College allows you to experience new life lessons at every turn, an important one being: how to feed yourself. A balanced diet, which is the foundation of an optimally functioning mind and body, is now something you have to potentially plan, budget and shop for.
According to the dietary guidelines for Americans, meals should include three of the five food groups (fruits and veggies, lean proteins, fat-free dairy and whole grains), and snacks should be composed of a protein and a carbohydrate. Whether you’re taking advantage of the campus meal plan or not, these tips for healthy dorm cooking on a budget (and with limited culinary resources!) can be helpful this semester.
Balanced diets should include about 2 cups of fruit daily. You can achieve this through fresh, packaged, dried, 100% juice or frozen fruits, meaning it’s fairly easy to find foods that can be stored in your dorm room mini-fridge or on a shelf. Apples, applesauce, bananas, grapefruits, oranges, peaches and dried fruit can all be stored at room temperature without issue. Other fruits, like strawberries, blueberries, plums and melons, can be stored in the mini-fridge. Whether they’re fresh or packaged, most fruits have the added benefit of being portable so you can throw them in your bag or purse when you’re heading to class. Some fun fruits to enjoy:
- Applesauce pouches that have the twist off cap don’t require a spoon and won’t spoil as quickly as a fresh apple. They come in regular and fun flavors like strawberry, blueberry and cinnamon.
- 4-ounce (half cup) containers of mandarin oranges, peaches and fruit cocktail are portable and refreshing. Since these are packaged in fruit juice or water, it’s possible to drink the fruit directly from the container, or you can pack a spoon and enjoy them the traditional way.
- Dried fruits (and some fresh fruits, too) such as mangos, cranberries, prunes and raisins can be eaten on their own as a snack, or added into things like oatmeal, yogurt and even tuna or chicken salad for added flavor and fiber.
- Freeze-dried fruits can be a yummy and shelf-stable item that’s great for on-the-go snacking. Look for freeze-dried strawberries, blueberries and more.
For veggie intake, aim for around 3 cups daily. Like fruits, veggies count in all forms including frozen and 100% juices. Most veggies need to be refrigerated in their fresh forms, so be sure to save space in your minifridge! When shopping, you may want to look for low-sodium canned versions of your favorite vegetables. Add these as a side to round out your meals or enjoy them as a snack. Here are a few tips:
- For a great grab-and-go snack, pack cut veggies in disposable or reusable plastic bags alongside pre-portioned cups of dip. Mix it up by alternating with salad dressing, peanut butter and hummus.
- Buy pre-seasoned, microwavable frozen veggies for a super easy way to add a serving to any meal.
- Adding veggies like lettuce and tomato to wraps or sandwiches increases your intake of healthy vegetables. Choose kale, spinach and romaine over iceberg as they contain higher levels of minerals and fat-soluble vitamins.
Protein can be found in all sorts of dorm-friendly foods like milk and soy milk, lunch meat, canned meats and fish, canned beans and peas, fat-free or low-fat cheese, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter and protein supplement drinks. It’s recommended that you get 5½ to 6½ ounces daily. In general, a one ounce serving equals one ounce of meat, poultry, fish, ¼ cup cooked beans, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon peanut butter or ½ ounce of nuts or seeds.
- Milk, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, lunch meat and cheese all need refrigeration. If you don’t have space for all of them each week, try varying up your routine and enjoy them in rotations.
- Sandwiches and wraps should be selected using products that are made with whole grains as their first ingredient. You can make these with peanut butter, lunch meat and/or hummus.
- Tuna and chicken come in convenient and portable pouches or cans that are easy open and only require a spoon. They also come in a variety of delicious flavors. Eat them straight out of the packet, mix them with other condiments, put some on a wrap or sandwich or top them with dried cranberries for added fiber and flavor.
- Protein supplements are a convenient and nutrient-dense way to get nourishment when you’re on the run. Though they don’t typically require refrigeration, they are best served chilled. You can purchase prepackaged shakes or make your own by blending powder with fat-free milk or soymilk – all you need is a shaker bottle that blends well. Protein supplements come in a variety of flavors and are available at your local grocery store. Be mindful that over-relying on these can lead to skipping the essential fruits and veggies, so remember to mix it up.
Pre-packaged convenience meals can offer a handy, and also healthy, option to making a full meal in a dorm. Look for meals with <750mg sodium, at least 10g protein and with veggies as a primary ingredient. Bonus points for meals that contain whole grains like whole wheat pasta, quinoa or brown rice. It’s time to shake the idea that all frozen dinners are loaded with ingredients that aren’t good for you – in fact, the frozen aisle is home to some of the most nutritious foods in the entire grocery store! Use the OptUP scoring system to find the healthiest options throughout the store.
College is a whole new world, offering new and exciting experiences, but it’s also a time and place to set healthy habits for years to come. Make and establish sound practices that’ll help you perform at your best now and well into the future.
Explore more healthy living advice from our team of experts.
Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.