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Fueling Your Future: A College Student's Guide to Nutrition & Wellness

This guide covers the basics of good nutrition and overall wellbeing for a college student. We’ll give you tips and resources for putting together balanced meals even when you have a packed schedule. There’s a focus on wellness habits that work the best with solid nutrition and a final list of additional resources to keep you motivated.

Editor: STEPS Staff

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As a college student there’s a lot of competition for your time, but prioritizing good nutrition can build the foundation for academic success. Fueling your body with balanced meals and the optimal amount of nutrients will give you the brainpower to focus on lectures and complete your coursework.

In this guide, we will focus on how to maintain good nutritional habits in college. These are basic guidelines that will make it as easy as possible to eat healthy while sticking to a budget. We’ll provide plenty of ideas to spark inspiration and handy links to resources for wellness in college.

Inside this guide you will find:

  • The best techniques to maintain balanced nutrition and overall wellness as a college student.
  • Time-saving tips for eating healthy with ease in college
  • Easy recipe ideas for balanced meals and healthy snacks.
  • Overall wellness tips and a list of nutrition and wellness-related blogs, podcasts, and websites.

Start Here: Basics of Balanced Nutrition & Optimal Health in College

Eating a balanced diet doesn’t have to be time consuming or expensive. In the following section we’ll discuss planning the individual components of your meals, tips for including quality ingredients, making room for treats, and pitfalls to avoid. Each meal doesn’t have to be perfect, but striving for whole foods and a balance of macronutrients most of the time can go a long way to fuel your body and mind.

Use MyPlate as your guideline

MyPlate was launched by the United States Department of Agriculture in 2011 and serves as a visual guide when deciding what and how much to eat. It replaces the USDA’s food pyramid it introduced in the early ‘90s. According to the current guidelines, most adults should strive to fill half of their plates with fruit and vegetables, vary protein sources, choose mostly nonfat and low-fat dairy, and pick whole grains for half of their total grains (e.g. oats, whole wheat pasta, brown rice).

Focus on whole foods

In general, whole foods aren’t processed much or at all. Minimally processed foods retain more nutrients and fiber and have less added sugar, salt, and saturated fats. Think whole wheat bread vs. white bread. Choosing whole foods whenever possible is a smart way to make healthier choices, and there’s the added bonus of whole food often being less expensive. For example, making a cup of overnight oats mixed with rolled oats features less sugar and costs less per ounce than a package of instant oatmeal.

Cook for yourself

Another way to improve your overall nutrition is to prepare and cook the majority of your meals. Cooking at home means you’ll have control over the amount of fat and sodium used in the dishes. Restaurants and prepared foods will have much higher amounts of those, often exceeding the recommended daily values. Preparing foods at home can also be a big money-saver, and you may have enough leftovers for several meals if you cook in larger batches.

Balance is key

As with most things in life, aim for a balance with your nutrition strategy. Strive for a mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fats to stay energized and satiated. It’s true that a diet that’s primarily junk food isn’t a great idea, but it’s smart to make room for the occasional indulgence. Many experts recommend the 80-20 approach to eating, which means consuming whole, minimally processed foods 80% of the time and making less nutritious foods (like birthday cake or pizza) the other 20% of the equation.

Limit sugary drinks & processed foods

Sugary drinks like soda, sweetened teas, and energy drinks don’t provide many health benefits, so it’s better to choose options such as water, unsweetened teas, or low-fat milk. The same goes for processed foods like cookies, chips, and fast food. They’re okay as a sometimes treat, but it’s best to focus on foods that provide nutrients and contain limited added sugars, salts, and fats.

Avoid mindless eating

We’ve all been there; you’re slogging through a late-night study session and you’ve demolished a bag of chips or a pint of ice cream before you realize it’s happened. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional treat, but you’re probably not enjoying it much anyway when you are distracted. Try portioning out your snacks in bowls. When you’re ready to eat, consider taking a break from your studies to focus on the taste and flavor of what you’re eating.

Prioritize protein at every meal

In its role as your way to maintain muscle mass, protein plays a big part in keeping you feeling full and satisfied, since it takes longer to digest. Protein needs vary depending on your age, body size, and activity level, but aim for around 20-25 grams of protein for the general rule at each meal. For more exact recommendations, use an online protein needs calculator or consult a nutrition professional such as a registered dietician.

Healthy Eating Made Easy

To make a habit stick, it has to feel doable. In the section below, we’ll show you how to make eating healthy an easy part of your routine. Now is not the time for fussy techniques and fancy ingredients. Instead, we’ll discuss shortcuts and practical tips for fueling your busy life as a college student.

Meal-prep ahead of time

Fast food or junk can be too tempting after a long day or when you’re rushing to classes. Instead, take an hour or two during the weekend to make an overall meal plan, chop vegetables, cook grains, and make sauces ahead of time. Store the components in the fridge and when you’re hungry, you’ll be able to throw together a salad, stir fry, or grain bowl in no time.

