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Eating healthfully is a lot easier when things are slow-paced. But when is the life of a college student mellow?

Busy days with irregular schedules can make sitting down to well-rounded, consistent meals challenging, and high stress levels can lead to overeating—or skipping food in lieu of more studying. In a recent Student Health 101 survey of over 1,200 college students, 77 percent indicated that “lack of time” was the biggest barrier they faced when trying to eat well.

With exams and holidays right around the corner, you’re probably stressed, cooped up studying, and confronted with treats everywhere. Here are some tips for sticking with healthy eating even when things get hectic.

Plan, Plan, Plan

As they say, “The best offense is a good defense,” and this is true for healthy eating when you’re busy. The key is to prepare and know where to find healthy foods, so that the unhealthy options don’t feel like your only choice. Ever feel like you are SO hungry that you can’t wait another minute to eat, but the only thing convenient and fast is a greasy burger or free mini-donuts?

With a little bit of planning, you can always have access to healthy options. In fact, 59 percent of respondents to the Student Health 101 survey reported that preparing healthy meals and snacks ahead of time is what helps them the most when making better food choices.

Spend Time to Make Time

Take some time during a less hectic time of the week—say, Sunday afternoon—to plan out your meals for the coming days and do some prep work.

If you prepare meals on your own, chop up veggies, hard-boil a batch of eggs, bake some chicken or tofu for use on salads, and pre-make some brown rice (a huge bag is very cost-effective) or a whole box of pasta. These can be mixed with a variety of toppings for quick meals.

If you eat in a dining hall, you can pack up items in take-away containers or plastic baggies.

Tijana S., a junior at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, suggests, “Get your lunch (or dinner) at breakfast time or earlier in the day. When it’s time to eat [again] you have food and you won’t be ravenous.”

Snacks are another big part of eating well during hectic times. When you’re on the move all day, chances are good that you won’t have the chance to make a pit stop at your pantry. So again, a little planning goes a long way. Beril P., a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, says, “I pack [granola] bars and fruit in zipper-closure plastic bags if I’m not going to be in my room.”

Pack your bag with enough healthy food to get you through the mid-morning munchies and the late afternoon slump, and you’ll have more energy and stay motivated. You’ll also be more likely to stay away from the sugar and salt-filled calorie bombs in the campus convenience store or library vending machine.

Ideas of make-ahead/take-ahead meals

Make-Ahead Meals

There are lots of nutritious, affordable foods you can make ahead (at home or in a dining hall) for meals and snacks. Here are some ideas:
  • Chop celery, carrots, and broccoli. Dip in hummus and eat with whole-grain crackers or bread.
  • A sliced-egg sandwich is easy and hard-boiled eggs can be carried in your bag for the day, unrefrigerated (as long as you don’t use mayonnaise). Place the egg on whole-grain toast with a handful of spinach and/or other veggies.
  • Bring a banana and nuts or seeds for a satisfying snack.
  • Pack a sliced apple, a dollop of peanut butter, and a baggie of air-popped popcorn.
  • Mix pasta and your favorite raw veggies with vinaigrette. Add hard-boiled egg or chilled chicken if desired.
  • Take along light string cheese, grape tomatoes, an orange, and whole-grain pretzels.
  • Place a few cups of shredded wheat cereal (or your favorite unsweetened variety) in a plastic bag. Mix in dried fruit and nuts.
  • Pick up a large container of nonfat yogurt (Greek-style has even more protein.) Scoop a serving or two into a portable bowl and top with sliced banana, sunflower seeds, raisins, and a bit of granola.
  • Make “refrigerator oatmeal,” as suggested by Chelsey T., a graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

Overnight Oats

Submitted by Chelsey T., graduate of Wheaton College.

Ingredients:
  • 1/3 cup rolled oats (The store brand will be very cheap.)
  • 1/3 cup plain 0% fat Greek yogurt (or your favorite flavor of Greek or regular)
  • 1/3 cup almond milk or milk of choice
  • 1 Tbsp. cocoa powder (optional)
  • ½ or whole mashed banana
  • 1 tsp. of sugar or other sweetener, to taste (especially if you add cocoa powder)
Directions:
Mix ingredients together. Refrigerate overnight. Top with ½ cup frozen berries and ½ Tbsp. peanut butter or chocolate-hazelnut spread, if desired. Enjoy!

Make It Together

You and your friends are probably really good at dividing up responsibilities when you’re tasked with an academic project or are planning a party or campus activity. Why not apply that same approach to meal preparation?

Organize a potluck schedule with friends or hall-mates when life gets a little crazy. Maybe you make a crock-pot full of healthy chili on Monday night, someone else bakes some chicken breasts and steamed veggies the next night, and another friend hosts a taco salad fiesta the next. See? You just had three healthful meals, and you only had to prepare one.

Re-I C., a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, shares, “This is one of the best ways to get food made. It’s fun to cook with friends and it’s easy to whip up a large amount of food to store in containers for the week. Food preparation scales very well.”

There’s an added social benefit to this approach, too: when you’re overwhelmed, you might feel inclined to retreat within yourself instead of seeking support from those who care about you. Gathering for informal meals with friends is a great way to slow down (however briefly) and stay connected. “My friends and I take turns hosting potluck dinners whenever we can. It’s a fun way to get new healthy recipe ideas, too,” says Jenna F., a senior at the University of Minnesota in Morris.

