General Nutrition

Eating Smart on Campus: How to Balance Your Plate as a College Student

November 14, 2023

Written by Gia Eapen, MD

Medically reviewed by

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Key Points

  • Equip yourself with nutritional knowledge to make informed decisions for balanced meals in college.
  • Emphasize whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, while being mindful of portion sizes and unnecessary calories.
  • Opt for water and be cautious with sauces to maintain control over calorie intake.
  • Treat dining halls as places to eat, setting boundaries to foster healthy habits, and make desserts an occasional special treat.

Starting college is a significant milestone, filled with new experiences and challenges. For many students, it marks the first time they are fully responsible for their daily meals and nutrition. Dining hall buffets, fast food on campus, late-night study snacks, and the allure of unlimited dessert can lead to poor dietary choices. This newfound freedom, combined with a lack of understanding of nutrition, often results in the infamous "Freshman 15" or other unhealthy eating habits. However, college is also a time of personal growth and discovery, and this includes developing a positive relationship with food. This guide offers practical advice for college students to make nutritious, balanced, and enjoyable food choices that promote overall well-being.

Understand Your Food Choices

Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to dining. Many dining halls now provide nutritional information for their menus. Take some time to research your choices before you dine. Analyze ingredients, weigh different options, and consider your dietary needs and preferences. Websites like can help you design well-balanced meals that satisfy both your palate and nutritional requirements. Beyond just understanding calories and macronutrients, familiarize yourself with the source of your food. Is it locally sourced? Organic? These factors may also influence your choices and contribute to a healthier lifestyle.

Emphasize Whole Grains

The shift to whole grains is more than a health fad; it's a nutritional essential. Whole grains like whole wheat bread, oatmeal, brown rice, and quinoa provide complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are often stripped away in refined grains. These nutrients aid in digestion and keep you feeling full longer, preventing unnecessary snacking. Experimenting with various whole grains can also introduce new flavors and textures to your meals, making them more enjoyable and satisfying.

Enjoy and Savor Your Food with Controlled Portions

Moderation is key in a world filled with oversized portions and all-you-can-eat buffets. By controlling your portions and using smaller plates, you'll naturally eat less while still feeling satisfied. Listen to your body's cues, eat slowly, and savor each bite. This mindful eating practice allows you to enjoy your food more fully and recognize when you are truly full. If you're still hungry, you can always get more, but starting small helps prevent overeating.

Prioritize and Personalize: Make Fruits, Vegetables, and Lean Proteins Key Components

A colorful plate is a healthy plate. Vibrant fruits and vegetables not only add visual appeal but are also packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Lean proteins, such as tofu, chicken, or fish, provide essential amino acids without excess fat. By prioritizing these nutrient-dense foods and personalizing your meals with unique combinations, you'll create dishes that are as delightful to the taste buds as they are beneficial to your health. Think beyond traditional meal structures and get creative with your culinary choices. This might seem overwhelming at first, but a Registered Dietitian in the Fay network can guide you in incorporating these essential nutrients into every meal. 

Rethink Beverages and Be Mindful of Sauces

Drink choices can often undermine even the best dietary intentions. Sugary beverages, creamy coffees, and alcoholic drinks can quickly add empty calories to your daily intake. Consider alternatives like sparkling water with lemon, herbal tea, or black coffee. Furthermore, sauces and dressings often harbor hidden fats and sodium. Being selective with these additions or requesting them on the side allows you to control your intake. Experiment with herbs, spices, and other natural flavor enhancers to keep your meals tasty without sacrificing health.

Navigate the Salad Bar Wisely

A salad bar is a treasure trove of nutritious options, but it can also be a trap for the unwary. Amidst the fresh greens and vegetables lurk high-fat and high-sodium culprits like olives, bacon bits, and creamy dressings. By focusing on fresh, colorful produce and using dressings sparingly, you can create delicious salads that nourish your body. Be adventurous and try new vegetables, seeds, or fruits to add variety and nutrition to your plate. Navigating the salad bar might seem daunting with so many choices. A Registered Dietitian in the Fay network can provide you with personalized advice on how to build a tasty and nutritious salad that aligns with your dietary goals.

Make Desserts Special and Rethink Sweet Treats

Desserts and sweet treats hold a special place in our hearts, but they should also hold a special place in our diets. Rather than daily indulgences, consider saving desserts for celebrations or particular days of the week. When you do indulge, savor the experience and choose quality over quantity. Healthier alternatives, like fruit parfaits or dark chocolate, can also satisfy your sweet tooth without derailing your dietary goals.

Create Healthy Habits: Dining Halls as Eating Spaces

Your environment shapes your eating habits, and that includes the spaces where you dine. Dining halls, cafeterias, and restaurants should be places where you enjoy meals and socialize, not areas for endless grazing. By setting boundaries on how long you stay and what you consume, you reinforce positive eating behaviors. Pairing this with other healthy habits like regular exercise, adequate sleep, and stress management creates a holistic approach to well-being.

Healthy dining is not about strict limitations or rigid rules. It's about understanding your food choices, emphasizing quality ingredients, practicing moderation, and enjoying the eating experience. By embracing these principles and integrating them into your daily life, you can create a positive relationship with food and nourish your body in a way that supports long-term health and happiness. If you need support in managing portion control and mindful eating, consider scheduling an appointment with a Registered Dietitian in the Fay network. They can help you develop strategies that fit your college lifestyle.

The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.


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Gia Eapen, MD

Written by Gia Eapen, MD

Dr. Gia Eapen is a skilled Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN) physician at Case Western/MetroHealth. A Northwestern University alumna, she pursued her medical degree at the University of Vermont, fostering a deep understanding of women's health and reproductive medicine. She combines her comprehensive knowledge with a dedication to patient-centered care, embodying a commitment to enhancing healthcare standards in her field.


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