“This is the third time this week I’ve had spaghetti!” is something I hear surprisingly often from friends and other active students at Virgina Tech. Upperclassmen generally move off-campus at VT and switch to a smaller meal plan, meaning they have to cook more. It’s a change that takes adjustment for most. One learning moment I had was trying to cook half-frozen chicken and I ended up eating dinner at 10 pm. I notice most people learn a few recipes and stick almost exclusively to those.

While eating tacos 3 or 4 times a week sounds great in theory, trust me, it gets old. You’re also probably not getting the dietary variety you need. This is especially risky for active students. If you play a club sport, take fitness classes, run 5K’s, etc… variety is so important for giving your body what it needs to perform and recover. Pasta and potatoes are easy and quick dinners. But, if that’s what you’re eating after a work out, you’re probably not meeting your post-workout protein needs. Meeting your nutritional needs will lead to way more productive workouts. You’ll also have more stable energy levels throughout the day, (read as: less of the “ 3 pm crash” feeling).

I get that it’s hard to find time to cook between lots of time commitments. During midterms I ate SO many bagel sandwiches because they were easy and quick. Most traditional “meal planning guides” aren’t realistic for busy students. They often use expensive ingredients or require taking a whole Sunday afternoon to prep for the week. If you’re anything like me, Sundays are spent scrambling to get homework done. There are ways to do meal planning without sacrificing tons of time. Between myself and Alex, we’ve come up with general meal planning advice for active students to help you meet your nutritional needs.

Meal Planning Tips For Active Students

Meal Planning Tip 1: Add some color to your meal

Active student input:

This sounds so simple and easy, because it’s exactly that. I’m a very average cook with very limited cooking time, yet, this is something I can do every time I make a meal. At the grocery store check out the produce section and grab whatever you think will be good with what you already plan on making. Take an extra 3 minutes to chop up bell peppers to add to your quesadilla, or add some squash to your cheesey pasta. This one extra step can make a surprisingly big difference in your nutrition intake. The one bell pepper you toss in can have close to your daily recommended intake of vitamin C.

cauliflower active students

Dietitian input:

YES! Adding color is so important when creating delicious and nutritious meals at home. I ask my clients to aim for a minimum of 3 servings of veggies a day. This will help you to make sure you’re getting in tons of vitamins and minerals. My tips to add color include:

  • Taking advantage of frozen veggies and steam these on the stove or microwave for an easy side
  • Adding vegetables to your sandwich (cucumbers, spinach, tomato, onion, carrots, sprouts)
  • Add spinach to a fruit smoothie
  • Add broccoli, zucchini, spinach, or peppers to pasta

Meal Planning Tip 2: Utilize Nutrition Resources on Campus

Dietitian input:

I’m wondering what types of services your campus offers through the health center that might be nutrition related. At University of Maryland, for example, you can schedule an appointment with a dietitian as well and a nutrition intern. I’m sure they could help you brainstorm ideas of how to make meal planning simpler! Maybe they even offer classes or workshops on campus regarding this topic. 

self care active students

Active student input:

Tech has something similar to UMD! Students can make appointments with dietitians and dietetics seniors to answer any sort of nutritional questions. In addition, our dining halls post nutritional information for each place on campus, which is a really good tool if your university offers this. I like to look at things like protein content to make sure I’m getting enough. I also love to look at the daily specials, which are posted in advance. If I know the dining hall will be making something I love ( turkey noodle casserole day) I won’t plan on cooking for myself that night.

