5 ways to eat healthily at university
Good nutrition is probably not at the top of your agenda when you are studying and socialising at university, but there are some compelling reasons why it is well worth making sure you eat healthily most of your time on campus.
Maintaining good mental health
There is mounting evidence that eating an unhealthy diet, with high amounts of fat, salt and sugar can increase common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety (1). We also know that poor mental health is an escalating issue within the UK university student population, with the number of students seeking help increasing greatly in the last decade (2).
Eating a healthy and balanced diet may mean you are more resilient to the various academic and social stresses of university life so you can get more enjoyment out of your student years.
Fending off weight gain
An over reliance on takeaway meals and unhealthy processed foods often leads to weight gain in students (3), with many young adults putting on weight when they transition from school to university (4). In fact, researchers studying weight gain in students coined the phrase “Freshers 15” based on the average weight gain (15 pounds) they found students put on in the first year (5). Unhealthy eating habits that can mean this weight gain is hard to shift and can lead to serious chronic health issues later on in life.
Although cost is often said to be a barrier to eating a healthy diet, with a few skills and planning you are less reliant on the more expensive and often less healthy options, which can save you hundreds of pounds over the academic year.
The food environment at UK universities is often far from ideal, with takeaway vans and vending machines at every corner and canteens often selling little more than pizza and chips. But the good news is that it is possible to have a healthy diet at university.
Follow these five suggestions to help incorporate health eating habits into your life at university:
1. Learn to cook a few staple dishes
Knowing how to cook a handful of dishes without referring to a recipe book will take the hassle out of cooking for yourself. When you rustle up a tried and tested meal, your time in the kitchen becomes a time to relax rather than concentrated effort of following instructions and wondering how it’s going to turn out.
Getting confident with a few dishes has the added advantages of knowing exactly what ingredients to buy and being able to experiment with incorporating spare ingredients you might have in the fridge. Good meal options include stir-fry’s and pasta dishes which can easily be varied depending on what you have in the fridge.
When you cook from scratch, you are in control of the ingredients so you can choose cheap but healthy options, such as wholegrain pasta and a good variety of your favourite vegetables.
Plant-based protein including lentils, chickpeas and beans tend to be cheaper than animal sources so it is well worth including some vegetarian or vegan meals in your recipe repertoire. Alternatively substitute half the meat in dishes like spaghetti bolognese for lentils which adds fibre and reduces saturated fat, as well as keeping the cost down.
2. Arrive prepared
You won’t need every kitchen gadget at university but it is worth investing in some basics so you can cook your meals safely and hygienically. Your list of things to buy might include things like a chopping board, a sharp knife, a saucepan, a wok, oven gloves and a can opener. Bear in mind your equipment may get ruined or mislaid in your first year so consider checking out local second-hand shops for bargains. Oddments bought in this way also has the advantage of looking different from the standard fresher IKEA kit that normally populates student kitchens.
It may also be worth arriving at university with a few store cupboard basics to see you through the first term, for example, a bottle of cooking oil and your favourite herbs and spices. Obviously, you don’t want to lug too much from home, but a few choice items can mean you can get cooking quickly and without a big initial expense.
3. Meal planning
Planning your meals and having the right foods in the kitchen is key to healthy eating. If you don’t organise your meals and shop for ingredients in advance, it is very likely you’ll make bad meal choices when you are hungry, maybe grabbing a burger on your way home from lectures or worse, going out for drinks on an empty stomach.
Meal planning might sound like a chore but it’s well worth the effort. In addition to healthier eating, you get the added benefits of saving time, because you have one trip to the supermarket, and saving you money, as you only buy what you need for your planned meals and waste less food.
Set aside a few minutes each week, perhaps at the weekend when you have fewer distractions and choose meals and snacks for the coming days. Transfer any ingredients you don’t already have onto a shopping list and stick religiously to the list when shopping.
4. Time-saving hacks
Lack of time is one of the main barriers for students not cooking healthy meals (6) but in fact, there are plenty of healthy meal options you can serve up quicker than a frozen pizza. Pasta dishes take as little as 10 minutes if you use finely chopped ingredients, and salads can be very nutritious and filling, and very quick. Salmon steaks, rice and vegetables can be dished up in 20 minutes.
Sachets of quick-cooking rice and frozen sliced onions and garlic maybe a little more expensive but they are great time savers. Similarly, microwavable portion-sized pouches of frozen vegetables are ready in three minutes and there is no washing up afterwards.
Batch cooking is a fantastic time-saver. Cook a huge curry for example and divide it into portions to freeze, ready for when you need to grab a quick meal. Alternatively, you could take it in turns to cook for friends, working around your individual schedules so you cook when you have time and get fed on your busy days. This way you get variety in your diet and socialise at the same time.
5. No need for perfection
Making sure you eat healthily at university is important but bear in mind that this does not mean obsessing over your diet; it is equally important to maintain a balanced view of your eating habits. Aim to eat healthily as much of the time as possible, but be realistic and don’t be hard on yourself if you eat or drink things that aren’t on the healthy list.
1. Firth J, Fangwisch JE, Borisini A, Wootton RE, Mayer EA. Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? BMJ 2020 Jun 29 [cited 2020 Jul 2].
2. Universities UK. Minding Our Future. 2017.
3. Sprake EF, Lavin J, Russell JM, Grabowski P, Barker M. Eating habits associated with body weight gain in UK university students. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2015;74(OCE1):2020.
4. Winpenny E, Smith M, Penney T, Foubister C, Guagliano J, Love R, et al. Changes in physical activity, diet and body weight across the education and employment transitions of early adulthood: A systematic review and meta-analysis. 2019;(September 2019):1–13.
5. Cockman C, O’Reilly J, Mellor DD. Weight gain in British first year university students: Is the ‘Freshman 15’ only an American phenomenon? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2013;72(OCE4).
6. Deliens T, Clarys P, de Bourdeaudhuij I, Deforche B. Determinants of eating behaviour in university students: A qualitative study using focus group discussions. BMC Public Health. 2014;14(1):1–12.