Buddha bowl salad with fish, salad leaves, quinoa, chickpea and spinach on blue table. Healthy Clean eating Detox Concept. Top View

How College Students Benefit From Healthy Meal Plans

As students tour prospective campuses before making their big decision about which college they’ll accept and attend, there are numerous factors to consider — the school’s location, accommodations, available majors and campus beauty. And now more than ever, students prioritize the quality of food at college.

For many students, college is the first time they’ve lived away from parents who made most of the decisions about household groceries. Now responsible for their food choices, students gravitate toward budget-friendly, readily available and convenient meals. Late-night pizza deliveries and cheap ramen packets might be quick and affordable options for students studying at all hours of the day and night, but weeks of junk food take a toll on their bodies and academic performance.

To attract the best and brightest students, invest in menu planning to properly feed their bodies and minds. When students thrive, so does your institution.

Learn how healthy student meal plans improve student well-being, happiness, academic success and retention.

The Impact of Unhealthy Food on Education

A study of first-year students’ dietary and physical habits found that nearly one-quarter of college students gain a significant amount of weight during their first semester at college. Compared to their peers who had little to no significant weight increase, students who gained more than 5% of body weight:

  • Participated in less physical activity
  • Ate fewer fruits and vegetables
  • Drank more soda
  • Consumed more junk food
  • Ate several fast food meals weekly
  • Slept fewer hours
  • Consumed more calories

While universities cannot control their students’ sleep patterns or physical activity habits, leadership can pivot students away from cheap, unhealthy foods by providing quality, convenient and affordable options. By working with hospitality partners to create delicious, nutrient-rich menus, your students will benefit from improved health and academic performance.

How much can food choices affect college students? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Health Impact

  • The Freshman 7.5: You’ve likely heard of the “Freshman 15,” the widely believed claim that most first-year students gain 15 pounds. While there is truth to the weight-gain tendency, the actual figures are less severe. About two-thirds of first-year students’ average weight gain is closer to 7.5 pounds.
  • Depression: There’s a correlation between dietary habits and mood disorders like anxiety and depression. People who maintain healthy diets with higher proportions of produce, fish, chicken and whole grains have at least 25% less risk of depressive symptoms than those who regularly consume processed food, fast food meals, sugary desserts and soda.
  • Heart disease: High-fat snacks, nutrient-poor meals, skipped meals, added sugars and high sodium diets increase waistlines and heart disease risk among college students.

Academic Impact

academic impact of unhealthy diet

  • Lower grades: While poor eating habits adversely affect academic achievement, studies show a higher GPA is achievable by maintaining a healthy diet.
  • Poor memory and concentration: Students whose diets are high in trans and saturated fats perform worse on tests requiring memorization and critical thinking. Students can improve studying retention during quizzes and tests by cutting out their overuse of foods like red meat and butter.
  • Lack of energy and focus: Junk food, caffeine-fueled beverages and high-sugar snacks offer short bursts of energy followed by crashes that adversely affect sleep schedules and grades. And skipping meals tanks energy too, disrupting metabolic and nutrient-intake patterns.
  • Disrupted sleep schedule: Most college students are all too familiar with “exam cram” mode — pushing themselves to complete assignments on time and spending late nights studying for tests. Students reach for caffeinated beverages like soda, coffee and energy drinks to stay awake in their attempts to juggle it all. Even though 92% of college students consume caffeine in some form to improve concentration and increase energy, their efforts can backfire because caffeine lowers academic performance and interrupts sleep patterns, disrupting studying efficiency for days at a time.

What Does a Healthy Meal Look Like?

Many of us are familiar with the food pyramid framework taught in grade school years ago. You can probably still picture it — grains made the pyramid base, followed by vegetables, fruits, protein, dairy and finally fats in the smallest quantity at the top. In 2014, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services replaced the 20-year-old pyramid with a simplified, updated approach called My Plate.

Moving away from the pyramid’s focus on a specific number of recommended servings, My Plate offers a visual representation of suggested proportions for each of the five primary food groups on a round plate. Two noticeable departures from the former approach are My Plate’s illustration that vegetables and fruits should make up half our diet, and that we should consume fewer grains and dairy than the pyramid initially suggested.

Among young adults aged 19 to 30, the recommended daily intake of calories varies widely based on gender, age, height, weight and physical activity level. A sophomore soccer player might need to consume 3,400 calories on his game day, while his graphic design major girlfriend may be healthy consuming less than 2,000 calories daily. The USDA reports that, on average, the recommended caloric intake between women and men differs by 20%.

