Healthy College Dining

Hey guys!

Thanks for all those D.C. dining suggestions! I’ll be putting them to good use.

Today, I’m answering a reader question that’s been on my mind for a long time. It comes from loyal reader Hannah, with whom I’ve corresponded for over a year now. She wrote:

Hey, Gena!

I’m curious if you could write a post on eating in college. I’m going to be a freshman at a school that does have many vegan/veggie options, however, not everything is organic or low in sodium, of course. As someone with an ED (anorexia), and in recovery, I’m still afraid of leaving home (where I can make many bountiful, farmer’s-market salads with lentils/beans, etc, and overnight oats with chia seeds) and eating foods that I’m not able to prepare or know the nutritional profiles of them. As someone who as reached the other side to recovery, how would you have done things differently in college/university (wasn’t it around that time some of your ED resurfaced?)

Another question is, how did you/does one deal with the myriad of choices and buffet-style eating that’s prevalent in college-the fear of the “freshman 15” or, even, the fear that one won’t like the foods and therefore, not feel like it’s “worth it” to eat them (which is dangerous because it could easily result in losing too much weight)? I’m not curious about eating totally raw in college (though I will eat as many salads as possible!) but, after your amazing posts on ED’s and body image, I’m curious to hear about your advice for someone entering a new and uncomfortable food environment. I know a majority of your readers are probably past college and in their 20’s, but it seems like the blog world has a growing amount of teen readers and their food blogs to other college-aged students, so maybe a post like this would help them, too. Thank you very much!


All the best,


First of all, I think Hannah deserves major cred for a thoughtful and well written question. It’s true that college is a time of notorious imbalance when it comes to food and eating. Even if you’ve never had an ED, it’s hard not to get sidelined by the sheer quantity and variety of new food that college offers. Add to that the lack of inhibition that comes from drinking and drug use, the social pressure to eat at odd hours, and the overwhelming urge to snack while studying, and you do indeed find yourself staring at a potential minefield of food related angst.

It would be a lie if I told you, Hannah, that I navigated the terrain of college eating elegantly. I didn’t. I ate, and (with the exception of one semester) I wasn’t underweight, which was an improvement on past behavior. But college wasn’t an easy time when it came to food. I struggled to find balance, struggled to eat consciously but not hyperconsciously, and struggled to find the foods that suited me best (that struggle didn’t end till I found veganism).

Most of all, I struggled to come to terms with the fact that I had recently suffered from disordered eating. I hated the taste of those words—”eating disorder”—in my mouth, and could barely utter them to myself, let alone a gaggle of new friends. As a result, I spent most of college laughing off or trivializing my struggles with food. Sometimes, this wasn’t such a bad thing: assuming the identity of a normal girl who ate normal things was, in some ways, remedial and freeing. For the most part, though, I wish I’d been more honest with myself about the demons that hovered nearby. When I hit a nasty low point during my toughest college year, my weight plummeted predictably, and it was clear to me then that nothing about my relationship with food had turned entirely normal. I was still struggling, and it would be some time before the struggle ceased.

As far as the practical half of your question goes, Hannah, I haven’t much genius advice to offer you when it comes to vegan dining options. I was nearly all vegetarian in college, but not yet vegan, so I didn’t have to examine food in the cafeteria too closely. I also ate most of my food from cafes and delis (I was in NYC, so this was easy) and in privacy (a vestige of my ED, and not a good one). But here’s what I can tell you:

  • From what I remember about Columbia’s dining options, and from what I’ve seen at NYU (where the lovely Mel has taken me to lunch), it’s fairly easy to find veggie sandwiches, hummus, sushi, tossed salad bars, stir fries, and so on. Vegan dishes are typically well marked, and if not, I’m sure it shouldn’t be too hard to ask around and find out how it works.
  • If you have a suite or kitchen access, you can certainly continue to enjoy the vegan dishes you love! Make oatmeal, salads, pastas, grain dishes, etc. Purchase a rice cooker, if you like – they’re cheap and make grain cooking easy and stress free (see my recent quinoa post for an example). If you’re eager to invest in some lifetime kitchen appliances, you may also want to get a food processor, which I consider the single most crucial piece of kitchen equipment I own. You’ll be able to make hummus, dips, soups, spreads, nut pates, and even knead homemade bread! If you can’t afford a processor, think about a small hand blender instead (like a Tribest). That’ll also allow you to make smoothies for breakfast!
  • Keep not-too-perishable vegan snacks in your room, so that you can use them as go-tos between classes, and avoid the trap of buying less healthy snacks as you study. I’d stock up on vegan snack bars, trail mix (buy nuts and fruit in bulk and mix your own if you like), nut butter, rice cakes, and sprouted bread. I’d also have protein powder (hemp or brown rice), chia seeds, and flax handy for oats and smoothies on campus; it’s doubtful any smoothie bar or oatmeal on campus will offer them, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add your own.

But what I think you’re really asking, Hannah, is for my tips on how to maintain a sense of balance in college. This is a far more nuanced question, but I’m going to do my best:

