As a college student, you need to eat to fuel your body for a hectic season in your life, where you’re busy with classes, studying, and work (and some play too). But you may feel like you don’t have the time, energy, or even the nutrition know-how you need. And maybe you are worried about that “freshman 15” you’ve heard about.

The good news is that you can build healthier eating habits, even on a budget and a busy schedule. Start with these strategies.

1 Know What a Balanced Diet Is

College woman eating at a table.
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Eating a healthy diet means you’re getting the correct balance of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates (also known as macronutrients), along with the vitamins and minerals (or micronutrients) your body needs to function well. To get all of these nutrients you want to make sure you are eating a variety of foods and that your meals contain some carbohydrate, protein, fat, and fiber at each meal.

A good rule of thumb for eating a well-balanced meal is to consume about 1-2 servings of vegetables or fruit per meal, along with a serving of fat, a starch (such as a whole grain, legume, or starchy vegetables) and some protein (legumes, tofu, chicken, fish, turkey, eggs, yogurt, etc).

For example, you may have 1 cup of low-fat Greek yogurt with 3/4 cup blueberries, 1 tablespoon of chopped nuts and a handful of whole grain cereal for breakfast. Or you might eat 2 slices of whole grain toast with 1/3 avocado, lettuce, sliced tomato, and chopped egg. Each meal contains some carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fiber. This will leave you feeling full and energized.

A common mistake is not eating enough fruits and vegetables or high-fiber foods. Another pitfall is eating too much fried food and sugary snacks and sodas (or any foods that supply a lot of calories without many nutrients).

2 Add a Fruit or Vegetable to Every Meal

College students choosing healthy foods.
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The average American only consumes around 1/2 of the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables daily.2 So add a fruit or a colorful veggie to every single meal you can. It’s easy—you only need to be more mindful of what goes on your plate.

Top a bowl of cereal or oatmeal with sliced fruit, or fresh berries at breakfast, or start your day off with a fruit and vegetable smoothie.

At lunchtime, choose green beans to go with your sandwich or grab some crunchy raw carrots. End your meal with an apple or banana.

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Dinner works the same way. And even if you’re out for pizza with friends, you can order a side salad or opt for veggie toppings instead of meats on your pie.

One of the easiest ways to eat a balanced diet is to aim for 2 to 3 cups of veggies and a serving or two of fruit every day.

3 Work in Some Extra Calcium Sources

Dairy
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Calcium is essential for all kinds of things—blood clotting, muscle and nerve function, healthy teeth, and strong bones. In fact, you’re building up bone mass until you reach about 30 years of age—then it gets tougher to add calcium to bone. So take advantage of this time and get plenty of calcium every day.

Milk and dairy products are well-known calcium sources. Try Greek yogurt with fresh berries, nuts, and honey, or drink a glass of milk with your meals. Cheese is an excellent source of calcium too. One serving of cheese is only about an ounce (about the size of two dice).

If milk’s not your thing, there are still plenty of calcium sources available. Dark leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, and fortified cow’s milk alternatives like fortified soy milk, rice milk, or almond milk will provide you with plenty of calcium. Tofu is also a good source of calcium, as well as sardines, salmon, fortified orange juice, cottage cheese, chia seeds, and some breakfast cereals.Milk-Free Sources of Calcium

You need about 1,000mg of calcium a day, which you can usually get from three to four servings of calcium-rich foods.4 To meet this goal, consider adding some of these foods to your diet.

  • Plain yogurt: 8 ounces provides 415mg of calcium
  • Part-skim mozzarella cheese: 1.5 ounces provides 333mg of calcium
  • Nonfat milk: 8 ounces provides 299mg of calcium
  • Soymilk (enriched): 200mL or about 3/4 cup provides 240mg of calcium
  • Cress: 120g provides 188mg calcium
  • White beans: 80g of raw beans provides 132 mg calcium
  • Broccoli: 120g provides 120mg calcium
  • Almond milk (not enriched): 200mL or about 3/4 cup provides 90mg of calcium
  • Kale: 50g provides 32mg calcium
  • Bok choy: 50g provides 20mg calcium
  • Almonds: 30g provides 75mg calcium
  • Hazelnuts: 30g provides 56mg calcium

If you feel like you’re not getting enough, you can take a dietary supplement. You might want to take a Vitamin D supplement as well, especially during the winter months. Discuss supplementation with your healthcare provider.

