Illustration by Francesca Mahaney of a some food alternatives to meal plan foods
Don't use being on a meal plan as an excuse for not eating healthy. (Illustration by Francesca Mahaney, Pratt Institute)
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Illustration by Francesca Mahaney of a some food alternatives to meal plan foods

Keeping your plate full of nutrient-dense foods and planning your days out can help more than you think.

Ask anyone what it’s like to be on a meal plan in college and you’ll hear a unanimous “ugh.” The image of grey sludge being slopped onto a plate instantly comes to mind, and you can practically smell the grease from all the onion rings and french fries that will make incoming students gain the dreaded “freshman 15.

Fortunately, these images aren’t always accurate. Many schools actually have decent — and even good — food options. Contrary to popular belief, you can actually eat relatively healthy on a meal plan too. Now, the term “healthy” is relative, but my definition is eating foods like fruits, vegetables and other nutrient-dense foods most of the time, but not all the time. While this might seem impossible, I have been on a meal plan for three long years (thank you, residential college) and I’d like to think I’ve developed a pretty good, but not perfect system. So, here are five ways that I try to eat relatively healthy on a meal plan.

1. Eat Some Veggies

Cue back to a decade ago when your mom was constantly nagging you to eat your vegetables, and you’ll find that it was actually good advice. Fruits and vegetables have a ton of nutrients that your body needs, and are a great way to fill up on foods that won’t make you feel like sludge afterwards. Remember that saying about “eating the rainbow”? It still holds true. Now, you don’t need to become a vegetarian or eat 20 different vegetables a day to eat healthy. You could start as small as just adding one or two servings a day and moving up from there.

For me, I try to eat at least one serving each meal or double up at lunch or dinner if I missed a serving earlier in the day. For reference, one serving is normally around a half of a cup, but that can change depending on the vegetable or fruit in question. Overall, it might seem like a drag to add vegetables into your diet if you don’t normally eat them, but once you find a veggie or two that you like, it gets a lot easier.

2. Variety, Variety, Variety

Remember how I said eating healthy doesn’t have to be a full-time gig? Many people advise sticking to an 80/20 rule, which means you eat healthy 80% of the time and indulge on some not-so-healthy foods for the remaining 20%. Eating healthy is not worth it if it isn’t sustainable and, trust me, cutting out all the foods you love is not sustainable. Instead of making you healthier, that actually gives you a one-way fast pass to “I’m going to eat this entire pie” town. So, eat nutrient-dense foods as much as you can, but you don’t have to deprive yourself of that gooey piece of chocolate cake that your coworker brought to work for her birthday.

3. Reduce “Dorm Food”

This one feels pretty self-explanatory, but if the food is something that has a super long shelf-life and you can cook it in a microwave, it’s probably not very nutrient-dense. Things like frozen vegetables are an exception, not the rule. If you only keep portable macaroni and cheese, frozen waffles and ramen cups in your dorm, you might want to consider other options. You don’t have to cut these foods out of your diet, but maybe save them for when you’re really craving them or have nothing else to eat.

4. Plan Ahead

This one is hard, but it’s really important. We all know that, when we’re hungry, we’re way more likely to reach for the unhealthiest option out there. So, it can be really useful to take time to think of ways to make healthy eating easier and more accessible for you.

Some ways that I do this are to keep healthier snack options in my dorm, pick up a nutrient-dense meal for the days I work late and cut down on sugar-filled foods on days I go out with my friends. This all works really well for me, but feel free to play around with it. If you have a mini blender in your room, try playing around with smoothie making. Or, if you know that you’re going to be hungry a few hours after breakfast, pack a snack. It’s all about listening to your body and what it needs.

5. Talk to your dining service

Most of us think that the dining services at our schools are never to be questioned, but many schools are actually very open to feedback. If you’re finding that there aren’t enough options for your dietary needs, or you consistently can’t find anything you like, try talking to your dining service. They may be able to look into different options for you or try out new recipes. One thing that my school does is take home recipes from students that they can make. They also take meal requests from students. While this might not be the case for every school, it can’t hurt to ask and see what options are available to you.

Sticking to a meal plan can be difficult, especially when you feel boxed in. Hopefully, this list can help give you some different options to think about as you travel through your meal plan journey. If all else fails, talk to your school about different options because, honestly, they’re your best resource in all of this. Until then, happy eating.

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