  • Be prepared, but improvise, too. The single biggest mistake I made as an undergrad was to vacillate between eating erratically (unhealthy foods, or foods late at night), or eating “perfect food” in isolation. There was a lot of self imposed hunger when I felt I’d eaten too much at a special meal. What I needed to do was to eat a balance of healthy foods I loved most of the time, and to indulge in extraordinary foods some of the time. By senior year, I’d sort of gotten the hang of this, but it wasn’t something I mastered until well into my twenties.
  • Stick to your guns about healthy eating. If you start to eat the less nourishing foods on campus too often, you’ll find yourself feeling less well than you might like, and you may run the risk of punishing yourself with food restriction. Remember that you love healthy food for a reason—it nourishes you—and don’t feel tempted to eat foods that are truly empty (like processed snacks or sugary sodas) simply to prove that you’re recovered.
  • At the same time, realize that life is not meant to be lived with too much vigilance. Truly, it’s not. In the next four years, and for the rest of your life, you should know what it is to behave uncharacteristically. You should experience the joy of a night without inhibition, without care, without virtuousness. You should know what it is to wake up after indulging in a rich meal or a late night slice of (vegan) pizza or a few too many glasses of wine, and to not feel remorse because the pleasure you felt was intense and good. This does and should not mean a surrender of veganism, of course: unless you find that you’re not ideologically driven to be vegan (which is a separate issue from the ones we’re talking about). My point is that you shouldn’t fear meals or foods that are out of the ordinary, just so long as you remember to fill up your life with those healthy foods you love *most* of the time. If you can master this, you’ll be well on your way to a peace with food that many adult women haven’t yet found.
  • If you’re comfortable with it, share your past. I wish I’d gotten to college and told my friends that food was an area of intense struggle in my life. I wish they’d heard it from me, rather than figuring it out when I dropped twenty pounds in two months, or when my “collarbones started to do funny things,” as my friend Jordan once said, or when they caught me stuffing pieces of a bagel into a napkin under the table on a particularly vicious “fat day.” I wish I’d included them in the dialogs I had with myself about food, because I believe they had the compassion and wisdom to help me. There’s no use in your sharing anything about your history if you aren’t ready, but remember that friends and lovers and even professors can help to keep our worst tendencies in line when we ourselves lack the power to fight them.
  • If speaking openly about your past is a sore spot, I’d definitely advise you to seek out at least one friend or counselor with whom you can share. My friend Gabi was my guardian angel as an undergrad (in more ways than one, right Gabs?), and to this day she remains a wise and humorous sounding board when I need to talk about anything related to body image. There are also plenty of great counselors nationwide who specialize in these kinds of dialogs; I like and for searches.
  • Remember that your college experience will be whatever the heck you want it to be. There’s no reason why you ought to gain a freshman fifteen (unless you’re underweight and need the pounds). Hysterical talk of college weight gain presumes the most unrestrained behavior possible; binge drinking, pizza all night, giant heaps of dining hall food at every turn, and so on. None of these are habits you need to pick up; what you’ll want to do is remain very much who you are when it comes to food (healthy, aware), and intersperse that with a little fun.
  • Most of all, remember that you are accountable for good health. College is your first gulp of autonomy in life, and you’ll need to develop habits that can carry you through your adult years and beyond. If you spend your college years still restricting or overeating with total abandon, you may find it hard to establish patterns of balance in your twenties. See college as your first chance to be accountable. Don’t be seduced by junky foods that fail to nourish you—at least not more often than once a while. Don’t try to manage stress and pain with overeating or food restriction. Don’t indulge in crazy fad diets that will leave you emotionally raw and underweight. Instead, see this as a four year chance to blossoming into a healthy and vibrant young woman who values and takes pride in her own lifestyle habits.

I know you can, and will. Good luck, Hannah, and keep me posted!

And now, time to ask my readers for their undergrad tips. If you’re a former ED sufferer, how did you navigate the college gauntlet? If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, how did you honor your lifestyle while all the while eating good food?

If you think you did some things wrong, what would you go back and change?


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  1. Hi Gena,

    This is so perfect and fitting. I e-mailed you at the beginning of the school year and you gave me some great tips. I am a junior in college and a vegan. My school is so not vegan-friendly and often labels things vegan when they clearly include cream or cheese (the horror!).

    That being said, I’ve come to love creating raw dishes at home to bring with me to school. My friend and I eat in my room together after class and enjoy ourselves.

    After being on the road to recovery from my ED, veganism has really served as a special place in my heart. I feel good about my decisions to eat and don’t “regret” things because I know I’m doing what is right for this beautiful body of mine. [:


  2. Hey Gena,

    Thanks for such a great article. I’m a junior in college now and I’ve been vegetarian the whole time without any problems. Recently I’ve been trying to go completely vegan and it’s been harder than I thought it would be. I have a serious sweet tooth and I often get hung up in that instant gratification thing that happens so much in college. Is it just me that notices this? It seems like everyone in college bases their eating habits off of whatever they may be craving at that moment no matter what time of day it may be. It is hard to not eat pizza or cookies when I see it all the time and it just seems like everyone else is eating them! I’ve been trying to learn some self control but I think that comes easier the more you work at it.

    Hannah, I don’t have an eating disorder so I have no idea what it’s like but if you can find some friends who have recovered or are just really good listeners I say lean on that because having someone there to support you can make all the difference. Just remember your values and why you’re trying to be healthy in the first place and I think you’ll have a great and healthy time at college :] Good luck!

  3. Wow what an interesting as well as very important topic. Gena the advice you’ve given is so helpful and I only wish I could have received such wisdom before entering the world of college dining. And your intelligent readers as well have chimed in with great stuff as well.

    Unfortunately my own experience is one of those examples that can be placed in the “Here’s the stupidest way to approach college dining” pile. I think that, personally going off to college and living in the dorms at only 18 years of age was much bigger than I realized. I went from being marginally in control of what I ate to being 100% in control of what I ate. There are so many ways to respond to this new control, and I think young students just need to recognize how important this is. I wish I had taken this opportunity to prove that I could take care of myself, as an adult is expected. So my advice is relish this new freedom and take care of your body! Don’t be afraid of messing up, and trust yourself. You know what is healthy and what is not healthy- speaking in terms of both food and food behavior.

  4. Longtime reader delurking to agree with all of your readers who commented that this post really struck a nerve. I, too, wish that someone had sat me down and told me all of this during college!

    Having been a very healthy and athletic vegetarian since eighth grade, I entered college at a really low point in my life (parents unexpectedly divorced the summer after my high graduation– note to all parents: although I haven’t come up with an ideal time to get divorced, please please DO NOT do it right before your child enters college– yikes!) and suffered from depression and anorexia my freshman year. I had done a lot of research throughout high school about vegetarianism and *knew* how to eat healthily, but threw that knowledge to the wind and developed habits of food restriction and overexercising.

