Food and Nutrition at College


MODULE GOALS: To provide students with basic knowledge about the importance of eating a healthy diet in college.


  1. To identify the importance of a healthy diet on a campus setting
  2. To provide information about healthy choices which can be made by a student when living in a dorm or an apartment
  3. To provide choices to students when eating out
  4. To describe the range of options available with regard to eating plans on campus


Your first semester in college is an exciting time, when you will find yourself attending classes, studying, and making new friends. If you decide to live in a dorm in your freshman year, you might struggle in maintaing a healthy eating routine. This module is aimed in helping you establish a healthy eating routine to maintain your weight. A healthy diet provides many benefits such as preventing you from feeling tired as well as helping you to maintain your energy and weight. You may save some money because you will spend less money on ‘junk food’ such as sweetened beverages which can contribute to weight gain (West, Bursac, Qimby, Prewitt, Spatz, Nash, Mays, & Eddings, 2006). College is a time when young people begin to reinforce their eating habits. If you gain weight during this period of your life, it is generally an indicator that weight gain will continue after graduation (Gores, 2008).

  • Students in their first year of college can gain between 3 to 7 pounds in weight (Cluskey & Grobe, 2009).
  • One fifth of the weight gain is associated with the all-you-can-eat college eating plans, excessive snacking, and junk food eating (Strong, Parks, Anderson, Winett, & Davy, 2008).
  • Most students do not eat enough fruits and vegetables. Often, students do not meet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines for many food groups (Kubota & Freedman, 2009).
  • College student females have reported a greater dissatisfaction with their body weight compared to males (Clifford, Keeler, Steingrube, & Morris, 2010). 
  • Many overweight or obese students eat fewer wholegrain products that students who are not overweight or obese (Rose, Hosig, Davy, Serrano, & Davis, 2007).
  • College students who see their food in the cafeteria line make more healthful food choices than students who choose their meals from a menu board (Just, Wansink, Mancino, & Gutherie, 2006).

There are several factors that can contribute to you gaining weight in college. These factors include a lack of parental support in the preparation of meals, a lack of exercise due to the presence of a new environment, and living in a toxic food environment. The signs of a toxic food environment include easy to access foods which are high in fat and sugar, the presence of vending machines, all-you-can-eat buffets, super size meals, and colorful packaging which makes processed food more appealing (Murray, 2001).


In thinking about eating on a college campus, there are several questions to keep in mind.

These are:

  1. What is the difference between eating in college and in high school?
  2. Which meal plan do I choose?
  3. How can I eat healthy on a budget?
  4. What are the guidelines for following a healthy diet?
  5. How can I make healthy food choices in “fast food” restaurants?
  6. What if I need a medically prescribed diet?

What is the difference between eating in college and in high school?

In high school, you had an established routine and someone probably cooked your meals for you. In high school, you might have participated in the school breakfast or lunch programs. Someone might have packed your lunch or bought your lunch at the cafeteria. In college, the delivery of meals will be different. Depending on your college choice, you might be presented with a variety of options such as a freshman meal plan or owning/renting a mini-refrigerator/microwave for your dorm room. A mini-refrigerator/microwave will allow you to store and heat a limited number of snacks in your room. However, you will not be able to cook your own food. You will be responsible for your own meals. Your meal planning skills will be affected by your attitude towards your weight (Clifford, Keeler, Gray, Steingrube, & Morris, 2010).

You may have to set yourself some personal goals such as:

  • To not eat food in front of the television. Studies have shown that students who eat in front of the TV gain weight (Neslon, Gortmaker, Subramanian, Cheung, & Wechsler, 2007).
  • To restrict your intake of energy drinks because they are loaded with sugar and caffeine. An 8 oz cup of energy drink contains 80-141 mg of caffeine, which is the equivalent of two 12 oz cans of caffeinated sodas (Malinaukas, Aeby, Overton, Carpenter-Aeby, & Barber-Heidal, 2007).

Personal goals will help you maintain your weight and energy level.

Which meal plan do I choose?

Freshmen who live on campus might be required to purchase a meal plan. Your meal plan choice will affect your intake of food (Brown, Dresen, & Eggett, 2005). It can be confusing because two-year colleges and four-year universities are different in offering meal plans. Most four-year universities offer meal plans while some two-year colleges do not offer meal plans to incoming students. When a meal plan has to be purchased, a number of options are available to incoming freshmen. If you get an opportunity to conduct a college visit, you should always request to look at their meal plan options. You will need to do your homework to determine which meal plan works best for you and your family’s budget.

