But, having been there – I must warn you: beware! The Freshman 15 is not a myth, and left unattended, can quickly blossom into the Freshman 40 (or in extreme cases, the Freshman 400). Paying even the tiniest bit of attention to your meals can start good patterns early on, saving years of failed diets, not to mention quite a few Hamiltons. (I said “Hamiltons”! Lord, I’m a hip, hip kitty! Hey … where’re you going?)
Anyway, without further ado, here are a few (hard-learned) tips that might be useful for keeping your university chow cheap, healthy, and morally and stomachally fulfilling. There's no need to act on all of them, but one or two could make a nice difference. (Oh, and please feel free to add more suggestions to the comments section.)
DOs: ON CAMPUS
DO relax. If you’ve never done it before, feeding yourself the right way is really, really hard. Don’t freak out if you make some mistakes, gain a few pounds, or consume nothing but tuna casserole for three weeks. (Okay, maybe worry a little about that last one.) You’ll catch on.
DO try bringing a hot pot, microwave, and/or coffee maker. Cooking or brewing your joe in the dorm will save tons of cash and calories, and certain appliances come in hugely useful for late-night study sessions. A word of caution, though: George Foreman grills and other doohickies with exposed heating coils (toaster ovens, hibachis, etc.) are blackballed on most campuses. Check your college website for their policy.
DO see if your dorm has an oven and/or stovetop. Like hot pots and their kin, a kitchen range can conserve money and make res hall cuisine much simpler. Odds are no one will use be using it either, so go crazy. A pan, pot, and cookie sheet are really all you need to get started. (Keep reading for a more extensive list.) Extra Added Bonus: people like people who cook for them, so figure on making a lot of friends.
DO rent a mini-fridge if possible. Stashing healthy snacks in your room is one of the easiest ways to monitor expenditures and nutrition. For extra savings, split the cost of the fridge with roommates or neighbors.
DO buy a Brita. Gulping water does a body excellent, but the bottled stuff is the mother of all rip-offs. Procuring a thermos and filling it with fresh, filtered, from-the-tap H2O can preserve enough dough over the course of college to pay a semester’s tuition.
DO bring basic utensils. If you juuuuust missed dinner, a fork, knife, spoon, cup, plate, and bowl are all you need for handy-dandy in-room eating. They’re easier on the environment, too. (Don’t forget to wash them … not that I’ve ever done that.)
DO strategerize with your meal plan. Lots of pre-paid cards come equipped with enough cash for 14 meals per week, leaving seven to answer for. Buying smaller portions, subbing water for soda, skipping dessert, and pack-ratting oatmeal and fruit will help stretch the budget (but not the elastic on your pants).
DO know a few key terms for the dining hall. Broiled, baked, and steamed foods are snazzy, but avoid the terms “fried,” “au gratin,” and “cheesebake.” For more information, this guide (actually meant for restaurant-bound diabetics) is a fantastic read.
DO have breakfast. Studies show eating breakfast consistently is vital to managing your weight. Since it’s so cheap, you may as well. Collaring some produce, whole-grain cereal, or even a bagel (with jelly or lite cream cheese) will do wonders for your 8:30 am Art History class, not to mention the rest of the day. (Go easy on the bacon, eggs, and full-fat muffins though.)
DO read nutrition labels. Especially the parts about serving sizes and ingredients. Often, a “LOW FAT!” muffin qualifies as such because it’s been split into two or three servings. Same goes for convenience foods, juice, and yogurt-based drinks. As for the ingredient rundown, additives are listed in order of quantity. If sugar, sucrose, or high fructose corn syrup are among the first three (or ARE the first three), put the cupcake down and run away. On the flip side, look for foods high in protein, low in fat, and/or packed with vitamins.
DO eat fruits and vegetables. Easily dismissed in favor of chips, dip, and double lattechino no-whip, produce is cheap, healthy, and occasionally very tasty. What’s more, salad isn’t the only option. Try slowly adding a few favorite veggies into your diet, and work up from there. Sweet potatoes, carrots, and soups are stellar options.