So, what does a healthy college meal look like? Students should fill half the plate with fruit and vegetables, a little more than a quarter with whole grains and the remaining smallest portion with lean protein.

Each day, college students should eat two to three cups of vegetables and about two cups of fruit. While that may sound like a lot, it’s pretty easy to incorporate into your meals throughout the day — for veggies, this can look like a small salad and a snack of baby carrot sticks, and for fruit, this is comparable to a cup of fruit juice or two apples between classes. Whenever possible, students should choose raw fruits and vegetables, which contain more fiber and nutritional value than cooked ones. To fulfill their half-a-plate ratio of vegetables and fruits, students can add leafy greens to lunch sandwiches or top salads with salmon or tofu for dinner. Swap processed white bread for whole-grain and whole-wheat options to fulfill the My Plate recommendation for fewer grains.

Why Is Healthy Eating Important for College Students?

Why is it essential for college students to establish good nutritional habits? Discover how university menus help students make vital choices for their health and well-being.

1. Healthy Eating Maintains Good Physical Health

healthy diet benefits for students

Consuming nutrient-rich meals and healthy snacks throughout each day provides adequate energy to fuel cognitive function. A healthy diet for college students improves energy, memory and focus. Students who eat a balanced diet are less likely to get sick — nutrient-rich diets high in vegetable intake and low in processed foods, sugars and red meat create a more robust immune system. Long-term benefits of healthy meal plans include a reduced risk of heart disease and better weight control.

2. Nutritious Foods Boost Academic Performance

Well-nourished students achieve higher grades. Students who regularly eat balanced breakfasts pass exams at a higher rate than those who skip their first meal of the day.

At least one study reports that college students who consume more fruits and vegetables enhance their GPA by 0.15 points.

When you serve food for students’ brainpower, you increase their chance of academic success. A steady diet of nutrient-packed foods supports cognitive functioning, from mental focus to memory retention and information processing.

3. Quality Meals Improve Mood

Students can avoid the effects of college stress by fueling up on mood-improving superfoods. The omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and tuna boost dopamine output and lower levels of depression. Fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut are significant sources of probiotics, improving gut health and serotonin levels. Students should snack on antioxidant-rich berries, nuts, fiber-packed whole oats and lentils and B-vitamin sources like bananas and beans.

“Eat some chocolate, you’ll feel better.” While it may not fight off dementors as it did in a beloved young adult fantasy book series, dark chocolate has a real-world magical quality. It’s high in health-promoting flavanols that increase blood flow to your brain and support mood regulation. If you’re reaching for a sweet treat, skip its high-sugar cousin milk chocolate and stick to low-sugar, high-quality dark chocolate in moderation.

4. Healthy Food Supports Weight Management

benefits of diet and exercise for weight

While college is a time of new experiences, learning and excitement, it is also a time of extreme changes. Shifting work and study schedules, sleep patterns and eating habits — combined with heightened stress levels — take a toll on students’ cortisol levels, metabolism and weight. Students who exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables are more likely to maintain or reduce weight to a healthy level. When college dining services make it easy for learners to follow My Plate recommendations, they support weight management, benefiting their students mentally and physically.

5. Eating Well Contributes to Healthy Sleeping Habits

University students who eat high-fat foods and skip meals sleep fewer hours than those who follow the My Plate standards. Students can improve their odds of sleeping well by choosing food that enhances sleep quality and lengthens sleep duration. A recent study found that the odds of good sleep quality were at least two to six times more likely for students who consumed meals with unprocessed, healthy foods like soybeans, whole grains and lima beans.

6. Nutrient-Rich Foods Support Mental Health

Studies show that poor dietary choices increase depression and anxiety among college attendees. At-risk students consumed high amounts of sugary foods or decreased their caloric intake during periods of stress — like skipping meals or eating significantly less than usual. Male college students are at higher risk for nutrition-related depression symptoms than their female classmates.

Young adults who cut down on processed foods, reduce refined carbohydrates and increase fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, lean protein and whole grains can significantly improve depression symptoms in as little as three weeks. When colleges choose to implement healthy menus on campus, they foster immediate, life-improving benefits for their student populations.

Creating Healthy Campus Menus

With more awareness than ever before surrounding conditions like food allergies, celiac disease and food intolerances, many students are choosing foods carefully to protect their health. An increasing amount of students stick to a vegan or vegetarian diet. And at least one in three Americans follows a specific eating pattern, with the number even higher among young adults.

campus menu diversity

Campus menus must grow in diversity to accommodate students’ diets and preferences.

