When it comes to eating, my goal is to only eat the kinds of food that will make my body healthy. As a young adult, I know that what I invest in my health will impact how well I live and how long I live, and diet plays a huge role in that system.
That goal didn’t form, though, until I went from eating a moderately healthy diet in high school (thanks to my mother, of course) to eating mostly unhealthy food during my first semester of college. I realized that the poor quality food I was eating was making me feel terrible. After some research and experimenting, I found that eating only healthy food got me feeling better again, possibly even better than I felt before I entered college.
So I became a vegan — mainly to force myself to steer away from the cake and cookies that were waiting for me, deliciously displayed on the counters in our dining halls every day. Eventually my veganism faded into simply being picky about eating only healthy food once I gained enough self-control to turn dinner into something other than mac-and-cheese or burgers. Unfortunately, it was almost just as hard to find healthy food that I could eat in the dining halls as a non-vegan as it was as a vegan — it wasn’t easy to find food that would actually allow my tastebuds to enjoy eating just as much as my stomach did.
Throughout my four years of being in college, I learned that flavor really mattered to me. The start of my journey to healthy eating in college consisted of a lot of bland rice and unseasoned and undressed broccoli in the dining hall, but after studying overseas and discovering all types of healthy and tasty ethnic foods (Indian and Lebanese cuisines are hands-down my go-tos), I realized I had to make a change. I went on a quest to find the healthy and tasty way to eat in college and learned some key tips along the way that I want to share with you.
If you’re just now starting the journey to healthy eating, I encourage you to start small instead of cutting out all unhealthy food cold turkey. Easing into it will allow you to avoid binge-eating your favorite cookies after two days (like I did). I always suggest starting by switching out all white foods to brown foods: white sugar to brown sugar, white bread to wheat bread, white rice to brown rice, white potatoes to sweet potatoes. You still get to eat the same food, just in a healthier way with a slightly different taste. Another way of starting slow is decreasing the proportion of junk food on your plate at each meal and increasing the fruits and veggies.
Seasoning is your friend
It took me until my last year at university to learn that my college dining hall had seasonings — bottles of turmeric, cinnamon, paprika, etc. — all located next to the silverware. I didn’t know this because I never looked. I didn’t even consider adding seasoning to my food, and probably wouldn’t have known what seasoning to use if I had.
Now I know that adding paprika to your spinach salad is bomb, especially when mixed with a little oil so that it holds onto each spinach leaf to maintain the flavor. Seasoning also holds nutritional value. Paprika, for example, is high in vitamins A, E, B6, and iron, and it reduces inflammation, among other benefits.
If your dining hall doesn’t have access to a lot of seasoning, that good ol’ salt and pepper can definitely do the trick (in moderation!). Or you can make your own salad dressing (to stay away from processed ones that are often the only ones available). Easy, healthy, and affordable, making your own salad dressing can be as simple as a quick stir of balsamic vinegar, oil, lemon, and honey in a bowl. And don’t be fooled by the name. This salad dressing can liven up your salad or serve as a sauce for your rice and protein main dish.
Add as much color as you can
Speaking of salad dressings, before my healthy eating journey, I hated salads. Growing up, the fact that the McDonald’s cashier gave me the option of salad or burger was mind-boggling to me — I always opted for what I considered at the time the tastier and more filling option: the burger. But as a vegan, options are fewer and I had to do what I had to do: figure out how to make salads tastier and more filling. So I did.
Why just settle for lettuce and tomatoes when you can add black beans, mixed bell peppers, shredded carrots, peaches (or any suitable fruit that your dining hall or budget permits), and a flavor-packed dressing? Switch out the carrots for sweet potatoes to add more carbs, or the peaches for guacamole to get some healthy fats. Experiment with combinations. You’ll be surprised what tastes good together. The more color, the more vitamins and flavor.
Be creative and switch it up
Try not to eat the same thing twice in a row. If you want to stick with healthy carbs by choosing brown rice every day, add salt and pepper one day, spaghetti sauce the next, and then get fancy with a Chipotle-style burrito bowl.
If your meal plan doesn’t include trips to the dining hall, there are tasty, easy, and quick brown rice recipes that never leave your taste buds wanting. Boil uncooked rice in chicken broth or coconut milk; add curry sauce to plain cooked rice; or make a one skillet Greek chicken and lemon rice dish (it’s a hit!).
When I ate the same food in the same way every day, my desire for french fries increased. I had to learn the hard way to do something different. Believe me, getting creative and switching it up makes eating healthy easier and more enjoyable.
Find substitutes for your favorite junk food
I went vegan mainly to stop myself from consuming so many sweets. I still get those cravings sometimes, so I searched for the substitutes to save me. Whenever I feel a craving for a baked dessert, I grab a handful of dates (cheaper but less sweet options are raisins or craisins). When I want an icee or popsicle, I reach for a kiwi (or any other juicy fruit nearby). Instead of adding sugar to my oatmeal, I use honey (find out why honey is better than sugar). You should be able to find all of these in your college dining hall, somewhere free on campus, or at an affordable price at a grocery store.
Find an accountability partner and fight temptation
The beginning of a healthy eating journey can be difficult (at least it was for me!), so find someone who can hold you accountable to your goals. Tell your friends what foods you’re trying to avoid and try your best to keep those items out of your living space. After a while, that craving for oreos and ice cream will only appear on occasion.
I hope these tips are helpful and prove that you can hop on the health craze in college. You don’t have to wait to start your “adult” life to begin eating well. I have a lot more to learn because this health journey is truly a journey, but because I started it, I am now in better health than ever — better even than when I played three sports (which I definitely do not do now). It may be hard at first to adjust, but start slow, believe in yourself, and you’ll realize eating healthy is actually pretty easy. And the benefits to your health and well-being are worth it.