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America’s Healthy
Cooking Teacher

Back to School-for the Big Kids

It’s true-70% of non-athlete college students gain between 10-15 pounds their first semester, and it just grows from there.

Yikes!

While my days as a college student are long behind me, I have lots of kids in my life either going back to school or beginning their college years. All are worried about success and are anxious about fitting in, and many of them are wondering how they will stay fit and healthy in their new lives.

Here are some great tips for surviving at college and emerging-not only prepared for your career, but fit and healthy as well.

I hear it over and over: it’s pretty darn hard to eat healthfully as a college student. It seems you face roadblock after roadblock designed to rob you of your youthful glow, from tight budgets to busy schedules to dining plans to lack of skills in the kitchen.

 

Don’t Try to Be Perfect
I would advise this in all areas of your college life (and life in general). Experts now believe that we have finite willpower. (duh…of course we do!) The new thinking is that if you work extremely hard at one thing to perfection, you run out of steam for other things that require willpower. For example, you commit to hitting the gym six days a week. Will you be as vigilant with your eating? Probably not. You can apply this to eating, fitness, studying—whatever requires willpower for you.

Instead of striving for perfection, why not just do “well,” which is a step above “the best you can.” The idea here is that you don’t try to stick to perfect healthy eating 100% of the time, but eat well most of the time, looking at each day you eat well as progress toward your goal of healthy eating all the time.

When you apply an idea like this to your newly hectic, unsupervised (translation: without Mom and Dad watching over you) lifestyle, you can avoid feeling overwhelmed, (which is the most likely time you will turn to cheap, easy, convenient junk food). Striving for perfection can quickly lead to abandonment of your goals with willpower going out the window, along with your wellness.

I know there are challenges, but there’s life beyond the campus dining hall and a kitchen filled with ramen noodle packages.

 

Eating Well
If you’re beginning your college career, you most likely live in the dorm and have a meal plan. Living on campus can be fun and exciting, creating a new community of friends, but are you doomed to be out of shape and lethargic if you must live on the meal plan because you lack access to a kitchen?

Nope.

In my view, your clearest path to healthy living is with a largely plant-based diet. In the case of meal plans, this could limit your caloric intake to salads and stir-fry dishes, which, while yummy, could get really old after a semester.

On a meal plan, you’re forced to eat at a certain place, taking in what they offer. It is what it is. However, my visits to colleges across the country have revealed that many of them still have a pretty good variety of healthy options if you’re willing to make the right choices for your health.  

You can always find cooked vegetables, salad bars (I know…), cooked beans, vegetable soups, vegetable-heavy stir fry stations and pasta bars. There seem to be more and more plant-based options in dining halls these days which is always a healthier choice. Unless you’re loading every dish with cheese, you will stay well within a normal caloric intake, remain satisfied and not gain excess weight.

For those of you not into eating plant-based foods, you can always find eggs (hard-boiled or as omelets), fish and chicken. I’d skip the red meat and pork for health.

Look, I have to be honest here and tell you that I am not a fan of animal protein in any way, but especially when served in commercial institutions, like university dining halls. It’s never the best quality meat, poultry or dairy. It’s rife with saturated fats, hormones and steroids, and is a shortcut to losing your health and wellness. But that’s me.

The pizza, hoagie, cookie and hot fudge sundae stations are probably not your best choices for daily dining. You’re a young adult capable of making adult decisions. You know that choosing to eat ice cream exclusively for dinner isn’t your best option. So why would you do it?

Remember, you can always make a request for healthier options. For instance, you will often see something that has healthy components, but is surrounded by ingredients you may not want. Simply deconstruct the food and request what you like. While the kitchen people are serving a billion people each and every meal, they can’t cook to order but they can—and will—accommodate your needs if possible, and if you ask politely. This is not the time to be a brat.

Since most dorms don’t have kitchens, you will need to make the most of your dining hall experience or live out your college days on Hot Pockets, ramen noodles and take-out pizza. We all know how that will turn out.

However, most dorm rooms have teeny tiny refrigerators where you can stash fresh fruit, cut veggies, hummus and other healthy snacks to get you through the night, as the saying goes.

One last point. Most college dining halls have soda on tap. You have pretty much unlimited access to all the soda your little tummy can take. Just skip it. Stick with water, coffee, tea and fruit juice. I know it’s tempting. I know it’s yummy and you love it. I do love you and want you to have fun but it’s more important that you’re healthy and successful in life so just—don’t—drink—it.

 

Ya’ Gotta Cook
Once you have passed the first few semesters, you often have the chance to move into a house, apartment or residence hall with roommates and a real kitchen. Take advantage of that. If you still have no access to a real kitchen, mooch off your friends that do and offer your cooking services in exchange for use of the kitchen.

I know you’re busy and you have a tough schedule, but if you want the energy to power through those long days of study, you must cook. Simple veggie-heavy dishes will serve you deliciously and provide you the nutrition you need with energy to burn.

Wait…what? You don’t know how to cook?

Here you are: this bright shining star, a symbol of our future, and you can’t boil water. It’s okay. I’m here to help.

Sure, you can become a microwave wizard, and in a pinch that can work, but there’s more to life than frozen steamer bags of vegetables.

Lots of young people tell me that they can’t eat healthy foods because they don’t know how to cook. So they subsist on frozen pizzas and grilled cheese sandwiches. Yuck.

Let me assure you that cooking isn’t hard and doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive. If you’re eating lots of vegetables, whole grains, beans and fruits, even the most modest food budget will allow for abundance.

Start simply. Cooking isn’t rocket science. Boil some water and cook pasta according to the directions on the package. While the pasta cooks, sauté some sliced vegetables in olive oil with some salt until they are crisp-tender. Toss with the pasta and enjoy. Add some canned beans, tofu or other protein to round out this one-dish meal. Buy a bag of salad greens and simply dress with olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Soon you’re feasting on food you made, controlling your portions, fat, sugar and salt.

As much as you’d like, you can’t eat pasta every day. Experiment with whole grains like quinoa, which is inexpensive, cooks quickly and is high in protein, low in carbs (if that’s a concern for you) and is delicious. Brown rice can round out your grain pantry and keep you satisfied deliciously.

For protein, there’s tofu, tempeh and beans, all easy to cook, versatile, delicious—and cheap. So there’s no excuse to resort to junk food. 

So let’s start with a quick and easy stir fry. You can alter ingredients easily to your taste; it cooks quickly and you can flavor it as you desire. Here’s a basic recipe to get you started:

I love this dish because it’s high in protein and you can use just about any veggie you like to create a delicious meal.

Stir-Fried Veggies with Black Bean Sauce

 

Shopping Tips
Swap out some of the expensive ingredients to make this dish work on any budget.

In place of avocado oil, use sunflower seed oil.

In place of brown rice syrup, use coconut sugar (same price as white sugar)

Skip the red bell peppers if they will break the bank.

Swap the more expensive shiitake mushrooms for button mushrooms to save some cash without sacrificing flavor.

Mix and match ingredients as your taste dictates.

One last thing: don’t drink yourself sick. It might be fun doing body shots and six-pack chugs, but you’ll feel awful all the time and grow a beer gut pretty quickly.

Enjoy your college days. They can be some of the best of your life. It’s a gift to be able to devote your days to study and free thinking. Make the most of it.