Meal Planning Tip 3: Be Flexible

Active students input:

This is solid advice for student meal planning and for students in general. During college, a review session will probably get moved to dinner time at least once. Be flexible and willing to change your plan. You won’t always have time to make the nice dinner you were planning on. Keep supplies for “back-up dinners” for when things get really busy and plans get changed around. Here are some ideas:

  • Keep pasta, frozen veggies and pre-made chicken strips to make sure you still get a filling dinner in.
  • My go-to is a turkey, tomato, avocado and cheese sandwich for nights when I’m insanely busy.
  • What about breakfast for dinner! It is totally okay to have something like eggs, cereal or waffles.
  • Frozen meals are an option. RD Alex likes Evol and Amy’s Organic

There will also be nights where a friend will text you wanting to get some event’s free pizza when you planned to make dinner at home. I’m a believer in not turning down free food. You can always make what you were planning on the next night, and a free dinner that’s also pizza? You can’t get much better.

english muffin eggs active students

Meal Planning Tip 4: Plan in Eating Out

Active students input:

This is so important with how hectic school can get some weeks. Having a meeting, and then a review session, and then grabbing dinner on the way home because you’re too tired to cook doesn’t mean you “messed-up” meal planning, it means you’re a busy student who has a lot to do. Stay flexible. Also, I find fun dinner plans very motivational. On days where I know I’ll be way too busy to cook, I’ll go ahead and make dinner plans with a friend. Then, throughout my super busy day I have something fun to look forward to. The important thing is you’re always getting a filling dinner in, whether it’s homemade or from a restaurant.

Dietitian input:

I think many people believe that “meal planning” means that you have to grocery shop and cook for the whole week. I have many clients who feel that if they don’t have their meals planned for a week, then they were unsuccessful. However, I think it’s important to look ahead at your week and set up realistic expectations. I am a firm believer that it’s important to have a balance between eating out and eating meals at home. A general guideline to follow is consuming 60-80% meals out home and 20-40% meals out. Of course, this can vary week by week depending on what you have going on. If you have 3 exams in 1 week, chances are you won’t be able to cook too much. And that’s okay! Perhaps it would be a good idea to plan in when you will need/want to eat out or cook some quick and simple meals. See Meal Planning Tip 4 on flexibility to learn about some back up dinners!

Meal Planning Tip 5: Create a Grocery List

Active students input:

I can’t stress this one enough as a busy student who has a million things running through their head at once. Every time I go to the grocery store without taking a few minutes to think about the meals I want that week and writing down what I need, I forget half of what I need. It’s hard to make cheese-y black bean quinoa without quinoa. Taking these 10-15 minutes to plan will make your whole week much easier. The list also makes you think about the meals you want for the week, and go ahead and add in a few “add-ins” so they’re on your brain. For example, if you’re already buying pasta, get some green peas and a little cheese to throw in to make the meal more complete. Buy some berries to sprinkle over your yogurt. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated or time-consuming.

grocery shopping active students

Meal Planning Tip 6: Take Advantage of the Dining Hall

Active students input:

I’m going to take a minute to brag about how VT has some of the best dining in the country, so I love eating on-campus. At all colleges and universities, there are good options to take advantage of. I’m a big fan of the side-salad bar, which most people don’t even know about, for sides like pasta salad. I like to go get a protein from one shop, like chicken, and then I go to the salad bar to add my own greens, tomatoes,and peppers. Also, go ahead and get some fruit or crackers with your meal to put in your bag for later. Having a snack between lunch and dinner is important for keeping your energy up. Studying while hungry just makes you tired and cranky, so make sure you’re listening to your body.

dining hall active students

Dietitian input:

Many of my college students who live in apartments feel like they shouldn’t or can’t eat at the dining hall. But hey, if it’s a busy week, and stopping at the dining hall will decrease meal planning stress, why not? Most universities have an option where you can add “dining dollars” to your ID card. Might be a good idea to have that as a back up.

With Contributions From Caroline Best, Student Intern

If you would like more help creating a meal plan, make an appointment with one of our dietitians by calling 301-474-2499 or clicking here

Blog reviewed and updated December 2019.

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Whether you are a novice in the kitchen, or a seasoned chef, Dietitian Klara will work with you to help you reach your nutrition goals. Co-author of Nourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating, Cooking with Diabetes and Cooking with Food Sensitivities Guide.