  • Some meal plans offer a certain number of meals per week or semester that must be eaten at the dining hall. That means you have unlimited access to the dining hall. At each visit, money is deducted from your account until you have a zero balance in your account.
  • Meal plans may offer flex points or dollars which allow students the option of spending a certain number of dollars on food bought from vending machines and on campus restaurants.
  • Colleges may have agreements with off-campus vendors so that you may use your meal plan to purchase food at their restaurant.
  • Students living off-campus will have more flexibility in selecting their meal plan. They might be able to purchase a more flexible eating plan that allows them to eat any number of meals on-campus and have the option of purchasing meals off-campus.
  • Remember that the amount of money remaining from your dining plan or card may not carry over to the next semester.

Interesting research facts about eating in college:

  • College students who see their food in the cafeteria line made more healthful food choices than students who selected their meals from a menu board (Just, et al., 2006).
  • Students who paid for food with cash made healthier food choices than students who paid with a debit card (Just et al., 2006).
  • The use of an unrestricted debit card led to students eating more calories compared to students who used a restricted debit card or cash (Just et al., 2006).
  • Colleges are indirectly trying to help students control their weight. Many colleges have removed trays from their cafeterias. The removal of trays has reduced the amount of food and water consumption by college students. Research has found that college students would wander around the dining area to fill their trays with food and drinks to only eat a little of the food or waste the food. (Curry, 2008; Horovitz, 2008).

How Can I Eat Healthy on a Budget?

The idea of managing your finances for the first time can be a daunting task. The table below gives an indication of how much students spend during their academic year (see Table 1). O’Donnell & Associates (2006) published information in the spring of 2006 about college students and their spending in college. In the survey, approximately 1,200 college students on 100 campuses nationwide were asked questions about their spending in college. The results indicated that room and board only accounted for 26% of all expenses while nearly 40% of spending by college students was on discretionary items such as entertainment, apparel and services, and travel and vacation. The message to you is to budget and shop around for items that meet your needs.

Table 1: Breakdown of Average Student Budget

List of expenditures by college students.

Expenditure Item Percentage of Budget
Room and Board 26%
Other Expenses 8%
Transportation 3%
Discretionary 40%
Tuition and Fees 19%
Books and Supplies  4%

O’Donnell & Associates, LLC College. (2006). Student Spending Behavior, Monthly Labor Review.

To eat healthy on a budget, you will need to research your respective college dining services and meal plans. Every major university will have some type of meal or dining services posted on their website. Let’s assume that you are off to college, for example, The George Washington University (GWU). What is the first step you should take to begin researching about meal plans? Let’s take a look at GWU’s websites.

Colonial Dining

This website provides detailed information about the GWU dining program. There is information about the GW card, which you use to purchase your meals through your dining plan. The website also provides useful information on how to budget for meals.

GWorld Dining

This website provides more information about menus offered at each restaurant and there are links to a dietitian. There is a Q & A section as well as a nutrition area to look up the nutritional information of food being served each day.

Again, every major university will have some type of dining website that will provide information regarding meal plans, budget planning, and advice for healthful eating.

What are the guidelines for following a healthy diet?

Imagine that you are on-campus determined to eat as healthy as possible, you enter a restaurant and are faced with the menu. Do you know how to choose healthy items from a menu? The guidelines of healthy eating is available to you! These guidelines were developed to help you make better choices while on a budget, to help you not gain weight, and to prevent chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure (Geogiou, Betts, Hoerr, Keim, Peters, Stewart, & Voichick, 1997). Always remember that in order to maintain your weight, there has to be a balance between the calories that you eat and the calories you use on a daily basis. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA, 2010) recommends that

  • Women aged 19-30 eat between 1800-2400 calories per day –depending upon their level of activity (USDA, 2010).
  • Men aged19-30 eat between 2400-3000 calories per day-depending upon their level of activity (USDA, 2010).
  • Sodium or salt intake should be 2,300 mg/day. Most Americans eat about 3,400 mg/day. Too much salt can cause high blood pressure, even in young people. If your blood pressure is too high, it means that your heart has to work extra hard to push blood around your body, and your kidneys have to work extra hard to remove the extra salt from your body. Most of the salt we eat is found in processed foods (USDA, 2010).
  • Adults aged 19 years and older should obtain 20-35% of their total number of calories from fat. The type of fat we eat affects our heart and cholesterol levels. There are two types of cholesterol: bad cholesterol (LDL) and good cholesterol (HDL). The bad cholesterol blocks our blood vessels with fat while the good cholesterol helps to keep our blood vessels free of fat. Most fast food restaurants use saturated fat (solid fats which raise your blood cholesterol) and trans fatty acids (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats which not only raise your bad cholesterol, but also lower your good cholesterol. You want your good cholesterol to remain high). Canola oil and olive oil are heart healthy oils, which mean they will not raise your blood cholesterol, but don’t ask for food to be fried in canola or olive oil, because you will be still obtaining calories from fat! Always ask for food to be baked, broiled, or grilled. These changes will help you want to maintain a healthy weight and blood cholesterol level (USDA, 2010).

