee and carry it in a thermos or insulated cup. With the money you save, you can afford fresh produce.

As for brewing your own beer, take it from one who has tried it: Even if you do end up with a drinkable batch, you won’t be saving any money. Brewing beer takes a lot of equipment, ingredients, time, and space. Although it can be a diverting hobby, it’s far more cost-effective to leave it to the professionals. 

However, this is as good a time as any to point out that starving college students do manage to spend $5.5 billion dollars on alcohol every year. Before you tell me that you can’t afford to eat right, consider whether you might be able to divert any of your recreational budget to your nutrition needs. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of priorities.

Also, you might want to check out my episode #74, “Is Drinking Alcohol Good for You?

Tip #2: Save Green by Being Green

Likewise, it doesn’t make sense to spend your limited funds on bottled water. Buy a reusable stainless steel water bottle and an inexpensive water filtration pitcher and you can stay hydrated, solvent, and environmentally friendly.

I had some tips on how to select water filters in episode #66, “Is Your Drinking Water Safe?

Tip #3: Cook, Eat, Save

Some of the most nutritious foods in the grocery store are also among the least expensive.

Paying other people to cook for you costs money. You can make your food budget go further by making more of your own food. Pack a sandwich for lunch instead of hitting the sub joint, bring dried fruit and nuts to snack on rather than stopping at the snack bar, and make a pot of chili for dinner instead of going out for wings. Pop some popcorn to snack on while studying rather than calling for pizza.

Click here to get my recipe for cheap, chemical-free microwave popcorn

Not only will you save money when you cook more of your own food, but you’ll most likely improve your nutrition.

Tip #4: Cheap Can Be Healthy

Eating well does not have to break the bank. In fact, some of the most nutritious foods in the grocery store are also among the least expensive: dried or canned beans, frozen vegetables, eggs, peanut butter, tuna, and oatmeal provide protein, vitamins, fiber, and healthy fats for just pennies a serving.

[[AdMiddle]If you happen to go to Temple University, they’ve got a great program designed to help students eat well on a budget. Temple's Student Health Services teamed up with a local grocery store to offer free tours through the supermarket with a registered dietitian, who has lots of tips on finding the healthy choices without blowing the budget. If that sounds appealing and you don’t go to Temple University, print out this article describing the program, take it your Student Health Services and suggest that they do something similar.

In previous articles, I’ve talked about how to save money on organic fruits and vegetables.  Eating vegetarian meals one or two days a week is also a great way to save money.  And for a crash course in how to save money using coupons, see this article .

Finding the Time to Eat Healthy

Now, I realize that shopping for food, packing lunches, and making dinner does take more time than simply stopping at the closest fast-food restaurant every time you get hungry. And time is something that’s always in short supply when you’re in college. But kids, I’ve got bad news for you: It gets worse once you’re out of college. So now is the perfect time to start learning how to juggle a busy schedule and the requirements of a healthy lifestyle.

Next time, I’ll continue with some tips on how to fit healthy eating habits into a tight schedule and some tips on how to cook without a kitchen and how to survive on cafeteria food. In the meantime, see this discussion on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page for some great suggestions from other Nutrition Diva listeners on how to eat healthy on campus. 

Finally, remember that your diet doesn’t have perfect. Mine certainly isn’t! Instead, just try to do a little bit better. Every step you take toward healthier eating habits is a step worth taking.

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.