8 Clean Eating Tips for College Students

March 31, 2020
Girl in kitchen picking basil leaves

Clean eating is a healthy living method that encourages you to eat more whole, nutritious food instead of processed options. Different from a specific diet, clean eating is more of a lifestyle change to create balanced and healthy routines. To embrace healthier habits at college, try these eight clean eating tips. 

1. Understand Clean Eating 

First and foremost, you need to understand the concept and overall goal. Clean eating focuses on whole, nutrient-dense foods that are as close to their “natural” state as possible. The less processed a food, the better. Think, eating an apple from the vine or fresh eggs from the farm. You want to avoid unnecessary processing or additives, when possible.

However, depending on your dietary needs and current health state, you might need some foods to be somewhat processed. For example, perhaps you’re lactose intolerant and want to enjoy drinks like almond milk. Don’t worry! Clean eating shouldn’t be a strict regimen, but more of a mindset shift where you try to eat healthy, vitamin-rich foods that make your body feel good. 

2. Avoid Processed, Packaged Foods

Remember, the fewer ingredients, the better. If it comes in a container, get into the habit of looking at the ingredient list. When there’s something you don’t know, look it up on your smartphone.  

Items that you generally want to avoid:

  • Added sugar or artificial sweeteners: A lot of “health” foods, like pre-packaged fruit smoothies or single-serve yogurts, have added sugar or sweeteners. There are many natural sweeteners you can turn to, instead, like topping yogurt with coconut flakes and maple syrup.   
  • Any type of chemical you can’t pronounce: A good rule of thumb is if you can’t pronounce it, look it up! You probably do not need it in your food. 
  • High-fructose corn syrup: This refined sugar is linked to several negative health issues.
  • Monosodium glutamate: This is another food additive that’s linked to adverse symptoms. 

While figuring out your clean eating diet might take more time at first, once you educate yourself on common ingredients and preservatives, you’ll know what to avoid. 

3. Limit Your Takeout 

This is one of the more difficult clean eating tips. We know, takeout and fast food are inevitable in college. You can’t beat the convenience when you’re on the go or cramming for finals. However, when possible, try to avoid takeout if you have the ability to make or eat clean foods. Remember, fast food is inexpensive for a reason. Fast food restaurants generally use cheap (likely processed) foods to make tasty, unhealthy meals. 

The key is to know there’s a balance and not beat yourself up when you do eat takeout or fast food. That might mean accepting that you’ll get a greasy burger after a late night out when everything’s closed. But not pulling up Postmates just because you feel lazy and don’t want to throw together a salad on a Tuesday night. 


4. Ask About Ingredients in Dishes at Restaurants

The last thing you want to do at dinner with a big group of friends or on a date is to ask the waiter a bunch of questions. We get it, you don’t want to seem like the picky, annoying eater. However, there are more ingredients in meals at restaurants than you’d imagine. Even healthy options like a salad might have heavy, processed dressing. 

If you can’t figure out what’s in a dish, don’t be afraid to politely ask the server. You can always ask for sauces or ingredients on the side or for your meal to be prepared a certain way. Most restaurants now embrace healthy eating trends and will be happy to accommodate your needs!  

6. Buy More Whole Veggies and Fruits 

To increase your veggie and fruit consumption, try the “shopping the perimeter” strategy at the grocery store. The idea here is that fresh foods need to be in refrigerated coolers, which are usually against the walls of a grocery store (besides the freezer aisle). So if you shop the perimeter first, you’ll load up on items like fresh produce and meats, before you head to the inside aisles, where more processed foods can lurk. 

While a variety of fruits and veggies are always positive, also try to go green when possible. Green veggies, especially dark and leafy greens like kale or spinach, are easy to add into your diet and packed with a powerful punch of nutrients. 

For help getting more green into your everyday routine, try these tricks: 

  • Quickly saute a green in olive oil for a side to your meal.
  • Use spinach on a sandwich instead of normal lettuce. 
  • Add spinach or kale to a smoothie (cut the bitterness with OJ or berries).
  • Pop kale into the toaster oven with salt and pepper to make crispy kale chips.
  • Add spinach to your scrambled eggs.

6. Incorporate Other Plant-Based Foods 

There are more plant-based goods than you might realize, and not just fruits and veggies. Legumes and whole grains all grow from the ground (i.e., plants) and can make fun additions to your meals or snacks. 

Try some of the following plant-based options to supplement your clean eating diet:

  • Beans: Cheap, nutritious, easy, filling and versatile, beans can be your best friend. If you buy canned versus dried, make sure to check the ingredients. Here are 29 bean recipes to try!
  • Lentils: Technically a seed, lentils are another nutrient-rich legume that comes in a variety of sizes and colors. Try these fun and easy lentil recipes
  • Peas: Green peas often get a bad rap, but they’re full of minerals and vitamins. Add them to salads, wraps or soups.
  • Quinoa: Considered a superfood, this nutrient-dense grain is very popular. Learn how to cook it, plus check out a few recipes with this article. Note that quinoa is high in protein, so it can be more filling than other grains or kinds of rice. 
  • Farro: A fun and nutty ancient grain, farro can be used as a rice substitute or as an addition to other dishes. Get the low-down on how to cook and use it.

7. Try Meal Prepping 

Meal prepping will let you make the most of your free time or Sundays and ensure you have clean foods available during the week. There are many preconceived notions about meal prepping like you need to be an accomplished chef or have a massive kitchen with lots of supplies. That’s not true. College students with any type of kitchen or space can meal prep! 

Here are a few meal prep pointers: 

  • Invest in glass containers to hold all your meal prep items (which are less wasteful than single-use plastic). 
  • Cut up fruit so you can easily grab it in the AM or add to cereal.  
  • Chop veggies like carrots, celery, or peppers for an easy on-the-go snack. Make them tastier with a dip like hummus.  
  • Cook a big batch of a grain (such as brown rice, quinoa, or farro) and use it in your meals throughout the week. 
  • Make a ton of plain chicken that you can customize/spice with different dishes. 
  • Take an afternoon to make a big dish like lasagna and freeze the leftovers. 
  • Consider using a slow cooker or Instant Pot for easy meals, then check out all these recipes.

8. Avoid Refined Carbs and Opt for Whole-Grain 

Carbohydrates, in moderation, provide your body with energy. Refined carbs are processed and don’t give the same amount of energy while posing other health risks. Your white carbs are generally refined—white bread, packaged bread products, white rice, etc. For the full run-down on refined carbs, refer to this article

Whole-grain carbs, like brown rice or whole-grain bread, can keep you fuller, longer and provide more nutrients. Remember to check the labels to look for refined ingredients (and other potentially harmful things).  

Embrace Healthy Living with These Clean Eating Tips 

College might be the first time that many of us cook for ourselves. We get it, adulting is scary. But clean eating is a way to create a healthy diet and long-lasting habits, not to mention, it’s easy and cheap!

Use the above clean eating tips to start preparing and making meals with natural, whole foods, and you’ll notice your body feeling better in no time. 

Disclaimer: Everyone is different. You should always consult your physician or medical professional about your individual dietary needs. Clean eating is generally just eating healthier foods, unlike some more extreme diets, but still, check in with your doctor.