In fast food restaurants, ordering appetizers, side dishes, and beverages to a meal can increase your caloric intake by 500-700 calories. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind when eating at fast food restaurants.

  • Watch your beverages. It is very easy to buy juices, sodas, teas, and coffees loaded with cream and consequently heavy on calories. The healthier beverages are water, low fat milk, and low calorie or diet drinks.
  • Be wary of dressings. A tuna salad is frequently smothered in mayonnaise which adds extra calories to your meal. To reduce calories, you might want to order a salad with the dressing on the side and add only the recommended amount of two tablespoons to your salad or sandwich. You might try substituting for dressing by adding other alternatives such as extra mustard, ketchup, or lemon juice for flavoring.
  • Be careful about adding extra toppings. Toppings that include cheese, sour cream, croutons, and bacon will increase calories to your soups and salads.
  • Pay attention to the descriptions provided on the menu. For example, if you see the words such as deep-fried, breaded, creamy, or scalloped on the menu the food is generally higher in calories (AHA, 2007).
  • Always watch the portion or serving size (AHA, 2007). Before you eat everything that is served, be honest and ask yourself, “Do I really need to eat ALL of this”?


Sugar is found in sweetened beverages, energy drinks, sports drinks, fruit juices, and desserts. You should not get into the habit (and it is very easy) of drinking soda or juice several times a day (because it is convenient), as well as not eating regularly or properly. This habit will lead to you feeling tired and you will also start to gain weight. A special note about tomato juice, it is very high in sodium and even low sodium tomato juice is very high in sodium. These drinks may not be appropriate for you, especially if you suffer from high blood pressure.

Whole grains

Whole grain foods contain fiber that is essential for regularity, decreases your risk of cancer, and helps to keep your blood cholesterol and sugar levels at a good level. Whole grains can be found in popcorn, cereals, breads, and crackers. However, this type of food is not frequently found in fast food restaurants. You can stock up on these items and store them in your dorm room. The current recommendation for women is 25g of fiber per day, and for men 38g of fiber per day. You do not want to eat too much fiber because it causes deficiencies in calcium and iron absorption (USDA, 2010).

These health guidelines are intended to help you make better choices when you walk into the cafeteria, restaurant, and/or grocery store.

How can I make healthy food choices in “fast food” restaurants?

You might ask yourself, “How can I eat a healthy diet at a fast food restaurant?” Eating at fast food restaurants is a way of life on-campus because it is cheap and convenient. Unfortunately, eating at fast food restaurants is not always healthy. You have to be careful about your food selections and moderation in quantity is important. Did you know that many fast food restaurants provide the nutritional information of their meals on line? Below are some links to fast food restaurants and each site provides nutritional information.

To make an informed decision about healthy eating at fast food restaurants, use the information from the links and the dietary guidelines to help you make choices that are within your budget.

What if I need a medically prescribed diet?

There are several students who need medically prescribed diets, some examples are provided below:

  • Cholesterol lowering diet: fat and cholesterol intake must be monitored
  • Blood pressure lowering diets: salt restriction is required
  • Diabetes: carbohydrate intakes need to be monitored
  • Gluten-free diets: all foods must be gluten free

If you do follow any dietary restriction, you should consider registering with student disability support services on-campus. In addition, you should definitely contact the university dining services on campus. The staff at dining services can introduce you to their chef and perhaps a dietitian at no extra cost to you. Most dining services are willing to work with students and are also placing nutritional labels on their foods.



What is the difference between eating in college and in high school?

  • Description: Meals will be different at college, you will not have someone preparing your meals or packing your lunches. You might be presented with many options regarding meals plans and may not be able to cook your own food.
  • Advantages: You can choose your own meals. You can set your own personal goals. This is a wonderful opportunity to try new foods. Your meal planning skills will be affected by your attitude towards your weight.

Which meal plan do I choose?