Stock healthy items at all times

To make nutritious choices feel like second nature, keep the fridge and pantry stocked with simple, easy-to-prepare foods. Having the basics available can make swinging through the drive-thru or tearing through a candy bar less tempting. Consider stocking up on long-lasting fruits like apples and oranges, low-fat yogurt, string cheese, frozen berries for smoothies, whole wheat bread, low-sugar cereals, nut butters, and canned protein like tuna or beans.

Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store

The most nutritious food choices can often be found around the perimeter of the grocery store. While the center aisles are laden with cookies, crackers, sodas, and other processed items, the perimeter contains the produce section, fresh and frozen meats, and the dairy cases. These minimally processed foods are a good place to focus if you’re trying to improve your nutrition. Of course, there are some healthy options in the middle aisles, so you’ll need to head there for items like whole grains, nuts, and beans.

Learn some basic cooking skills

Sometimes the best way to learn a skill is to watch someone else do it. YouTube has thousands of cooking videos that range from the basics to more gourmet endeavors. Food Wishes is a good all-purpose channel, and the Pro Home Cooks channel has a special series on cheap and easy recipes for college students. If there’s a specific recipe or ingredient that has you stumped, a quick search of YouTube will most likely bring up a how-to video.

Use a meal planning app

Meal planning apps allow you to search for and save recipes, generate ingredient lists, and watch how-to videos whether you’re on-the-go or at home. These apps are available on most phones and tablets, so it’s easy to access the information when need it, like when you’re roaming the grocery store’s produce section. Some popular and free meal planning apps include Big Oven and Yummly.

Try a meal delivery service

If you don’t have the time or energy to prepare healthy foods, a meal delivery service can be a great option. This will cost more than cooking from scratch, but the extra investment may be worth it when life is crazy. There are generally two types of deliveries: a package with the ingredients and recipes you need to fully make your meal or completely prepared meals that just need to be heated up. EveryPlate is a reasonably priced option for the former, while Factor 75 provides dietician-approved ready-to-eat meals.

Budget Bites for Online College Students

You’ve got a lot on your plate as a college student, from classes and exams to social events and self-care. But, that doesn’t mean you’re destined for 24/7 fast food; it’s possible to use a little research and planning to put together cheap, easy, and nutritious meals. Below, we’ve compiled a list of quality, budget-friendly meals and snacks that come together quickly. Whether you’ve got five minutes or a half an hour for meal prep, use these recipes as ideas to fuel your day.


  • Apple Oatmeal Muffins: These apple muffins are packed with whole grains and fruit and freeze well for future breakfasts.
  • Microwave Denver Scramble Slider: This egg and veggie sandwich comes together in just a minute in the microwave.
  • Overnight Oatmeal: This classic mix of oats, milk, and yogurt can be customized with your choice of toppings.
  • Yogurt & Honey Fruit Cups: This recipe is simple, but sometimes that’s what you need on busy mornings. Change up the fruit according to what’s in season.
  • Ham & Cheddar Lunchbox Muffins: Perfect for any time of day, these savory muffins are easy to transport.
  • Freezer Friendly Burritos: These veggie, egg, and cheese burritos are packed with protein and fiber to fill you up.
  • Two-Ingredient Banana Pancakes: Yes, you read that right — You can have fluffy, nutritious pancakes with just two ingredients.
  • Granola & Yogurt Breakfast Popsicles: These clever fruit and yogurt popsicles are perfect for hectic mornings or heat waves.
  • Green Smoothie: Smoothies are portable, come together quickly, and are an easy way to fit in multiple servings of fruit and vegetables.
  • Frittata: This baked egg dish is a great way to use up leftover vegetables, and it keeps for several days.


  • Easy Bean Soup: This vegan bean soup comes together in just 15 minutes and is packed with fiber.
  • Curried Chicken Wraps: If you use canned chicken or a pre-cooked rotisserie bird, this recipe doesn’t require any cooking.
  • Apple Spinach Salad: This veggie-packed option is a fun take on a salad; top it with a hardboiled egg for protein.
  • Broccoli Cheese Omelet: Packed with greens and flavorful cheese, this omelet comes together in just 10 minutes.
  • Black Bean Quesadillas: This meatless dish is loaded with fiber, and you can swap out different types of cheeses and veggies depending on what’s in the fridge.
  • Egg Salad Wraps: These wraps can be no-cook if you have a stash of hardboiled eggs or buy them pre-made from the store.
  • Whole Wheat Hummus Wrap: This wrap is portable, packed with veggies, and customizable depending on what you’ve got available.
  • Turkey Pinwheel Sandwiches: For a fun take on a turkey and cheese sandwich, try these spinach-packed pinwheels.
  • Bento Box Lunch: For a portable meal that comes together with almost zero prep, try this bento box idea.
  • Bean and Veggie Taco Bowl: Use microwavable brown rice and canned beans to cut down on the prep time for this meal.