DO snack smart. From time to time, a milkshake (brings all the boys to the yard) is darn satisfying. But multiple Dairy Queen Blizzards add up. For every candy bar, bag of chips, or brownie, try having two apples, a handful of nuts, or some celery with peanut butter. The healthier options will usually cost less, too.
DO measure portion size. Dining halls are generally pretty conscious of this, but did you know the average, person-appropriate portion of chicken is the size of a deck of cards? Yikes. To avoid overeating, stack your plate mostly with fruits and vegetables, then a smaller helping of starches. Add meat last. Using a smaller dish can help keep portion sizes down, too.
DO consider cutting down on meat. Beef, pork, chicken, and fish are crazy delicious, but can also be pricey and fattening in mass quantities. While severing meat from your diet entirely might be totally unreasonable, limiting your intake to three or four times a week will help you to not break the bank (or chairs … when you sit on them … because you’re ... never mind.)
DO request healthy care packages. Mom’s blondies may look … mmm … but THEY’RE NOT HELPING, MOM. If your parents are lovely and generous enough to send food, ask (politely) if they’ll pack something a little more health-minded. Granola bars, baked chips, pretzels, dried fruit, popcorn, and beef jerky are good ideas. If your ma digs baking, suggest she mosey on over to Cooking Light for recipes.
DO check your off-campus options. Stocking up on bargain-priced basics is a good thing in the long run. If you have access to a car, check the local supermarkets for costs, deals, and discount opportunities. If you don’t have access to a car, make a friend who does. Then – be really, really nice to them for the rest of college. (Cough up some gas money, too.)
DO exercise. Never again will a gym membership be as gloriously free/cheap as it is in college. Go if you get the chance, hatred of the Stairmaster be damned.
DO try something new. Through the dual powers of osmosis and cramped living quarters, college naturally exposes you to a lot of cultures and cuisines you might not have access to at home. Before you knock that vegan roommate or curry-loving lab partner, give their food a shot. What repulsed you yesterday may be your favorite dish tomorrow (see: eggplant, me).
DO get a grip. For probably the first time ever, you’re exposed to unlimited food, whenever and however you want it. Try keeping it in perspective, though. The occasional splurge is sweet, but daily bacon cheeseburgers will take their toll. Shoot for a square meal, and remember: those fries will still be there tomorrow.
DOs: OFF CAMPUS
DO buy fundamental cookware. To reiterate (iterate again?), cooking at home saves money and many inches off your bosom (or man boobs). A medium pan, medium pot, large knife, cutting board, can opener, blender, colander, cookie sheet, measuring spoons, measuring cup, wooden spoon, spatula, vegetable peeler, and a few pieces of Tupperware will get you started on almost any culinary journey. Wal-Mart, Craigslist, Amazon, and mom’s basement are good places to begin your quest.
DO invest in a basic cookbook. Alexandra Nimetz’s Healthy College Cookbook, Betty Crocker’s Cooking Basics, Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen by Kevin Mills, or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything are highly suggested by Amazon, food bloggers, and beyond.
DO watch TV. On those Saturday and Sunday mornings when you’re just clearing the haze from the night before, try flipping on the Food Network. Ellie Krieger’s Healthy Appetite and Dave Lieberman’s Good Deal are both geared toward lower-income, nutrition-minded eaters, but Alton Brown's Good Eats and Everyday Italian with Giada DeLaurentiis are good shows for beginners, too.
DO use the interweb. I’m pretty sure there are more cooking blogs than people at this point, but online recipe browsing is quick, specific to your needs, and best of all – freer than Nelson Mandela. Allrecipes and Food Network are neato for beginners, but check the link list at the end of this article for bloggy-type suggestions. Free Cooking Lessons, No Seriously is also a nice compilation of online how-to videos (if I do say so myself.)
DO know how to shop for food. To make the most of your money, try A) using the supermarket circular as your guide, B) sticking to the outskirts of the store (where the meat, veggies, and dairy are), C) not fearing generic brands, and D) signing up for club cards. They’ll help. I swear.
