There is a recurring misconception that college students are doomed to a diet consisting of ready-made microwavable meals, ramen noodles, boxed cereal or daily runs to Starbucks, McDonalds and Tim Horton. Although diet was a big part of my lifestyle back home in Jamaica and I tried to have healthy, balanced meals daily, when I decided to go back to school I pretty much made up my mind that my healthy diet would have to take a back seat while I study as I would need to save money to pay for school and I also wouldn’t have time to entertain the kitchen. As a result, for the first few months I ate boxed cereal and pb&j sandwiches like it was nobody’s business. I was going through food like water as I was not satisfied and had to be constantly eating. I was also emotionally eating, perhaps as a result of being homesick, but I could scarily go through a bottle of peanut butter in two days and don’t get me started on chocolate. What happened in no time was my energy started zapping and I was piling on the pounds at an alarming rate. I mean, I am no longer a teenage who could eat cake for lunch and still be “modelesque” with endless energy.
I started to be mindful of what I was eating and how much, ensuring that I was having balanced meals and I wasn’t depriving myself of essential nutrients. Planning meals was a chore initially until I developed a system that worked for me, kept me out of the kitchen as much as possible without compromising my diet and was budget friendly (I started saving a lot more on food actually). It is not impossible, heck it is not even hard and will be worth it.
Establish needs and preferences
Everyone is different and that extends to dietary requirements. Despite popular beliefs, healthy, balanced meals do not automatically equal words such a vegan, gluten free, keto or raw. Sure these diets have their benefits and can be amazing if maintained but for those who are not able to maintain these diets, they can be left exhausted, demotivated and hungry and that defeats the whole purpose of being healthy. Do your research; figure out what works for you. Don’t be afraid of trial and error, if you realize a particular diet is not cutting it, drop it and move on and when you find one that works with you, tailor it to match your needs and health goals. If you are gluten intolerant then you already know what to work with so tailor a gluten free diet to meet your needs. Personally, I am very active and so my diet consists of energy-rich foods such a protein and green-leafy vegetables. I practice balance in all aspect of my life so I don’t deprive myself of any nutrient however I indulge in moderation.
Plan your meals
This saves so much time. When you have meals planned, you don’t have to spinning around confused and starving. That is when good sense is abandoned and you are more inclined to grab for the nearest, readily available meal or food item and when you are on the go, that is almost always not the best choice. Time is essential for students, especially post grad students who are oftentimes working as well as studying and preparing thesis. Planning meals prevent missing meal times which usually result in overindulgence when hunger becomes unbearable. When meals are planned there is a better chance of it being balanced and satisfying.
My tip: Spend a few minutes before grocery shopping and think of meals you will like to prepare for the week and use that as a guide to prepare your grocery list which will save you time in the grocery store as well.
On a student’s budget, one cannot afford to splurge (shoes may be an exemption). What doesn’t work is buying tons of vegetables and fruits that end up going bad and have to be thrown out. On a whole, we waste too much food but as college students, conservation is key. That is where lists and budgets come in. You can do one of two things; prepare the budget, know how much you want to spend per week on food and then prepare your grocery list based on the budget. You can also make your grocery list and then budget accordingly. For me, I go with option one. I know how much I want to spend on food monthly so I prepare my grocery list to meet both my budgetary and dietary goals.
In order to stay with my budget, I have to be creative in my shopping. Comparative shopping is a big deal for me. When making grocery lists for the week, I browse different grocery stores and see what they have on deals for the week, especially with fruits and vegetables and then I plan my meals around those items for the week. If there is a great deal on spinach then I already know I will be making quite a few spinach omelettes or quiches for that week. Deal shopping helps me plan meals as well as save money. Another way to shop smartly is to utilize fruits and vegetables in season. For hot summer months when fresh fruits are plentiful and affordable, I buy them in abundance and make jams and preserves like this super easy strawberry chia jam:
I also make smoothies and sorbets as well as homemade popsicles that pair amazingly with hot summer days. For the winter months, when fresh fruits are not as readily available and tend to get expensive due to the decrease in quantity, I use fruits that had been frozen in from summer. Otherwise, purchasing flash frozen fruits in grocery stores is a great idea as these fruits are frozen with their nutrients intact and there is even some debate that flash frozen fruits are more nutritious than fresh fruits.