  • Description: Universities and colleges offer a number of meal plans that can be confusing. Your meal plan will affect you food intake. Do your homework regarding meals plans and determine what works best for you.
  • Advantages: When you visit a college or university ask for details about meal plans. Many meal plans offer flexibility because you can use them on other off-campus vendors. You determine what works best for you.

How Can I Eat Healthy on a Budget?

  • Description: Make a budget to effectively plan your meals. Use college websites to help you plan your budget.
  • Advantages: You are in charge of your own finances and food choices. You can decide if you want to buy organic foods over foods that are not organic. You decide how much money you spend on ‘junk food’ and healthy food.

What are the guidelines for following a healthy diet?

  • Description: The USDA has provided healthy eating guidelines. The guidelines are designed for every age group.
  • Advantages: The guidelines are easy to read and use. Basically, the guidelines state that you should eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and reduce consumption of sugar and fatty foods. They offer you enormous flexibility when making food choices.

How can I make healthy food choices in a fast food restaurant?

  • Description: You may eat at fast food restaurants. You need to be careful about the choices you make and the portions of food that you eat. You have to be careful about your food selections and moderation in quantity is important.
  • Advantages: Use the websites from fast food restaurants to make healthful choices. The nutritional information is posted on the website by most fast food restaurants. It is fun eating out with friends and eating at fast food restaurants is cheap and convenient.

What if I need a medically prescribed diet?

  • Description: Some students have to follow a medically restricted diet. As an incoming freshman with a restriction, you should consider registering with disability support services and contact dining services.
  • Advantages: You will meet the chef or dietitian who can help you plan your diet. They will help guide you through your dining options. Many universities are now labeling their products with nutritional information.


What did you learn and how can it help you? Answer the following questions to review the information that you have read:

  1. Why do you need to eat a healthy diet in college?
  2. Do you know how to research for a university meal plan?
  3. How many calories should you consume?
  4. How many mg of salt should you not exceed?
  5. What is the recommended intake of fiber for you?


This module has provided you with a lot of information on making healthy choices in college. As an incoming student making healthy choices may not be the first thing on your mind. Hopefully, after reading and researching information on healthy eating, you have the confidence to make healthy food choices not only in college but also for the rest of your life. You should always ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What healthy changes can I make to my diet?
  2. How can I maintain these changes?
  3. How important is eating a healthy diet to me?

To get you started on healthy eating, list 1 step that will help you reach your goal. Each goal must include the following information:

  1. What is the first step towards your goal?
  2. How will you complete this step?
  3. When is your deadline for completing your goal?

By responding to these questions, you have completed the first step of reaching towards your goal. In order to be successful, you must always continue to think about your food choices.


Resources for Healthy Eating In College

There are a variety of resources to encourage healthy eating in college. You might consider buying some cooking books and searching the internet for recipes as you begin to move to your college campus. This resource section is divided into two parts. The first section will provide information about websites that you might want to look at for cooking in your dorm room. The second section provides information about cookbooks you might want to invest in for cooking in your dorm room.

Websites for Healthy Eating

Top 10 Easy Recipes for College Students!

This is a great website because it provides ten quick and easy recipes. Each recipe is healthy, cheap to prepare, and uses every day ingredients. You might try the Thai chicken green curry because it looks really tasty.

Ramen Noodle Recipes for College Campus Cooking

Another wonderful website because it uses Ramen noodles for all of its recipes and each recipe looks really great. There are reviews about each recipe and suggestions on how things can be changed or improved.

Get Out Today

This website is useful because it can be adapted for a vegetarian diet. For example, the chicken fajita recipe requires you to remove the chicken and add extra vegetables. In other recipes it is easy to replace chicken with tofu.

College Budget Recipes

A great website that has recipes using basic ingredients and the food can be prepared using a microwave. There are reviews about each recipe and suggestions about how changes might be made to improve the flavor of each recipe.

Recipes books for College Living

Healthy Palate by Mary Lyn Farivari

Ms. Farivari manages to provide easy-to-prepare nutritious ideas using every day ingredients. If you are feeling adventurous, she also uses unusual ingredients in her recipes that are introduced as options.

Knack-Dorm Living-Get the Room-and the Experience-You wanted at college by Casey Lewis

This book provides recipes that are quick, easy and inexpensive to prepare. It provides useful information for young people moving to college for the first time.

The Healthy College Cookbook by Alexandra Nimetz, Jason Stanley and Emeline Starr

This cookbook is useful because it begins by assuming that you may not have had any experience in a kitchen. The first chapter provides information about which utensils should be kept in the kitchen. It also includes a vocabulary section that explains the meaning of culinary terms such as poached or au gratin.