  • Allergies: Meals free from shellfish, dairy, nuts, soy and other allergen ingredients
  • Religious and ethical dietary restrictions: Halal, kosher, vegetarian and vegan meals
  • Lifestyle: Keto, plant-based foods, clean eating and diets streamlined to support performance in specific sports activities

When students consume unhealthy foods, it shouldn’t be due to a lack of healthy options. Students crave nutritious food — if you serve it, they will come. By creating accessible, diverse and affordable student meal plans, universities can pave the way for healthier graduating classes for years to come.

1. Use Plant-Based Culinary Strategies to Support Student Health & the Environment

plant based diet benefits

Scientific research shows a dietary shift toward plant-based diets and away from animal products is crucial for our planet. Menus that reduce reliance on meat and dairy products decrease cardiometabolic risk in students. Students aren’t eating nearly enough fruits and vegetables, so focus on fresh produce and convenience — incorporate leafy vegetables into flavor-packed dishes and offer pre-cut fruit and veggies for nutritious grab-and-go snack options.

Plant-based diets have a worldwide impact as well — potentially reducing global mortality up to 10% and food-related greenhouse gas emissions up to 70% by 2050. Of all the decisions made in the professional kitchen, shifting to plant-focused culinary strategies has the highest impact on advancing global environmental sustainability.

2. Focus on Food Quality, Provide Healthy Portions & Reduce Food Waste

Move away from the traditional overemphasis on food quantity and home in on the quality of flavorful, unique dishes to keep students satisfied. While calorie reduction is a common approach in health-conscious menus, consider caloric quality as well. Fulfill student appetites with new offerings featuring plant proteins, nuts, legumes, whole grains and healthy oils and fats to promote long-lasting energy.

You can offer the healthiest meals in the entire collegiate landscape, but they must taste delicious or students will look elsewhere for nourishment. Today’s student values flavor, transparency and ethical food practices. Be sure your dining messaging includes information about how your menu reduces food waste and boosts their health.

3. Partner With Local Agriculture & Commit to Using Fresh, Seasonal Produce

local produce benefits

Unlike supermarket produce that travels for weeks before landing on shelves, farm-fresh crops offer peak nutrition and flavor. When designing menus, remember that fruit and vegetables begin to lose nutritional value after harvest.

When chefs partner with local farmers for your institution’s food supply, you support the community and provide the ingredients at peak nutrition for college students. Another advantage of implementing a farm-to-table approach is developing seasonal menu items, adding variety to your offerings semester by semester.

4. Rethink & Diversify Your Protein Approach

Americans consume far more red meat — beef, lamb and pork — than recommended by nutrition experts, and college students are no exception. One 15-ounce steak dinner can far exceed the recommendation for two three-ounce servings per week. Limit processed and cured meats like bacon and hot dogs, which increase the prevalence of cancer and heart disease. By swapping red meat for poultry, eggs, fish and plant-based alternatives, menu developers can steer students’ health during their college years, setting healthy eating patterns for years to come.

In moderation, unprocessed chicken, turkey and eggs are healthier alternatives to red meat. Use fresh vegetables in egg white omelets for brain-boosting breakfasts and offer hard-boiled eggs for students on the go. Add heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids to your students’ diets by serving different types of seafood more regularly. Change up the expected cafeteria cod or tuna by using various farm-raised and wild-caught fish and shellfish.

Rethink meat’s role in your campus’ dishes by offering variety, adjusting proportions and featuring it in supporting roles to plant-based foods. While vegetarian and vegan options should be available daily, consider the growing trend of adding a Beefless Day — when red meat vanishes from the menu, replaced by poultry or fish — or Meatless Mondays. These baby steps introduce meat alternatives to your student carnivores and decrease your institution’s carbon footprint.

5. Fill Your Menu With Whole, Minimally Processed Food Options

benefits of fresh and whole foods

Menus should focus on slow-metabolizing, minimally processed foods. Whole foods prevent spikes in blood sugar that contribute to insulin resistance and adversely affect students with diabetic and glucose-related conditions.

Whenever possible, use fresh produce and whole foods. While kitchens may not be able to remove processed foods altogether, a focus on limited, minimally processed ingredients supports healthy meals. Consider these staples:

  • Low-sodium tomato paste
  • Reduced-sodium sauces
  • Canned seafood and fish
  • Yogurt

One change that makes a considerable impact is a menu overhaul of grains. Use refined carbohydrates and white flour sparingly, as they have a similar impact on the body as saturated fats and sugars. Switch to an emphasis on 100% whole-grain bread, higher protein or whole-grain pasta and brown rice. Add whole oats, quinoa and other intact grains to side dishes, soups and more.