    I felt very isolated (when meeting all of those new people excited about their new-found freedom and having “the time of their life,” who would want to hear some girl’s sob story of divorce, anxiety and disordered eating?! Please) and passed up many a fun night of eating out, ordering pizza in the dorm or drinking some beer to instead eat a “safe” meager salad (read: lettuce) and diet soda in solitude (blech). I could just kick myself for getting in that dark place and I’m so happy to hear you encouraging college students (and everyone, at that!) to “experience the joy of a night without inhibition, without care, without virtuousness.”

    Four years out of college now and having been at a healthy weight and in a happy, balanced place for the last three, I still have those moments of regret over the social events and relationships I passed up during my internal struggle and “the time of my life” that I usually wish I could erase. Hey, I just figure that I would be pretty sad to know that the “time of my life” had already passed in college—I would rather have it for the next sixty years or so thankyouverymuch 😉

    One last thing! I don’t know if any other readers have touched on this yet, but one of the things I was later most “ashamed” of was the reputation I gave my beloved vegetarianism during college. In my junior and senior years, when I was gaining back some healthy weight and confiding in my friends about my struggles, so many of them replied, “Well I knew you were really skinny and didn’t eat much, but I just thought that was because you were a vegetarian!” Argh! I was so upset with myself for being such an unhealthy example of vegetarianism when I had been a healthy vegetarian for so many years. I was sure to explain to my friends that my eating disorder had nothing to do with being a vegetarian and I hope they have since encountered more examples of healthy vegetarians!

    Sorry for the novel over here—now you should be glad that I don’t usually comment! Thank you so much for your always-thoughtful posts and delicious recipes (mmmmm Gena’s Guacamole). Oh, and rock on, Hannah—sounds like you’re headed in the right direction 

  5. When I went to the dining hall I used to have a bowl of spinach every night, with whatever meal I had (I wasn’t vegetarian then, so my meal was usually the chef’s vegetable of the day, and a little of the main dish/casserole/who knows)!

  6. I’m not vegan, but I am a vegetarian with vegan tendencies. Like you’re reader, I’m a freshman living in a dorm, with only a mini fridge and microwave at my disposal. My dining hall has vegan options daily, for lunch and dinner, but they rely a bit too heavily on processed meats and carbohydrates for my day to day taste. I sometimes get a meal from the vegan station, but for the most part I thrive off the salad bar. I do eat a lot of hummus and add nutritional yeast to my meals when eating in my dorm. I also rely on stir fries, and consume quite a bit of raw tofu from the salad bar, but I balance it out by keeping almond milk (and not soy milk) in my dorm. Almond milk can be kept in dry storage, and I try to have a nice stock at all times. I suggest to think of this time as a creative challenge. I missed sweet potatoes so I have a few in my dorm now and microwave steam them. No, it’s not roasted, but it satisfies my craving. I buy cans of pumpkin and add it to my oatmeal. In fact I had overnight oats this morning with rolled oats, a little Greek yogurt, pumpkin, chia seeds, medjool date, and a little banana. All in a dorm! It definitely can be done. I also rely on several nut butters, brown rice powder, dried fruits, nuts, and cereal for snacks. You may raise an eyebrow or two when you’re in the lounge microwaving broccoli, but I find that often times my floor mates ask questions because they want to pick up healthy eating and living tips for themselves. Mama Pea did a great post on vegan/vegetarian dining in college:

    Best of luck to your reader and anyone else currently in school, these are some of the best years!

  7. Wow, there is some great advice in the comments section today! For my part, I made a lot of food mistakes in college, but I had fun. When I got to school I had been recovered from anorexia for about 6 months and I was terrified of gaining any extra weight. I was very vigilant and ended up losing a few pounds fall semester. After that, something changed and I went back to old habits of overeating. I gained a lot of weight (an old pattern) but for me it was a trade off- I have awesome memories of late night nachos with friends in the student-run coffee house and late night orders of phad thai. I became vegetarian as a junior and senior- luckily we had a vegetarian dining hall, and the food was decent. I think my problem was all the extras- free food at lectures and club meetings, late night pizza orders and vending machine snacks. This is not to worry you- it was my own emotional overeating that caused me problems, not the environment per se. As a largely vegan grad student at a large university now, and at a healthy weight, I have found some great options on campus- a vegetarian student coop, Jamba Juice, salads at a cafe, and subway sandwich in a pinch.
    My main advice for you is to take advantage of the FREE resources your college will offer. When else in life will you be offered free counseling, free support groups, a free gym, etc? College was the first place I told anyone about my eating disorder. I confided in my first year mentor, and having her know really helped- suddenly it was less of a private roller coaster and more of a shared knowledge of my personal struggles. I started therapy for the first time and found it very helpful. I wish I had hit up the gym more often- it may feel far away, but the gym will probably be closer and less expensive than any other time in your life! It’s a great way to blow off steam an anxiety- just don’t overdo it, of course.
    Finally, college was a place where I became really empowered about my body. I met women with eating disorders, women who had recovered, and women who had gained or lost lots of weight. I don’t know about every college, but I was able for the first time to share my fears with others and let go of a lot of the labels and judgments that I associated with weight, at least intellectually. I met amazingly strong and beautiful women of all sizes who showed me that we empower ourselves and empower each other- at any size. I gained a lot of strength and wisdom that I value more than my weight. So have fun, and look for those opportunities to share your experience- therapy, friends, workshops, panels, theatre- see how much you can grow.

    • Laura,

      Love that you sought out women who were empowered and at peace with their bodies while you were in college! That’s terrific. It’s not something I did until after college, and I wish I’d actively sought out role models for myself at a younger age.

      • I have to say that in a lot of ways it just happened. That’s what you get at a small liberal arts all-women’s college! Feminism and active rebellion against society’s standards and judgments! I think because of my ed I gravitated towards body and mental health related events, and luckily the messages out there were really good ones.

  8. Luckily for me, I lived in a college that didn’t have an associated dining hall so I had much more freedom to prepare foods as I desired which is when my passion for raw veganism was ignited. I requested that my “going away” present from my folks be a vita-mix and I prepared a lot of my own soups, salads, smoothies and juices. Plus I always made extras for friends and throughly enjoyed throwing my own “mini dinner parties” with my vegan delicacies, red wine and I even remember blending my own “healthy” cocktails with agave. My friends thought it was the most amazing thing and wanted to learn all the tricks of the trade themselves!