Starving Students Vegetarian Cookbook by Dede Hall

The book begins with basic hints about cooking. For example, hints such as ingredients to stock to make some of the delicious vegetarian meals. There is also a wonderful section on how to cook meals using a microwave.

The College Cookbook: An Alternative to a Meal Plan by Geri Harrington

This book is designed for students who are more experienced at cooking and have access to a kitchen. It provides handy hints on how to organize your kitchen and lists key items to keep in your kitchen.

Lesson Plan:

Sample Lesson Plan on Healthy Eating developed by Kari Carlson, M.A. Candidate, George Washington University.


American Heart Association (AHA). (2007). Tips for eating out. Retrieved from Krames on Wednesday, February 16, 2011 from www.

Brown, L.B., Dresen, R.K., & Eggett, D.L. (2005). College student can benefit by participating in a prepaid meal plan. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 105(3), 445-448.

Clifford, D., Keeler, L.A., Steingrube, A., & Morris, M. (2010). Weight attitudes predict eating competence among college students. Family & Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 39(2), 184-193.

Cluskey, M. & Grobe, D. (2009). College weight gain and behavior transistions: male and female differences. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(2), 325-329.

Curry, M. (2006). The war on college cafeteria trays. Time. Retrieved from,8599,1834403,00.html on March 10 , 2011.

Georgiou, C.C., Betts, N.M., Hoerr, S.I., Keim, K., Peters, P.K., Stewart, B., & Voichick, J. (1997). Among young adults, college students, and graudates practiced more healthful habits and made more healthful food choices than did nonstudents. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 97(7), 754-759.

Gores, S.E. (2008). Addressing nutritional issues in the college-aged client: Strategies for the nurse practioner. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 20, 5-10.

Horovitz, B. (2008). More college cafeterias dump food trays. USA Today. Retrieved from on March 16, 2011. 

Just, D.R., Wansink, B., Mancino, L., & Guthrie, J. (2006). Behavioral economic concepts to encourage healthy eating in school cafeterias. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report, 68.

Kubota, J. M. & Freedman, M. (2009). Evaluation of the effectiveness of cooking skills development program on eating behaviors and cooking skill knowledge of college students. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109 (9), A. 86.

Malinauskas, B. M., Aeby, V. G., Overton, R. F., Carpenter-Aeby, T., & Barber-Heidal, K. (2007). As survey of energy drink consumption patterns among college student. Nutrition Journal, 6(35), 1-7.

Murray, B (2001). Fast-food culture serves up super-size Americans. Monitor, 32(11). Retrieved from on March 15, 2011.

Nelson, T., Gortmaker, S.L., Subramanian, S.V., Cheung, L., & Wechsler, H. (2007). Disparities in overweight and obesity among US college students, American Journal of Health Behavior, 31(4), 363-374.

O’Donnell & Associates LLC, 2006. Student spending behavior, monthly labor review, Student Monitor Spring Survey. Retrieved from

Rose, N., Hosig, K., Davy, B., Serrano, E., & Davis, L. (2007). Whole-grain intake is associated with body mass index in college students. Journal of Nutr Educ Behav, 39(2), 90-94.

Strong, K.A, Parks, S.L., Anderson, E., Winett, R., & Davy, B.M. (2008). Weight gain prevention: Identifying theory-based targets for health behavior change in young adults. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 108(10), 1708-1715.

U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and US Department of Health and Human Services. (2010). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 7th Edition, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office

West, D.S., Bursac, Z., Qimby, D., Prewitt, T.E., Spatz, T., Nash, C., Mays, G., & Eddings, K. (2006). Self-reported sugar-sweetened beverage intake among college students. Obesity (Silver Spring). 14(10), 1825-1831.

About the author: 

Seema Agrawal is a doctoral student in Special Education at The George Washington University. Her current research interests include issues involving children with special health care needs. In particular, how children and their families might be impacted by a lack of continuous and comprehensive health care.

This document made possible in part by the support of The HSC Foundation, a Washington, DC-based foundation dedicated to expanding access and success in education beyond high school. HEATH is affiliated with The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development and The HSC Foundation. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The HSC Foundation. No official endorsement by the Foundation or of any product, commodity, service or enterprise mentioned in this publication is intended or should be inferred. Permission to use, copy, and distribute this document for non-commercial use and without fee, is hereby granted if appropriate credit to the HEATH Resource Center at the National Youth Transitions Center is included in all copies.