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Published on August 09, 2021

Help Your Child Eat Well at College

two students, eating apples

When freshmen head off to college campuses, many of them will be making food decisions on their own, maybe for first time.

It's important they eat a healthy diet because the body and brain need the right nutrition to function properly.

A lack of food or poor food choices can affect energy and ability to concentrate, and students need a lot of both!

To help you help them make that transition, we have gathered some tips for you to share with your children so they can eat well away from home.

The dreaded "freshman fifteen"

There are several aspects of college life that may lead some students to put on a few pounds in their first year of college, including:

  • unlimited food in the dining halls
  • more sedentary studying
  • increased stress
  • decreased sleep

Kim Karstens, RD, general manager of dining services at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), works with the university’s nutritionist, athletic trainers and others to help students meet their nutritional needs in a healthy way.

“While the students are adults and have to make their own choices,” Kim says, “parents can have conversations with their kids about the dining service. What are they choosing? Are they getting the foods they need?”

Kim encourages parents to talk about nutritional pitfalls that keep their students from eating well at college:

Large portions. Dining hall buffets and dessert stations are tempting, so encourage your student to only take what they know they will eat.

It helps to know what constitutes a serving:

  • a 3-ounce serving of meat is about the size of your palm
  • a grain serving is one slice of bread, half a bagel, or ½ cup of pasta
  • a serving of fruit or cooked vegetables is ½ cup

Less-than-healthy food choices. Pizza, fried foods, baked goods and other comfort foods can be tempting – plus there’s the dessert station! – but you can talk to your student about healthier choices, such as fresh fruit for dessert.

A food rut. Kim sees many students who fall into the habit of choosing the same food day after day, healthy or not.

Most dining halls offer a large variety of food choices; encourage your student to try new foods.

Not asking questions. Encourage your student to ask about what’s in their food or make healthy requests, such as an entrée without sauce or lettuce instead of bread for a sandwich.

Tips to eat well on campus

“Students establish eating patterns very quickly when they come on campus, so we want to make sure we have healthy options available from day one,” Kim says.

She also recommends that parents encourage students to try these tips to eat well on campus.

Go online and get technical. Many colleges have a campus dining website. Look at the posted menu – which includes nutrition information – and choose what you want to eat ahead of time.

A smartphone can be another good tool for eating well.

SPU is using the MyFitnessPal app to allow students to track their food and activity, and SPU’s dining service is starting to post signage that includes codes to scan to make use of the app easier for students.

Do a walk-through. Review all of your choices before choosing what to eat.

Be informed. Read the nutrition information that’s posted in the dining hall.

At SPU, this information not only includes calories, fat and fiber but also potential allergens in the food such as nuts or eggs and whether it is vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free.

The SPU dining hall, like those on many campuses, is trying to make student favorites such as pizza and burgers healthier, but it is still important to make an informed choice.

Make healthy choices most of the time. Choose from the healthy offerings – grilled or sautéed meats and vegetables, whole grains like wheat pasta or brown rice, fresh fruit – in the dining hall and at quick-service campus eateries.

Kim says that there are healthy options at any campus dining location; you just have look for them.

Seattle Pacific offers locally grown produce, a large salad bar and healthy entrees at every station in their dining hall and low-fat sandwiches and salads at their retail spots.

If you eat well most of the time, you can indulge in the occasional late-night pizza or trip to the dessert station –just not at every meal!

Go for variety. Avoid getting in a routine of eating the same few dishes every day, and instead eat a variety of foods in moderation.

Try to include at least three food groups at each meal. The federal ChooseMyPlate recommendation is a good guideline: half your plate should be vegetables and fruit with the remaining half divided between a serving of protein and one of a carbohydrate, such as a whole grain.

Hydrate the right way. Be sure to stay hydrated throughout the day, but watch out for the empty calories that many beverages contain.

Fancy coffee drinks and sugary sodas have lots of calories and very little, if any, nutrition.

Water is a better choice.

Eat breakfast. Students may want to sleep as late as possible, but students should make time for at least a quick breakfast to provide energy for the day.

Something with protein and healthy carbohydrates, like Greek yogurt with fruit or a hard-boiled egg and whole-grain toast, is a good choice.

Snack smart. Keep healthy snacks handy for energy between meals or while studying.

Nuts (a small handful), fruit, whole-grain crackers and cheese or hummus, and Greek yogurt are all good snack choices.

At SPU, students are allowed to take whole fruit from the dining hall for snacking between classes.

Ask for help. Kim encourages students to see a campus dietician or someone on the school's health services staff for suggestions on getting the nutrition they need.

Students can ask dining hall managers or staff about foods being served and ways that they can better use university food services to meet their needs.

Parents can speak to these experts about their child’s special needs regarding food allergies, dietary restrictions or athletic nutrition.

By helping your college students make informed eating choices, you will help them eat well on campus this fall and learn healthy habits for life.

Staying Fit at College

Prepare your children for college by helping them understand how keeping fit — physically, emotionally, and mentally — is key to their success.

Learn how you can help them make a plan.

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