  9. I was an ED survivor AND a vegetarian in college, so I can offer some advice on both accounts.
    My university was a pretty toxic environment when it comes to eating disorders–they were disturbingly common, and thinness was a prized part of popularity. I avoided relapse by focusing on myself. That sounds weird, but it really helped me because self-centering decreased the likelihood that I would compare myself to others. As for the vegan/vegetarian scene, DON’T be afraid to make special requests–dining services are there to FEED you. You should be able to get what you need if you simply ask.

  10. G,

    I adore this post.

    I think you are point on in that college is about experiencing new things and living life… Being too strict about eating habits, and behaviors, can box you in, and limit new life experiences. Life is unpredictable, and often crazy– but it is those unpredictable moments that make like worth living!

    I think going to off to college is a challenge that forces us to grow and step outside of our comfort zone. I gained the freshman 15… but it was because I was eating horridly (um… had no idea what nutrition was)… and I lost the weight it when I found my path. I am so so so impressed with teens that know so much more than I did, those many years ago.

    I am not afraid to admit, that in all my nutrition glory (haha) I still am not perfect… but as you told me once before, perfectionism is boring… and I am happy, healthy, and loving life. I think the best advice for someone going off to college is to remember the foods make them feel good, but also acknowledge the friendships, relationships, and experiences that make you feel wonderful.

    Open up to new experiences!!! We are all going to stumble a bit. I am pretty sure that stumbling is human… but have fun getting there. We are only young once.



  11. As a sophomore in college who who became vegan less than a year ago (but who has been a longtime vegetarian), this issue really speaks to me. I had kind of the opposite problem of you Hannah, as I spent most of my freshman year trying to lose weight. I’d had a minor ED in high school, and for me, losing weight healthily helped me to manage that. However, it was really difficult for me, since dining hall food tends to be really repetitive, and I’d end up eating peanut butter toast a lot.

    I’m happy to say that I lost weight over the summer, (going vegan helped some), but in order to do so, I stopped eating oil, sugar, salt, and refined carbohydrates, and I limited my grain and fats usage. This worked for me, and I don’t feel deprived at all without these things in my diet (except for rare exceptions). However, this makes dining hall eating difficult.

    The best thing i can say is that the salad bar is going to be your best friend. If your campus has multiple dining halls, try going to different ones for lunch and dinner so as to have salad bar variety. Also, the dining hall staff will usually be good about helping you out if you explain your needs. Always feel free to ask if something is vegan, and if they can’t answer, ask them to ask someone who does. If there’s a station where things are made to order (we have a saute station), ask them to make you something you can eat. For example, at the saute station, I ask them to wash out the pan and water-saute me whatever vegetables they have, and they will. Also, if they’re out of something, ask if they have any more. I know for us, fruit tends to run out, and I always ask if there’s something they used to have that I want.

    Also, you should bring your own food in if you want. I bring in sauces a lot, because I can’t eat theirs, and my own nuts and flax seed to add to salad. And I take fruit back to from the dining hall to snack on later. If your dining hall has a microwave you can use, you can bring vegetables in and add them to vegetables from the salad bar and microwave them with spices (from the pizza station) and balsamic vinegar from the salad station (you could use the olive oil too).

    Bottom line: the dining hall staff are really nice, and you should ask them about stuff you want. It’s their job to help you out, and they’re usually pretty happy to do it. And don’t let food stop you from being social; I never do, even if I have to bring my own or eat beforehand.

    I hope your college experience is as good as mine!

  12. Great post and great suggestions Gena!

    I took my own food to university almost every day as the options were so limited, and that kept me eating food I felt good about. I also drank, ate skittles and pretzels from the vending machines but this was the odd occasion and when I did I felt good about it.

    Keep fresh fruit on hand always – it’s the easiest way to have a quick snack that is healthy. A jar of nut butter will be easy to carry too and some veg crudites or what I do when traveling…buy a bag of organic carrots, give them a quick wash with a bottle of water and eat them whole…looks funny but it works and it’s fun! 🙂


  13. as a recent graduate that was vegetarian and quasi-vegan for most of college, i’m thinking of a few things i did that really helped me navigate food. like gena, i went to college in NYC (at NYU actually – gena i’m wondering where you’ve been on campus to eat?) and was lucky enough to be surrounded by veg-friendly options but they were expensive and i know that making the most of your meal plan is key– especially since most schools require you have a meal plan your freshman year.

    -i carried a miniature bottle of good oil (olive or hemp oil) in my purse at all times to put on salads in the dining hall since their “olive oil” was far too neon yellow to be believed as the real thing. at first i would use it surreptitiously but eventually i used it without shame in front of friends – and sometimes they even asked to use some because they agreed that the cafeteria “olive oil” was very suspect.

    -typically schools have different meal plan options to choose from, so after you get a feel for the eateries you’ll realistically see yourself utilizing each week adjust your meal plan. most schools give you a few weeks to change it up. for me, i wanted as few visits to the all you can eat dining halls as possible because i knew they weren’t a great choice for me, and i allocated most of my meal points to the salad/sandwich bar choices.

    -that being said, when i did go to the all you can eat places i went at time that i knew the salad bar would be well stocked. this seems a little psycho, but when almost your entire meal is at the salad bar (which it will likely be for you too) going at 8pm when it has been picked over entirely would be majorly depressing and make me more likely to overdose at the cereal bar instead.

    -after going to the dining hall at a well stocked salad bar time, i would often bring to-go containers and leave with a bunch of raw vegetables and fruit to keep in the mini fridge in my room to eat at another time. most schools provide to-go containers but i rec. bringing your own.

    -gena kind of mentioned this, but definitely think ahead about how you will navigate conversations with new friends about food. meal time is highly social, especially freshman year of college when everyone is establishing friendships, so it is easy for these times to cause anxiety. but please PLEASE don’t let them, because you should be able to enjoy food and your friends just like everyone else! at first i had a lot of anxiety on every trip to the dining halls and would feel forced to try things that i really didn’t want to eat just because others would say “MMM THIS IS SO GOOD TRY THIS!!” and i wanted to please them. but i found that being really honest with new people always went well. if you identify as a vegan don’t hesitate to talk about it, and divulge as much as you are comfortable with about your reasons behind it.