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4 Drink More Water

College man drinking water.
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Your body needs water to stay hydrated and energized. Water is inexpensive and readily available, so carry a reusable water bottle with you on campus and refill it often.

Does it matter where your water comes from? Probably not—tap water should be perfectly fine, but depending on how it’s treated, you might not like the flavor. You can buy bottled water or use a water filter pitcher.

5 Try New Things at the Dining Hall

Eat right at the college dining hall.
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College dining halls are both a blessing and a curse because there’s so much food to choose from. You can try something new almost every day, or you can take the comfortable route and pick the stuff you love. 

If you try new dishes, you may surprise yourself and begin to like new foods that you didn’t before. Eating a variety of foods and exploring new flavors and cuisines makes food more fun and can offer a variety of nutrients.

To explore new foods, consider purchasing your usual menu selection and adding a small portion of something you are interested in trying. You may need to try it several times before you start to enjoy the food, but have fun with it.

Even if you think you are a picky eater, be adventuresome in the dining hall. Try all those new foods even if you’re sure you’ll hate them. You might be surprised.

6 Stock Safe and Healthy Dorm Room Snacks

Popcorn
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

It’s nice to have something to snack on when you’re back in your dorm or your apartment. Snacks can be an excellent way to get more nutrition, depending on what you choose.

A snack is considered a small amount of food to tide you over to the next meal. Eating a nutritious snack is a great way to add beneficial nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Well-balanced snacks can provide you with good energy. If you are looking to add some nutritious snacks to your meal plan, consider some of the following:

  • Dried fruits (unsweetened) like raisins, Craisins, dried apricots, and other dehydrated fruits can be kept at room temperature. Dried fruit can lose some water-soluble nutrients such as vitamin C compared to fresh fruit, but by weight, it’s higher in fiber and certain minerals such as iron and potassium. Combine a small handful of dried fruit with a small handful of nuts and seeds for a fiber and protein packed snack that will keep you full and satisfied until your next meal.
  • Nuts and seeds will keep at room temperature for weeks or months after you open the container, and provide protein and heart-healthy fats.
  • Popcorn is a whole grain snack. Air-popped is best, but regular popcorn is good too (hold the extra butter).
  • Rice cakes keep well and are easy to carry when you are on-the-go. Whole grain rice cakes provide complex carbohydrates and fiber that can keep you energized. Top your rice cakes with some nut butter for satisfying snack.
  • Roasted chickpeas or soybeans are easy to make at home or purchase pre-made, and are a good source of protein. They also contain fiber. One serving provides about 6 grams or 21% of your daily needs. Fiber helps to keep you full, keeps the bowels regular and is good for heart health because it pulls bad cholesterol away from the heart.
  • Tuna or salmon pouches pair well with whole-grain crackers and offer omega-3 fatty acids and protein.
  • Fresh fruit with the peel intact (such as bananas, apples, oranges, and pears) will keep at room temperature for a few days. Fruit contains vitamins, mineral, fiber, and antioxidants which can help to boost your immunity.
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7 Start a Roommate Dinner Club

Young adults eating dinner.
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This is ideal if you live off campus, and especially good if you miss home-cooked meals and family dinners.5  Start a dinner club with roommates or friends, choosing one or two nights a week for a shared, homemade, family-style meal.

Friends who love to cook can share their cooking skills with the group, and friends who are inexperienced can learn from the others. Start with something easy like roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and a couple of side dishes. As time goes on, your group might want to try more complicated meals and maybe even invite special guests, like your parents.