6. Reduce Culinary Reliance on Potatoes & Starch Fillers

Potatoes have a high glycemic load, causing insulin and blood sugar to surge quickly, then dip. This roller-coaster ride of rapid metabolization can make consumers feel hungry again quickly, leading to overeating.

In America, people eat a whopping average of 126 pounds of potatoes per person each year. You can boil them, mash them and stick them in a stew — it’s no surprise potatoes are a versatile staple starch to fill plates in college menus across the nation, especially when you consider college students’ plates piled with chips or French fries. The reliance on white potatoes contributes to much higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity, and meal developers can help change the story.

Instead of white potatoes, add these alternatives to your menu.

  • Cauliflower: For that mashed-potato texture, consider cauliflower.
  • Beans and legumes: High in fiber and protein, these starchy-tasting options cause fewer blood sugar spikes than processed grains.
  • Whole grains: Elevate your sides — move away from fries and encourage brown rice and quinoa side dishes.
  • Sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes’ glycemic load is not as high as that of white potatoes. And sweet potatoes are rich in fiber, potassium and vitamins A, B6 and C.

Promoting Healthy Eating on Campus

promote healthy eating on campus

In a recent survey, millennial and youth research and marketing firm Y-Pulse examined the dining expectations of college consumers aged 18 to 34 to gain insight into what this group wants from their meals. Findings predict five culinary trends will promote change across college dining halls and cafeterias nationwide.

  1. Personalized, varied dishes: While young adults are more open to plant-based diets than previous generations, students still desire meat-inclusive dishes — but they want a wider variety of options. Vegan and vegetarian students demand access to flavorful meatless meals and snacks. And students who consume meat may wish to go meatless a few times a week, replace red meat with chicken or fish or generally limit meat consumption.
  2. Nutritious snacking: Move over, greasy chips and processed junk food. Today’s students crave healthy and organic snack options like blueberries and nuts to help them power through their school day. An overwhelming 73% of surveyed participants report enjoying superfoods that serve functional purposes.
  3. Ethical, sustainable consumerism: Many students support ethical agricultural practices and sustainable, eco-friendly efforts. At least 67% of those surveyed say they wanted access to more ethically produced snacks on campus and were willing to pay more for them.
  4. Multicultural flavors: While college students will always love pizza and chicken fingers, their food diversity may surprise you. Students can be adventurous about trying new foods. Many enjoy sampling international cuisines and want to continue broadening their palates.
  5. Healthy grab-and-go options: College students are in a constant state of motion, running to and from classes, work, internships and social activities. To ensure students maintain nutrition on the go, make foods quick, transportable and nutritious. With 81% of those surveyed stating they shouldn’t have to try too hard to eat well, one thing is clear — students want to eat accessible, healthy food.

To support these student trends and promote balanced eating on campus, universities and colleges should try the following strategies.

  • Make healthy food readily available: Students eat what they can quickly grab between classes. Get rid of vending machines that dispense sugary soft drinks. Make fruits, cut vegetables, nuts, seeds and water available in prominent locations across campus to encourage healthy snacking and hydration. By removing processed foods and increasing nutritional options in every dining location, learners are more likely to eat wisely.
  • Lower the cost of healthy food: For many students, affordability is their top priority. Reduce the price of healthy foods by 10% or more to support food security and increase the likelihood of students choosing healthy meals.
  • Educate staff and students about nutritious choices: Include complete nutritional transparency about meals in your menu system, offering information about calories, ingredients and food allergens.
  • Create long-lasting local community partnerships: Team up with local farmers and organic food providers. Work with community leaders to promote healthy living outreach programs. Establish a community garden by collaborating with student organizations — community gardens are educational powerhouses, teaching about food access, climate change and sustainability.

delicious and nutritious meals with american dining creations

Create Delicious, Nutritious Meal Plans With American Dining Creations

Are you ready to update your campus menus and meal plans to offer nutritious, personalized dishes your students will rave about?

You deserve to work with a hospitality partner who will match your commitment to excellence, innovation and values. We never adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to our campus relationships. When you partner with us, we dedicate our resources to customizing a menu from scratch, using the freshest, highest-quality ingredients.

American Dining Creations prioritizes your students’ dietary preferences and health by:

  • Sourcing in-season, local foods
  • Offering diverse menu features
  • Embracing vegan and vegetarian choices
  • Providing utmost respect for diners with unique dietary requirements
  • Engaging in sustainable, ethical and environmentally conscious ingredient choices and kitchen practices

To discuss healthy meal programs and partnership options, contact us today.