    -i also need to reiterate gena’s advice about being flexible and not living your life with too much vigilance! i will tell you right now, freshman year there is so much happening that is new and exciting but can also make you feel totally out of control. if food restriction is known to be your default method of “taking control” then please be careful. most college campuses have free counseling and it might be good to establish a relationship with someone early just as a preventative measure. the adjustment is huge and having someone to touch base with (or maybe it’s a friend from back home or family member) that you can be honest with these things about is important. i hope that you are able to let loose in a way that’s balanced for you though. i actually found it easier to leave behind my disordered eating ways in college actually because i was re-inventing myself with new friends and not feeling the weight of expectation and fishbowl-ness of high school. i also loved, for the first time, being able to truly make all my own choices about food and eat when and where i wanted. it was liberating. i certainly ate my fair share of unhealthy food and drank plenty, but after some trial and error i found a good balance for me with this as well.

    good luck!!

  14. Great advice and insights into your college life. So interesting to hear. I had way too much fear about dorms and cafeterias that I got my own apartment freshman year. This made it a bit tougher to be social at first (when everyone was eating together with their roommates) but in the end I found my niche. I became vegan in college and at my second school I found a very cool alternative student-run collective that had rice and beans and salad as a staple. I was very poor at this time and it was only $2. At home, I pretty much made the same thing.

    If you do want to do most of the meals on your own, or breakfast/lunch on your own, then set aside some dinners to be social. Or set dates to meet around campus for lunch where you bring your own. After freshman year lots of people in the schools I went to didnt eat in the cafeteria every lunch. Lots of schools have money you can put on a card for flexibility.

    As for the freshman 15, I gained at least that in graduate school due to drinking. Life can get stressful so make sure you have another outlet for stress other than drinking. And try to find a variety of friends, not just ones who want to drink heavily.

  15. I think you’ll automatically be looking for foods you like from home. It’s just a natural reaction because you’re thrown out of your comfort zone.

    Make big salads from the salad bar and toss in grains and beans, just like you do at home. Think of it like if you went to a Whole Foods bar … just not quite as tasty 🙂

    Everyone there will be coming from someplace different, so believe me, they’ll all be eating differently. My best (guy) friend ate a cheeseburger, french fries, and coke for lunch every single day because it was the only thing that reminded him of home.

    Finally, get busy. Seriously. Leave your dorm room door open on the first day when you’re unpacking and have a conversation with everyone who comes by. If you’re too busy having fun and being social, food just becomes something to fuel you, rather than focus on.

    I second Gena’s suggestion about getting some healthy snacks. Have your parents send you packages. I practically lived on Luna bars because the dining hall would close by 8pm and I’d be up all night and STARVING.

  16. Beautiful & informative as usual, Gena. Thank you so much for sharing, and I agree that the email received was extremely well written.

  17. Gena,
    I’m suffering through IBS (or something!!) for over a year now. My doctors have been hopeless and alternative practitioners impossible because of the money involved.
    I’m beginning to feel at ropes end.
    I vacillate from constipation to extreme diarrhea. If I have a “good” day it means my bowel movement is just mush (I’m sorry, I think you must be familair with the blunt terms).
    NOthing helps. Nothing.
    From what I’ve read, it almost seems that a primal lifestyle might suit me best. But I don’t eat many grains at all, and I’m not sure that is good either.
    If I want to have a few good days (please god), then what kinds of breakfasts (this is hardest) and snacks and meals might you suggest? I won’t follow it word for word. I’m leaning toward primal (because I feel mentally “comfortable” with it),and you are vegan! But I do want to explore things. I hope this question is okay in the comments section – there is no need to make a post about it, I hate to direct attention to any words coming from my mouth! But I’m curious, what would be a freiendly breakfast in your mind anyway? Seriously, a friendly one to get me on track.
    I’m in a troublesome spot because I need to gain weight but I’m suffering something bad and I’ve yet to find help and have given up on medicine or people that only take money that I don’t have. I need to figure this out on my own. How do I balance that with eating enough and when I have no appetite? Any thoughts? Other bloggers (both vegan and primal lifestyles? Specific meal or snack suggestions? Something that possibly can not steer me wrong?). (I hope my email address does not publish with this comment! Its rather bold for me to say this at all).

    • Try a gravity method colonic if possible. Quickest, safest fix and the hydrotherapist will have much better advice than a doctor.

      Other than that, a plant based diet with lots of sweet potatoes, avocados and beets should help. Try to go light in the morning, avoid being too hungry or too full, and try not to eat before bed or first thing in the morning (the bowel needs time!)

      Also, the right side of the colon is one of the major energy centers of the body, controlling emotions and anxiety. The physical component to IBS is huge, but the emotional matters a lot too. Try to let meal times be pleasurable. Feel proud of yourself for trying to eat healthy, and understand that “letting go” of the anxiety around eating and elimination can be half the battle. (ie, you have just as much power as the food does).

      • Hi Amanda,

        I don’t know if you will see this or not. I need structure. Ideas of what to eat over the course of a day (2-3 days samples). I really need structure. I’m afraid that if I don’t eat breakfast (or don’t eat enough then) that I won’t have a bowel movement (their a mess anyway, but even worse would be not having one at all). I’m at a loss and so desperate. I can’t afford anything “special” and I don’t believe in detoxes and colonics (and can’t afford). I feel so badly inside and out. I want to wake up in the morning and know what to do!

    • Have you been checked for celiac disease? Constipation and extreme diarrhea are classic symptoms. And if you feel better off grains, gluten is the culprit there. Just putting it out there as gluten did just that to me! (Dairy can too)

      • No celiac. I am just at a loss about what to eat. Honestly every meal and snack is a horrible experience. I just don’t know what to do anymore when I wake up in the morning.