  • Pita Pizzas: This simple dinner is very customizable and can be made in a toaster oven.
  • Lemon Chicken Pasta: This dish uses a combination of spiraled zucchini and pasta to boost the veggie content.
  • Upgraded Instant Ramen: Noodles are a college student’s best friend; here’s how to make them taste amazing.
  • Peanut Noodle Salad: Make this cold salad ahead of time and enjoy it for a few meals. It’s packed with veggies and whole grain pasta.
  • Beef and Cabbage Stir Fry: This flavorful meal comes together in minutes and is packed with nutritious and inexpensive cabbage.
  • Microwave Beef Enchiladas: These enchiladas can be made completely in the microwave, and you can swap in ground turkey or chicken to switch up your proteins.
  • Easy Pesto Chicken and Vegetables: This stir fry is packed with nutrients and keeps well, so you can have leftovers for days.
  • Classic Chili: This comforting dish is full of veggies, beans, and lean meat for a filling 30-minute meal.
  • Sausage & Peppers Sheet Pan Dinner: With only 15 minutes of prep time, this sheet pan meal is hands-off and has a simple ingredient list.
  • Microwave Baked Potato: This meal is as simple as it gets; top it with steamed broccoli, cheese, or beans to make it more filling.


Healthy Wellness Habits for College Success

Good nutritional habits are only part of the puzzle. Integrating these additional wellness elements will give you a greater chance of success in college and beyond. In this section we’ll give tips on how to pair other wellness practices with your nutrition strategy for optimized overall health.

Get enough sleep

Experts recommend that college students get 7-9 hours of sleep for optimal daytime functioning. Your personal needs may be a little lower or higher, but you want to be in that range most of the time. Getting enough shuteye ensures you have the energy and focus for coursework. Plus, meeting your sleep needs can also boost your immune system.

Stay hydrated

Quality nutrition is important, but you also need to stay hydrated to feel your best. Drinking enough fluids helps your body function at its best, affecting everything from digestion to temperature regulation. Aim to consume 11.5 to 15.5 cups of fluid per day. Keep in mind that fruit, vegetables, juice, tea, and coffee can all be part of that total amount.

Practice mindfulness

You’re juggling a lot as a college student, and it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, but you can stay on top of the stress with some planning. To stay organized, try writing down or scheduling your to-dos. And, go beyond schoolwork to always make time for activities that promote mindfulness such as long walks, yoga, or meditation.

Socialize responsibly

Spending time with peers is an important part of college, but make sure you’re using that time wisely. Instead of all-night video game sessions or weekend parties, consider meeting friends for activities that promote emotional and physical wellbeing. Activities like recreational sports leagues and volunteer organizations can also be rewarding.

Get enough exercise

Breaking a sweat is important for both your physical and mental health. The Center for Disease Control recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise and two bouts of muscle strength training each week, but it doesn’t have to be all at once. Try mixing in brisk walks throughout the day for about 10 to 20 minutes.

Mind your mental health

Your mental health needs just as much attention as your physical health. Eating well, sleeping enough, and managing stress are all good strategies for a positive mindset. If you find yourself struggling, consider checking in with a health provider or your school’s counseling center.

Additional Student Resources for Nutrition & Wellness

If you still want to see more quality information to support optimal health and nutrition, we’ve done the research for you. Below is a list of blog posts, podcasts, infographics, and websites that can advance your knowledge in the nutrition and wellness space. The following resources can give you meal planning guidance, recipe inspiration, and motivation to prioritize your overall wellbeing.

  • Nutrition Navigators Podcast
    This podcast features both full-length and short (~10 minute) episodes focusing on nutrition for college students. Topics range from maintaining a healthy body image to sports nutrition to tips for making good choices on a budget.
  • The College Nutritionist Blog
    This blog has a ton of practical information related to nutrition and college students. Get examples of what a day’s worth of protein should look like or how to choose the best, most nutritious snacks from a gas station.
  • Purdue University’s Blog Round-Up
    Purdue Global, the university’s online home, put together a list of 25 popular health and fitness resources. The sites include blogs focusing on fitness, nutrition, and overall health.
  • Eat2Win Blog By My Sports RD:
    These blog posts focus on nutrition for the athlete, but most of the information is applicable to all college students. There are research-based posts on topics such as “alcohol and its effect on performance” and tips on building a better breakfast.
  • MyFitnessPal App
    Whether you’re trying to lose weight, meet a step goal, or get enough protein in your day, this app can help you track it. The app allows you to track meals, including calories and macros, and log exercise while setting personal goals.
  • What is Healthy Eating?
    This easy-to-read infographic from the Boston College Department of Health breaks down some myths and misconceptions about nutrition and gives practical tips for creating balanced meals and snacks as a busy student.
  • Nutrition Diva Podcast
    This podcast produces bite-sized episodes that are the perfect length to listen to as you walk or commute to class. The topics include the pros and cons of popular supplements and a discussion of why certain vitamins are important.
  • Budget Bytes
    This blog is an amazing resource for inexpensive and nutritious meals and snacks. It boasts an impressive recipe index that’s searchable by ingredients and categories, and the site also offers easy and budget-friendly meal plans for a small fee.
  • Nutrition.gov
    Some internet sites are filled with bogus information, but everything on this one has been vetted by registered dietitians and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They have an impressive recipe index as well as information on subjects like food safety, supplements, and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • The Nutrition Source
    This comprehensive resource from Harvard’s School of Public Health doesn’t accept advertisements or sponsorships, so you know the information is unbiased. It covers distinctive topics such as nutrition and environmental sustainability.