During the months of May- October, farmer’s markets are in full swing and you can get fresh, organic produce at great prices with the added bonus of meeting interesting people as well. University of Toronto holds a weekly farmer’s market on their campus grounds as well as using services such as Good food box.
So we made our budget and we got our groceries but seriously am I really going to cook every day? I know so many students, like myself, who started off with good intentions and bought all the great food only to have it go bad in the refrigerator because we simply don’t have enough time to prepare meals three times a day. That is where meal prep comes in.
There are so many ways this can be done and I have seen some dedicated people who spend all day Sunday making meals for the week in lovely Tupperware and packing them neatly in their refridgerators organized by meal times, snacks included. For those with the time and dedication for that I applaud you. I personally do not see myself spending my Sundays cooking all day as my ideal Sunday is spent outside when I don’t have assignments to do.
I do some meal prep however but just enough for me to limit my time spent in the kitchen during the week. I tend to have the least amount of time in the mornings because of my early morning gym sessions so my go to breakfast used to be boxed cereal and milk with fruit. In an effort to limit the truck loads of sugars in boxed cereals, and after trying many so called low sugar options and being disappointed, I decided to make my own. I love granola and so I researched homemade granola recipes and found this super easy one by certified health coach, Elizabeth Rider https://www.elizabethrider.com/easy-healthy-homemade-granola-recipe/. This will last me for the week or at least for the very busy mornings which I pair with almond milk or Greek yogurt and fruit to make a parfait.
I love a good stew, winter time is notorious for stews but I can do stews all year round. My mom is vegan and so I have experience experimenting with peas and beans and coming up with delicious recipes such as coconut curried chickpeas, lentil stews or three bean stews. While I don’t cook a lot of meat, I love chicken (which is probably the reason I am not vegan) and some traditional Jamaican stew peas with chicken and coconut milk has all the great feels.
Tip: If you think stews are bland, don’t be stingy on seasonings whether dried or powdered, ginger adds a great flavour with anything curried and leave the stew on low for a couple hours to really release the flavours.
The great thing about stews is that it can last all week! So if I make a good stew on the weekend, I potentially have dinner for the entire week and now we have breakfast and dinner for the week. For lunch, depending on the day I will make omelettes with bagels or wraps and on days I am not home to make lunch, I will bring my stew with me for lunch and make my omelette or wrap for dinner. On average, I am in the kitchen preparing meals once a day which is good enough for me.
Balance is important to me. I try to follow the 80/20 rule where I eat healthy at least 80% of the time and the other 20% is reserved for treats and goodies. Treats do not always have to be unhealthy either. There are a plethora of healthy treats that will not feel or taste much different from the unhealthy ones and it is just a matter of substitution and manipulation. That is why I recommend you make your own desserts at home where you have control over important details such as sugar content. It is amazing how 2 cups of sugar taste pretty much the same as 1 cup of sugar in a dessert however the nutritional value will be different. Making your own dessert enables you the choice over what goes in and how much. You can add half the required sugar and if additional sweetener is needed, add natural sugars such as a bananas, dates or my favorite, raisins. Almost every meal can be “healthierized” and yes, I just made that up! Burgers, fries, pizza, even ice cream can be healthy if made at home with natural ingredients and baked/ grilled instead of deep fried.
Make meals fun. Savor the moment
Eating healthy should not be a chore or a burden. Keep meals simple and exciting. Research fun recipes, try new things. The internet is riddled with many healthy, easy recipes that are fun and tasty so explore and enjoy your meals. You will not maintain a diet you don’t enjoy and even if you do, life is too short for that. Set your table, light a candle and have the experience once in a while. Too often we, as students, are eating as we run out the door so we hardly get the chance to really enjoy what we eat and aside from indigestion, eating quickly has been associated with over eating and subsequent weight gain.
That inevitable binge that we all have at some point is just a natural part of life. Don’t be discouraged and use it as a reason to give up. Tomorrow is another day to brush yourself off and get back on track. It is normal to feel guilty if you have been doing well and then slip up however use every experience as a lesson and enjoy that binge but let’s rein it back in. Punishment is not an option either, the next day shouldn’t be air pie and crystal punch (water). If you need help staying on track there are things you can do such as journaling in a food diary or seeking support from friends who share the same goal. Social communities such as Wehl https://wehl.com, offer such support for persons interested in their health and wellness. I got some great recipes there.
It is not impossible for college students to maintain a healthy diet, all it takes is the mindset and anything can be achieved. Freshman 50 be gone!