  18. Wow! Thank you so, so, so much Gena for answering my question! That was very considerate and I appreciate how thoughtful your response was. It really resonated with me. I appreciate that you balance the line of healthy eating and occasional indulgence.

    Being at school, I am in the throws of all of these challenges! I have had fun (eating pizza at 12 AM) but also I enjoy eating healthy food at the vegetarian house! Sometimes, I find I’m eating a lot more than I feel comfortable with, but I’m still working on it!

    I can’t wait to read all of the readers’ comments!

    Again, thanks so much Gena, and I hope to apply this advice as I continue school.

    I think that college has actually helped me heal from my ED because there are so many body types represented, ways to work out and eat healthy, but we can also have fun along the way.


  19. Lovely post, Gena! I just posted today about Are you confused what to feed yourself or your kids? And have you found your food groove or not?

    I think adults, not just college kids, former ED’ers, all people really…have major issues finding their food groove,either presently or at some point in their life, even if they are totally loving their food choices now.

    For many it takes a lifetime to tackle and determine. Not something that anyone at 18 is probably equipped to handle or navigate..b/c as you said, social pressures, drinking, late nights, all these factors make youth and not truly knowing one’s body and personal needs, just that much harder!

    “You should experience the joy of a night without inhibition, without care, without virtuousness. You should know what it is to wake up after indulging in a rich meal or a late night slice of (vegan) pizza or a few too many glasses of wine, and to not feel remorse because the pleasure you felt was intense and good. “—YES TOTALLY AGREE!

    I agree with the whole post, it’s awesome.

    My college days were spent eating not enough wholesome food, too much crap, drinking, late nights, and although not ideal (just posted about this today) I survived, I found what works for me; life is a journey, embrace it and the unknown and self discovery 🙂

    • OMG Elle, I go to columbia too and the SAME THING just happened to me on my google reader lol. what a coincidence…

      • Elle and Rachel! I feel practically starstruck reading your comments. What dorms are you guys in, and are you enjoying CU?

        • Another Columbia student here! I’m a senior, and have been off the dining plan for a couple of years, but my experiences have been pretty mixed.

          Initially, I thought the options in the dining hall were ok. If I didn’t like any of the prepared and hot dishes served, there were always a few cold salads, a salad bar, sandwich materials available, etc. However… this soon grew really old. Repetitive food is never fun, and when I was trying to save money, eating out (much better and more interesting) wasn’t a great option.

          Then I discovered the dining hall at Barnard, just across the street. Fresher, more homemade, more vegetarian/vegan options (they now have a “meatless mondays” or something like that, where everything is vegetarian). Even the salad/sandwich options were better, more fruits available, etc. They have a smaller selection in general, but the food is better, and any Columbia student can swipe for meals there.

          So I was able to make do. Once I was in a dorm that had a kitchen, I switched to cooking for myself most of the time. We now have a Trader Joe’s on 72nd, so stocking up on nuts, dried fruit, beans, nut butter, etc. is easy and inexpensive.

          However, since dropping the dining plan, I’ve had gluten issues, and just out of curiosity I’ve looked back to see what my options would have been, and they would have been pathetic. cross-contamination issues abound.

          …basically, you’d be fine as a vegetarian, limited as a vegan, and sorely disappointed if you have many serious food allergies! I feel that NY has SO many interesting restaurants and places that you’ll never be totally bored!

          (also, I’ve really enjoyed it here at CU!)

          • I’m loving this thread 😀 Gena, I didn’t realize you went to Columbia until this post! I actually go to Barnard, and I’m essentially off the meal plan (except for the mandatory meals administration makes us pay for… ugh). I often find that the vegetarian options are still not the healthiest… so much oil, and who knows what else…Thank goodness for the new TJ’s on 72nd–it’s a godsend!

  20. What a great post … I’m years out of college, which is when my own prolonged bout with anorexia started, but I think I can add a few tips (by way of advice to my younger self).

    First let me say how lucky you are to be going to college in 2010, and not 20 years ago. College dining is still college dining but it gets better and better. There are more veggies, more whole grains, more vegan / vegetarian and gluten free options, and more willingness to cater to student demands (for, say, local and organic foods).

    Generally, you aren’t supposed to remove food from the dining halls, but I think they make an exception for fruit, so take advantage and stock up on bananas and citrus. I’d agree with Gena that it’s worth investing in a dorm fridge and maybe a blender or food processor and buying at least some of your own food (e.g. breakfast foods and healthy snacks), even if it makes college dining more expensive. You don’t want to avoid social eating, but you don’t need to force yourself to eat all your meals in the dining hall. If, say, breakfast is a centering / grounding ritual for you (as it’s been for me forever), there’s no reason not to continue that in college. It’s true that EDs can be isolating, but it’s also true that recovery takes time, so there’s no reason to force yourself to be in a place you’re not. I still can’t eat from a buffet … I will always order a la carte, even if it means paying twice as much for my lunch.

    I second Gena’s advice not to eat food that doesn’t appeal to you (for whatever reason) just to prove you’re recovered.

    One thing you need to watch out for is getting sucked back into restrictive patterns when you become friends with someone else who is anorexic … it’s the weirdest thing, how even recovered anorexics recognize each other, especially on college campuses. While two people in recovery can keep each other on track, one sick person can drag another down, pretty easily. So I’d definitely recommend that you continue some sort of therapy in college (even if you have stopped). You might even get involved with an on campus eating disorders awareness group (where the emphasis is on recovery).

    You’ll also find vegan / vegetarian groups, slow food groups, and other groups. A lot of the recovery is internal, I know, but it’s amazing how just healthy friends can help the process along, so seek them out.

  21. I work at a university and am mostly vegetarian. Thankfully, it hasn’t been too hard to find healthy and/or vegan/vegetarian food options on campus, either in the dining hall or at other restaurants and cafes.

    My first piece of advice is to do your research: find out if your university offers healthy and/or vegetarian/vegan options. And, if it doesn’t, ask for them — my university didn’t have too many options until one of our campus administrators went vegan and asked for vegan options at every event. In fact, during a campus luncheon today, I had a vegan grilled veggie and hummus sandwich, vegan potato salad and vegan Mexican cookies. It was delicious and these options were available at every table!

