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Healthy eating at university

Nutritionist Cindy Williams offers tips for first-time uni students on dealing with the challenges of student life — and still staying healthy.

Your first year at university is exciting, challenging and potentially the unhealthiest year of your life. You may be living away from home for the first time, coping with more freedom and less money. It’s easy to go a little crazy with your socialising, drinking and eating. In the US they talk about the ‘freshman 15’ — the 15 pounds (seven kilos) students typically gain during their first year at university. It’s just as common in this country but it doesn’t have to be. With a little planning and a few simple strategies, you can stay happy, healthy and in shape.


University is as much about socialising as studying. And where there’s socialising there is usually alcohol. It’s easy to say ‘drink less’ but hard to do when everyone around you is urging you to have one more drink or play the latest drinking game.

Apart from the obvious health risks, drinking too much alcohol can also pack on the kilos. A 330ml bottle of beer can have up to 600kJ depending on the brand. Multiply that by four or five and you will have drunk well over one-quarter of your daily kilojoule needs. A 330ml bottle of cider can provide up to around 1100kJ — about the same as a small bar of dairy milk chocolate. Non-alcoholic soft drinks can also be high in kilojoules: a 375ml bottle of ginger beer has almost 700kJ.


  • Drink before you drink. Before you go out, hydrate with water and perhaps have a light snack such as avocado or hummus on wholegrain toast. It will stop you sculling your first few drinks to quench your thirst or stem your hunger.
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with plain, sparkling or soda water. It’s a good strategy not only for your body but also your budget. (Unlike soda water, tonic water has as many kilojoules as other fizzy drinks.)
  • Step away from the snacks. Once you start on those fat-salt-sugar combinations, it’s hard to stop.


Hostels may try to offer healthy food but the logistics of cooking in bulk and on a budget often means that when you line up for dinner you’ll be faced with mega-sized stainless steel dishes full of glistening (that means oily) lasagne, mounds of buttery mashed potato and over-cooked vegetables drowning in cheese sauce. If the people around you are piling their plates high and you know there’s no more food until the next morning, it’s easy to do the same.


  • Fill your plate with colour. Fruit and especially vegetables are packed with fibre to fill you up and nutrients to keep you looking and feeling great. The brown, white and beige foods usually have fewer nutrients and more kilojoules. Aim for at least two cups of vegetables or salad and two pieces of fruit each day.
  • Go easy on the mashed potato, pasta, rice, chips or buttered bread unless you are extremely active and need the extra carbohydrate for energy.
  • Meat, chicken and fish are good sources of immune-boosting iron and zinc. It’s good to eat some most days but remember to make your portion the size of your iPhone, not your iPad.
  • Choose high-fibre foods to fill you up such as fresh fruit, fruit salad, vegetables (frozen are fine), baked beans instead of spaghetti, lentils, porridge, muesli and wholegrain bread instead of white.
  • If there’s a choice between cordial and water, go for the water. Hydration is really important to keep a clear head, but you don’t need sugar with it.
  • If your schedule means you will miss a meal, take some fresh fruit for later or keep some healthy snacks on hand such as small tubs yoghurt or low-fat flavoured milk (if you have fridge access), canned tuna, dried fruit, plain nuts, peanut butter or avocado on wholegrain crackers such as Vita-Weat.


Flatting for the first time is a challenge. You have to shop and cook for yourself and others who may have different tastes and living habits — all on a tight budget. It’s tempting to live on instant noodles, toast and takeaways. But in the long term all that salty, fatty, brown food plays havoc with your body, your brain and your budget.


  • Work together. Plan the menu for the week and stick it on the fridge. Perhaps have a theme for the week.
  • Allocate who’s cooking on which days.
  • Make extra and freeze leftover soups and casseroles. Label with the name and date so it doesn’t become a UFO (unidentified frozen object) and sit there for months.
  • Keep a stock of frozen vegetables to toss into rice, pasta, soups and stews.
  • Learn to cook two or three simple dishes before you go flatting so you can always come up with a meal.

For good meal ideas/to plan a week of healthy eating, see our menu plans, here’s one for singles.

Money saving when you are flatting

  • Cook cheaper cuts of meat such as chuck steak in a crockpot or casserole.
  • Add red lentils to mince dishes to make it go further. (The extra fibre also makes it more filling.)
  • Dried beans, lentils and tofu are all cheap protein sources. Use cooked dried beans in salads, soups (eg. minestrone) and with mince (eg. chilli con carne). Keep a few cans of baked beans on hand for a quick, cheap, high-fibre meal or snack. Add tofu to Asian soups and stir-fries.
  • Shop at a supermarket, not the corner store.
  • Look for supermarket discounts. Check use-by dates of discounted food. Compare ‘per 100 grams’ prices.
  • Buy in bulk — it’s often cheaper — and share with a group of friends or another flat.
  • Buy in-season vegetables and fruit, eg. apples in autumn, asparagus in spring. They are not only cheaper but more nutritious.
  • Buy basic breakfast cereals such as rolled oats. They are cheaper and healthier.
  • Instead of expensive biscuits and crackers, buy a bag of corn kernels and pop your own popcorn for a fast, filling snack.

Click here for healthy budget meal ideas.

Tight budget

“We’ve only got enough money for beer or food. Which will it be?” Hopefully your budget and your drinking habits won’t put you in this situation. It is possible to eat healthy food on a tight budget but without wise planning you may find your money gobbled up by late night takeaway binges and expensive processed foods.


Great-value snacks-on-the-go:

  • Baked beans on wholegrain toast
  • Canned fish
  • Fruit salad
  • Home-popped popcorn
  • Low-fat yoghurt
  • Glass of Milo made with trim milk
  • Canned low-fat creamed rice with a banana
  • Corn on the cob (microwave 1 cob for 3 minutes then peel off husk)

Click here for more filling snack ideas.


University involves a bit of walking and a lot of sitting: in lectures, in the library and studying in your room. There’s no more compulsory school sport to make you move that body. Now it’s up to you to keep active. Regular exercise will help you sleep better, study better, look better and feel better.


  • Join a sports team, dance group or the uni gym for weight training or fitness classes.
  • Buy a cheap bike to cycle rather than drive or bus to lectures.
  • Take the stairs, not the lift.
  • Walk wherever you can rather than drive.
  • When studying take an active break every hour.
  • Long periods of sitting are especially bad for promoting weight gain.

Stress and homesickness

University is a big step up from school. There’s less structure and routine. You may have a heavy workload yet it’s entirely up to you to work out how and when you will get through it all. If you are also living away from home for the first time, the stress can be even greater through having to cope on your own as well as the very normal feeling of homesickness. Stress weakens your immune system making you more prone to sickness. Eating well helps keep your immune system strong.


  • Keep in touch frequently (every day if necessary) with your family. Remember, the people you’ve left at home will be missing you, too.
  • If possible, arrange to have one adult relative or family friend in the same city who you can visit occasionally.
  • Do something to help others — it takes your mind off yourself and how you are feeling.
  • Keep busy with extra activities, not just study.
  • Join a group or club for plenty of social contact and a sense of belonging.
  • Organise some events to look forward to, spread out through the semester.
  • Sometimes loneliness is not the absence of people but the absence of purpose. Write down your purpose or goal and remind yourself of it each day.

Date modified: November 22 2022
First published: Mar 2014

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