College eating

You've helped them settle into their residence hall, discussed classes for their first semester, taken them out to eat one last time, and now you're wondering if there is anything else you can do before you say your sad goodbyes and head home. One more way you can be of help is to take some time with your student to discuss how they will eat after you leave.

One of the many challenges students face living away at college is adjusting their eating habits to their new environment. Campus meal plans provide the means to eat on campus. Campus resources provide assistance on how to eat on campus. You can help your student put all this into action.

Having to make their own food choices, being exposed to different types of foods and eating at irregular times, can all contribute to feeling overwhelmed and confused. Taking time with your student to consider how they will eat at school will enable them to respond better to these challenges.

Many students are accustomed to having their meals prepared for them at home, at regularly scheduled times. Others have learned to prepare their own meals, but usually with food that has been purchased by their family. Once at college, however, they must change their customary eating habits.

They may eat at different times than usual. Sometimes they may skip meals in order to attend classes or because they are too tired to get up for breakfast. They may eat more for social reasons than for nutrition.

Often the food here is different than at home and many students struggle with what to eat from what is available. Some experiment with new diets, such as vegetarianism, but they may not always be sure what is most healthful. Some may enjoy exposure to food they are not familiar with, while others may feel overwhelmed by the sheer variety of choices.

Some simply follow their friends' eating habits for guidance, but their friends may not be practicing the most healthful behaviors. Others may limit themselves to a few "safe" foods but neglect other choices that can serve them better. Some may be concerned about gaining weight and be influenced by others who focus intently on body image. This can lead to restrictive eating habits that can interfere with health, mood and academic performance.

Hear are some ways you can help your student plan their eating:

  • Discuss which food groups are useful for different needs: for example, protein foods help a person stay alert (fish, meats, nuts, eggs, dairy, yogurt, soy milk, tofu); carbohydrates provide energy and help people relax. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, cereals or breads as well as fruits and vegetables provide fiber and tend to metabolize more slowly, providing more sustained energy than products made with refined flours and sugars. Essential fats from oils, nuts, seeds, fish and some vegetables provide sustained energy and necessary nutrients. Emphasize the need for adequate fluids as well. Eating such nourishing food at 4 to 5 hour intervals helps to maintain adequate energy levels.
  • In the fall, visit the various dining halls with your student. Get a sample menu from the staff that reflects what is typical during the school year. Discuss what choices they could make from the menu.
  • Food is served on campus from 7:30 a.m. to midnight at various locations. Some additional food can be kept on hand in their rooms, especially if they have a refrigerator or microwave.
  • For example, breakfast foods that can be kept in the room include cereal, milk, fruit, yogurt, cheese, breads or crackers, frozen waffles, instant oatmeal, peanut butter and jelly. Since students will likely stay up late studying or socializing with friends, snack foods can be kept on hand. Remind your student that it's okay to eat late at night if they are up and active. Snack foods can include: breakfast foods, pita bread, tortillas, nuts, seeds, low fat cottage cheese, raw vegetables, dried fruit, dried soups in a cup, canned soup, salsa, canned tuna or chicken, juice boxes, soy milk in boxes, boxed tofu, high quality protein powder for drinks. Plain cookies such as graham crackers, ginger snaps, animal crackers and angel food cake can satisfy a sweet-tooth without much saturated fat or sugar.
  • Remember to keep on hand foods high in protein to keep their brains alert. Carbohydrates tend to make people sleepy and less able to concentrate when studying. Take note of which products have added sugar and consider buying versions of those products which do not.
  • Purchase some of these foods with them before you leave and use that as an opportunity to practice shopping. This is a good chance to learn where the stores are located. Campus buses and public transit provide access to many stores, if they don't have a car.
  • Visit the MarketPlace and the Chenango Room and discuss what are healthful food choices. Find where the Fine Arts Commons is located, which serves coffee, bagels and assorted cakes during the school week. It is a nice place to meet friends, study or just relax (although meal cards cannot be used). Visit the vending machines located in most campus buildings and discuss which provide the more healthful choices: instead of candy bars and cookies, which are high in refined sugar and saturated fat, choose pretzels, dry roasted nuts, fresh fruit, milk, sparkling water or yogurt. Some vending machines even offer salads and "Healthy Choice" sandwiches.

After you are home, from time to time ask your student how they are eating at school and if they have been able to follow some of the ideas you discussed. Consider any new problems that may have arisen.

For further assistance on nutrition education, students can contact one of the following campus resources:

  • Dietitian: 607-777-2991
  • University Counseling Center: 607-777-2772
  • University Health Service: 607-777-2221
  • Fit Space Exercise Physiologist: 607-777-2919