    Students have also voted with their dollars to help increase healthy food options on campus — we have a weekly farmers market with many vegan/vegetarian options, there’s a build-your-own salad bar restaurant, a smoothie bar and even vegan salads at the on-campus Starbucks! And even our all-you-can-eat dining hall has plenty of vegan/vegetarian options, including a great salad bar, a daily vegetarian soup option and a vegetarian entree every day (and it’s often vegan!).

    As far as your ED goes, make sure you find someone to talk to — you may find a responsive counselor or counseling group at your university’s counseling and psychological services office. There are a lot of resources at each university; it’s just a matter of finding them. Good luck, Hannah!

  22. I can’t speak for all colleges but my husband works on a college campus. When we became vegans, he started asking the dining hall staff why they didn’t have more vegan options. They told him to email or call the manager. My husband wrote a nice, professional email and got a very quick response. The manager seemed sincerely interested in expanding the vegan option and doing a better job of marking ingredients. There has been a noticeable increase in vegan options on campus since he talked with the manager. His favorites are veggie sushi, edamame, and veggie wraps with hummus.

    My point is….don’t be afraid to be vocal and ask for better vegan options. Change happens when enough people ask for it!

  23. This was a beautifully well-written and thought-out post. Thanks, Gena! College is an exciting, challenging time in many ways and I thank heavens I had the good sense not to worry SO much about getting up to hit the gym that I missed late-night soul-searching talks, and that I didn’t skip out on sunday morning diner trips just because the eggs weren’t free-range. That said, the balance can be found just as you said – make healthy choices MOST of the time, because they feel good and right and will make you happier and more productive, but don’t forgo the experience of college looking to be a picture of perfect health. You only get these four years once!

  24. Great question and post. I remember eating sooo many chicken breasts and broccoli baked potatoes during college, that thinking about it now makes me gag. There is one thing I want to bring up about the freshman 15 though. You get to school when you’re only 18 [typically]. In my personal experience, my body was NOT done growing + changing. Obviously, you could easily gain 15lbs from drinking, crappy food and not exercising. However, I gained about 10lbs from what I’m assuming was just normal body changes. My chest was still growing, I still grew about 1″ taller, and I was gaining muscle from healthy workouts. I wasn’t eating terribly, nutrition-wise, but the quality of food was not great. I was never a heavy drinker, but I’m sure at some point 1-2lbs came from beer + pizza. Typically, I did cardio 4-5x per week and lifted quite a bit as well. So, I just wanted to bring up the point that, at such a young age I don’t think our bodies are done growing. The freshman weight gain might just mean your body is figuring itself out.

    The ideas you gave for ways to stay healthy are excellent. I wish this type of information was around when I was going to school. They never talk about it in high school and they didn’t offer any “how to stay healthy” info once I got to college either. I think it’s great if Hannah feels comfortable enough to talk to her roommates about it. Throughout my 4yrs at Ohio State, I lived with 3 girls that all had ED’s. I wish they would have been more open about it…because I definitely cared and wanted to help or even just give support.

    Good luck to you Hannah!! 🙂

  25. I was a vegan in college (and am now!) and lived on campus at a university in a tiny Texas town. Eating the dining hall was a challenge. I kept quick oats in my dorm room, rice cakes, apples, bananas, baby carrots. I ate my oatmeal for breakfast, then raided the baked potatoes and salad bar at lunch. I’d get a to-go container instead of eating in the actual dining hall, fill it up with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and other veggies from the salad bar, take them back to my dorm room, and steam them in the microwave.

    Oh yeah, and I also had a handy microwave rice cooker so I could make brown rice in my room. I also had a air popcorn popper–such a lifesaver when we had a movie night and everyone else was eating junk food. I had my healthy, vegan popcorn to snack on! Needless to say, the freshman 15 did not pay me a visit!

  26. I wish I had read this 6 years ago when I was going to college…man, it was rough and I did not treat myself right or well. I do thank college for opening me up to vegetarianism/veganism though because I was becoming aware of where my food was coming from at that time. All of your advice will be so helpful for future or current college student!

  27. This was just what I needed right now! I’m not the Hannah who asked this question, however I definitely benefited from it greatly! I am a freshman in college and have been struggling to find that “balance”. I don’t have a meal plan because I knew it would be a waste of money for me, but that doesn’t mean I’m exempt from the temptation to fill my body with all those nasty foods, there is food everywhere on this campus! Its been difficult trying to navigate being on my own and sticking to my guns about what I know to be the right way for me to eat, I was a vegetarian and have been vegan for the past 6 months. I’ve always thought of eating disorders in the extreme, however I’ve realized that my strained relationship with food is definitely a sign if not already an eating disorder. Veganism has helped tremendously and I love this journey, but even with that I’m either too restrictive and under eat, or eat all the vegan junk food I can find even though I really don’t want it. So I’m working on it 🙂 And let me just say your blog is an awesome encouragement! 😀

  28. This is a topic I cover often on my blog. I am a senior in college, living in a dorm with no kitchen, and I am a vegetarian. I use the dining hall to acquire fresh fruits and vegetables and keep a stock of non-perishables under my bed.
    I am a big fan of the microwave as the weather gets colder and I crave warm foods. I often nuke my veggies to soften them and add brown rice, quinoa, exc (from the dining hall) and canned beans to make healthy meals.

    I recommend keeping a supply of your favorite spices in your dorm. It allows you to make flavorful meals out of basic ingredients.

    I also suggest purchasing a Magic Bullet to make smoothies. It is a great tool.

    If Hannah has more specific questions on how to navigate healthy living in a dorm room, I would be happy to chat with her. She can email me at knackfornutrition at gmail dot com or can check out my blog.

    This is a topic I am very passionate about and I pride myself on maintaining a healthy lifestyle in college. It can be done and it is worth it.