Use Your Smarts When Eating Out

When you do find yourself in need of fuel on the go, seek out healthy options instead of settling for candy, chips, or soda. Many fast food chains, convenience stores, and coffee shops offer pre-made salads, wraps, packaged nuts and fruit, string cheese, smoothies, and hard-boiled eggs.

The best options are typically the least processed ones. Look for short ingredient lists, and check out nutritional information if offered. You can also be creative: ask for a plain potato, unbuttered whole-grain toast, or a tortilla. Top them with your choice of vegetables and lean protein.

If you must use a vending machine, look for crackers with peanut butter, dried fruit, animal crackers and some nuts, and seltzer or water. Most sodas have caffeine and lots of sugar, which will give you a spike of energy, but then you’ll crash.

Treat Yourself

Good news: having small portions of your favorite treats is part of living a balanced life. Food is to be enjoyed! Feeling deprived can result in going overboard if you’re stressed, and the sugar in sweets can give you a temporary high, but soon your blood sugar will take a dive, and you’ll feel worse.

When you do indulge in something decadent, choose something that you really, really enjoy. You can also make plans with friends to enjoy something yummy. Knowing you’ll have some downtime and a treat gives you something to look forward to… other than more work.

When your days are hectic, you can still fuel your body with real, whole foods. Pick and choose ingredients and meals that will provide lasting energy. This will help you concentrate, and will put you in a positive state of mind. These are good conditions for studying, and also for spending time with family and friends after your exams and assignments have all been handed in.

Easy meal ideas for a crowd

Salads and Sides

Fruity Couscous
I like to take dried fruit, specifically dried apricots and dried currants, and fix them in couscous. I cook the couscous in chicken broth for flavor, and add the dried fruit with some turmeric, basil, garlic, salt, and pepper. I sometimes add a little thyme, too. It is delicious.
Donna R., Ashford University Online

Black Bean Salad
Combine one can of black beans, one mango, one cup of cilantro, one cup of red pepper, 1 Tbsp. olive oil, fresh lime juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Chill for two hours, or overnight.
Kathyn H., University of Denver

Broccoli Slaw

Chop up some broccoli, cucumber, carrots, and any other vegetables you like and add a little fat-free Italian dressing.
Chris, University of South Florida, Morsani College of Medicine, Tampa

Slow Cooker Meals

Beef Stew
Frozen beef tips with carrots, celery, and basically any vegetable you like. It’s really good and filling on cold days.
Ashleigh, University of Florida, Gainesville

Vegetarian Chili
Combine several types of beans, peppers, onions, tomato paste, and canned tomatoes with stock and add a pre-made chili seasoning mix for easy vegetarian chili.
Chris, University of Missouri-Columbia

Pulled Pork
Let it sit in the slow cooker all day and it pulls apart easily at the end of the day. Just add BBQ sauce and you’re set!
Dominique, University of Virginia, Charlottesville

Pastas

Noodles with Pesto and Veggies
Boil enough penne noodles for your group. Three minutes before they are ready, throw in a frozen veggie pack of your choice. Drain and add pesto sauce. Add some cooked shrimp or chicken if you want. The dish is quick, healthy, and perfect for students.
Justin, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada

Pasta for All
For groups, I feel that pasta is the best way to go. But instead of dumping a ton of sauce in it, throw in some veggies (chopped spinach, onions, and green peppers) and protein (ground beef and Italian sausage).
Sherrell, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana

Spaghetti Squash
A few basil leaves, 3 cloves of garlic, dash of salt and pepper, 5 tomatoes, 1 Tbsp. of olive oil, and a dash of oregano. Cook all that mixed together in a pot on the stove until it becomes a sauce. Then cook spaghetti squash that is peeled off like little angel hair noodles. Mix after draining the squash and it becomes a pasta dish without the noodles.
Zach, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Stir Fry

Teriyaki Chicken and Quinoa
Cook 1 lb. chicken breast on medium heat on the stove until done. Add some chopped bell peppers and green onions and cook on low heat until tender. Cook 1 cup quinoa in 2 cups water in microwave-safe dish for 8 minutes on high power. Let stand for 5 minutes then heat again on high for 2 minutes. Add some extra water if needed. Then add some low-sodium soy sauce to the chicken stir-fry and quinoa (as needed) with garlic powder to taste. You’ve now prepared a soy sauce/teriyaki chicken stir-fry that’s good, nutritious, and low in sodium.
Victoria, University of Florida, Gainesville

Veggie Stir-Fry
Buy veggies, fruits, nuts, beans, and some meat such as chicken and some sort of vegetable oil. Chop ingredients into bite-size bits and make a stir-fry. Experiment with seasoning, such as soy sauce, curries, hoisin sauce, and bean paste. Make both a vegan and a non-vegan stir-fry from all ingredients. Make some fruit salads as well.
Kwame, Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas

Take Action!

  • Plan ahead. Pack healthy ingredients from home or the dining hall.
  • Cook with friends. Plan a rotating potluck to minimize each person’s responsibilities.
  • Buy bulk items. Oatmeal, pasta, rice, and other grains can be stored for long periods and cooked in large batches.
  • Don’t be shy about toting portable snacks and meals. Use baggies and containers to pack foods in the dining hall at breakfast-time.
  • Balance whole grains, protein (cheese or hummus, for example), and fiber-rich veggies and fruit.

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Get help or find out more
If you’d like individualized suggestions, contact your campus health center or dining service to talk with a dietitian.

Georgia Department of Public Health, Get Smart: Eating on the Go

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

TeensHealth, The Nemours Foundation, Eating Well While Eating Out

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