DO stock the basics. No matter how much I want it to, Ramen does not a diet make. Beans, rice, pasta, lentils, peanut butter, canned tuna and their ilk are cheap as hell, good for you, and quickly prepared in a pinch. Beware of going too heavy on starches, though. While they’re filling and low in fat, many are nutritional wastelands and have to be balanced out with fruits and vegetables.
DO embrace the leftover. Before chucking that half-eaten spaghetti into le garbage, think of how delicious it will be for lunch the next day. Then plop it into some Tupperware, stow it in the fridge, and bank the saved dollars for a beer run. (Light beer, of course.)
DO dine out wisely. The occasional takeout, Mickey D’s, or restaurant trip isn’t a bad thing, especially if you know the tricks. The diabetes guide linked to above is a great, general place to start, while the University of Pittsburgh gets into specific ethnic cuisines and Wake Forest gives nutritional info for fast food joints. For extra savings, skip the appetizers, don’t order booze, and/or immediately put half your meal away and for another time.
DON’Ts: ON and OFF CAMPUS
DON’T live on takeout. It’s SO, SO tempting to phone for dinner seven nights a week, but pretty unwise in the long run, since takeout comes in elephantine portions and can run five or ten times the price of a homemade meal (especially if you dig sushi). Ouch.
DON’T rely on frozen dinners, processed foods, or crappy snacks. Again, it’s okay to buy a Swanson’s Hungry Man from time to time. But no matter what their promises are, the costs, calories, and astronomical sodium content of pre-packaged foods add up. Go for simpler dishes made from whole foods (the shorter the ingredient list, the better), and you’ll be doing your purse and gut a favor.
DON’T buy pre-cut foods if you can help it. Bagged salads, baby carrots, and celery sticks can go for 300% more than just buying a head of lettuce, a sack of carrots, or a bunch of celery. If possible, invest in a decent knife, do the chopping on your own, and save a bundle.
DON’T wear out your credit card. While it’s incredibly alluring to put every little piece of pizza on a VISA, it’s also a speedy way to mire yourself in massive debt. Buy food with cash whenever possible. You’ll keep track of your expenditures better, and many headaches will be saved later on.
DON’T substitute cigarettes (or coffee or beer or weed) for food. Smoking is the world’s worst and most expensive appetite suppressant. Not only will it bleed you of your hard-earned cash and make you smell like hell, but it will kill you ten times faster than the Freshman 15. The other options aren’t much better, either: pot MAKES you hungry, and beer adds to your waistline quicker than you think. As for sweet, sweet coffee, it’s fine in moderation, but not as a meal in itself.
DON’T go vegetarian for the wrong reasons. Saving a chicken’s life? Good reason. Improving your health by consuming less beef? Good reason. Really, really like cauliflower? Weird, but good reason. Want to be skinnier? BAD, BAD, BAD reason. Vegetarianism is not a diet; it’s a way of life, and those who choose its path have to do the research and be ready for the commitment.
DON’T fall victim to an eating disorder. “An estimated 11 million people in the United States suffer from eating disorders … Approximately 90 percent of them are young adult women during the college years. … 1 in 10 cases [lead] to death from starvation, cardiac arrest or suicide,” says a study by the University of Kentucky. While barfing or starving may seem like a convenient fix to temporary weight gain, they do immeasurable more damage than good. If you have a rapidly slimming friend who disappears after every meal (and you will), confront her with your suspicions, then get help.
DON’T stress. Learning to eat right is a lot like college itself: puzzling, overwhelming, and easy to mess up at first, but you get it eventually. In the meantime, sit back, relax, and learn from your experiences.
About.com: Easy Foods for a Healthy Diet
- Avenoso, Karen. “Junk, caffeine still top on college campuses,” The Dallas Morning News. 15 September 1993.
- McPherson, Heather. “Cooking Up Plans for the College Dorm,” Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. 21 August 2003.
- Roth, J.D. “Healthy Food on an Unhealthy Budget.” Get Rich Slowly (blog). 1 June 2006. getrichslowly.org/blog/2006/06/01/healthy-food-on-an-unhealthy-budget/
- “University of Kentucky to Participate in National Eating Disorders Awareness Week,” US States News. 26 February 2007.