  29. Great post!! I’m a sophomore in college and it was definitely hard to eat healthy at first, but after establishing a pattern and getting to know the on-campus restaurants and dining halls, it wasn’t too difficult. A few tips — if you live on campus and receive food money for on-campus dining locations, see if you can use your money to buy ingredients for food. For example, there was a “market” inside one of the dorms nearby that sold pre-made food as well as vegetables, soups, etc. Also, if you don’t have a mini-fridge/freezer, invest in one so you can make large batches of food and store them.

  30. I think there’s another component to the “freshman 15,” which is about exercise. Many people involved in high school activitites, like sports or dance, satisfy their daily exercise requirements without ever needing to think about it for themselves. When I went away to school I had to learn how to workout in a gym, separate from the organized activities I had been involved in for the first 18 years of my life. Maybe today’s high school graduates are much more sophisticated about exercise (it’s been 10+ years for me). I tend to think you probably know a lot about health if you’re reading this blog. Still, I suggest using college as an opportunity to find an exercise that you love. There are so many forms, so many opportunities, explore them all until working out becomes an activity you love rather than something you have to do. This gift will last a lifetime.

    I was always horrified by college dining halls, even the year I lived on campus. I can’t handle the smells of cafeterias. I ate many meals in my dorm room. We had a fridge and microwave, and eventually I got a George Foreman grill (not sure that was within the rules). I like Gena’s suggestion of taking a food processor. Maybe someone can give you one as a graduation gift.

  31. I actually became a vegetarian during my first year on campus. I know you may not have many of the luxuries that I did, but our dining hall is fantastic and offers vegetarian options at every meal. This year they’ve gone even further to incorporate a few vegan and gluten free meals as well.

    I still struggled to eat and found myself resorting to the salad bar many a night or more “safe foods” that I had in my dorm fridge and it was difficult at times to cope with the stress of being away from home where I could cook and eat anything I wanted.

    It’s not as difficult as it seems – continuing to eat healthy that is! If you have access to a fridge in your dorm, or even a community one, you can still stock up on fruits and vegetables that you love. I have a dresser drawer full of nuts and spices, a small tote of grains under my bed, and a container of chia seeds. I have overnight oats almost every morning because it’s simple, delicious and one less thing I have to worry about after waking up and getting ready fro 8 AM classes.

    I still suffer (not as much) from my ED, and after more “indulgent meals” (read: something that had a bit of oil or a nice curry), I can still feel “disgusting” or what have you, but generally remember that you’re probably not eating that way most of the time and it’s ok to enjoy the food and yourself every now and then.

    If you have on campus dining, I’m also sure you can talk to the chefs or food service managers and see if they can either prepare meals for you (our campus does bag lunches upon request for busy students) or if you can help lend ideas so that they can incorporate more vegetarian and vegan-friendly meals.

    Don’t worry about the Freshman 15 either. If anything, it’s the Freshman 5 and even then it’s probably not something to worry about and would probably help more than hurt. I know that my weight plummeted numerous times (and I think it still does, not sure now that I stopped weighing myself [a great thing to stop doing!]) whenever I was upset or feeling bad about something.

    Lastly, counseling services on campus, or even off, can help dramatically in the transition and learning to cope with stress and food choices in a new environment. It can be tough, and sure, you won’t have the same amenities as the wonderful things you can embrace at home, but don’t forget to enjoy the new experiences and let food not consume so much of your time. I wish I had worried just a bit less about that and more on being more social my first year and I’m happy to say that, though I’m far from recovered, I’m doing much better now in my sophomore year. Sorry for the long rambling comment but I hope this helped in some way!

  32. Excellent! I think about this a lot as of late…I’m almost 30 & I find myself eating at a dining hall a few times a week, because I’m in graduate school. I don’t try to eat all raw while I’m there, but I’ve found that it isn’t too hard to piece together some unprocessed food, if you’re willing to visit a few different lines. (At my school fruit sits out near the cereal and there’s never a line for it. If the other lines look long and I’m hungry, I might eat a piece of fruit and then stand in line.)

    I try to look on the positive side when I’m there. This is the one place where veggies area already cut up, beans are there (on the salad bar) and I don’t have to worry about chopping.

    Here’s a meal I had there yesterday: brown rice from the hot bar topped with red peppers from the pasta bar and chic peas from the salad bar. I topped it with olive oil (from the salad bar), salt (from the table), and lemon juice (found near the iced tea). The salad greens looked wilty so I made up a salad of sliced cucumbers and shredded beets and topped it with a little red wine vinegar and some sunflower seeds (all from the salad bar).

    Other times I’ve had steamed broccoli with kidney beans and black olives (both from the salad bar). Or I’ve had whole wheat pita with a big plate of hummus and veggies. Basically, I find the whole grain option and the vegetable options and I load up.

    I can imagine that, if I lived on campus, I would keep some miso in my room and sometimes bring a little miso paste with me to the dining hall. Add hot water from the tea/coffee area, and veggies and/or beans from the salad bar.

    For breakfast I tend to eat a piece of fruit and then some oatmeal. It is disappointing. Sometimes I go to the omelet line and ask them to just cook some veggies for me, without the egg. I can imagine bringing chia with me occasionally. But then again, I can’t remember going to breakfast when I was in undergrad.

    I remember when I was in college that there were some kids who were gluten free who arranged to have special meals made for them. At the time it didn’t look very inviting — I remember a lot of steamed millet and quinoa. Now that sounds great! DO talk to your school and see what kind of accomodations they can make. You may be surprised.

  33. Great post Gena. While I’ve never struggled with an eating disorder, I still wish I’d had this kind of advice when I went to college. It would have saved me a lot of anguish.

  34. Wow, what a coincidence! I just featured an awesome guest post on my blog, all about staying vegan (and healthy!) while away at college. As more and more people discover veganism at younger ages, these sorts of discussions will provide a great resource. Thanks Gena for tackling the topic, and so eloquently (as always!)

  35. I don’t have any very new advice on eating in college — besides echoing your excellent advice that your memories should be of amazing experiences with friends instead of worries over food — but thank you for this amazing and comprehensive post, Gena! It could just as easily apply to new grads (like me!) who are trying to balance healthy home eating while living in a busy-busy city like NYC.

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