eating disorders and college students
buffet female worker preparing and servicing food in cafeteria

Transitioning to college can be both anxiety provoking and exciting at the same time. Whether you’re returning to campus for another year or beginning your first semester, it’s important to establish and maintain a proper balance between personal health and well-being, academic coursework and the social scene.

For individuals either in recovery from or actively struggling with an eating disorder, this can often be a challenge.  Managing the college food experience – and attempting to navigate a meal plan and dining hall – can feel similar to navigating a maze. There are many considerations when determining how to best nourish yourself and rebuild your relationship with food while away from home.

Here are a few helpful tips:

1). Map it Out: College food options and eateries vary from campus to campus.  Some schools utilize more of a food court approach while others have traditional dining halls. Determining what your school offers is a good place to start. Some campuses may also have menus available online or you can scope things out the first few days to identify what is consistently offered.  Another thing to consider is the location of the dining halls and how they line up with where your classes are held.

2). Bring a Friend: Going to the dining hall alone can feel overwhelming. Meeting up with others there can make it less daunting and create more of a social experience. Supportive friends can help distract you during more stressful times, engage you in enjoyable conversation and offer words of encouragement. They can also keep you entertained while waiting in long serving lines.

3). Plan ahead:  Consider what you may want to eat or order before getting to the dining hall. Think about whether you want hot or cold food, or maybe a combination of both. Does pizza sound good, or are you in the mood for something with a little spice?  This is where some of the research you did beforehand can come in handy. Mapping out the dining halls and identifying the foods and dining style they offer can immensely help with your actual meal planning.  Also, consider having a backup plan –  sometimes your go-to items may no longer be available and giving yourself extra options to fall back on may help avoid some uncomfortable and anxious situations.

4). Think about the rules of “ABC”:

Adequacy:  In the dining halls you may find that nutrition/calorie information is posted in various locations or discover peers discussing food in what seems to be an unhealthy manner. Although it may be challenging to try and shift your focus, adequacy is more important. Getting enough energy is essential to adequately fueling your body and mind for the day!

Balance: Integrating a variety of foods from different food groups, such as grains, proteins, fats, veggies, fruits and dairy, can also play a role in how energized you feel. Avoiding any one food group can lead to nutrient deficiencies or leave you feeling sluggish.

Consistency:  Keep in mind that eating in regular intervals can help maintain your energy throughout the day, allowing you focus more in class and during study time. Skipping meals and snacks may leave you feeling cloudy and tired throughout the day, and can inhibit you from enjoying the other experiences college life brings.

5). What about Snacks? Along with consistency comes the integration of snacks. Some dining halls will allow you to carry out foods for later while others have rules that discourage this practice. Consider using the local campus store, cafe or a nearby grocery store to purchase snacks that you can either keep in your room or pack in your bag.

Trust, me, navigating the food experience on campus can be overwhelming!  Don’t go in blind, go in with a plan. Consider focusing on the ABC’s: Adequacy, balance and consistency. And if needed, don’t forget to reach out for support.

In the end, it is all about progress, not perfection! If you are currently seeing an outpatient dietitian, it would be beneficial to consult with them as every person’s needs are individualized and recommendations may vary.


Eating Disorder Dietitian

Corrinne Archibald RD, LDN is Walden Behavioral Care’s Coordinator of Outpatient Nutrition Services – MA region, providing nutritional support across our various Massachusetts eating disorder treatment clinics. She earned her BS in Dietetics from the University of Northern Colorado in 2006 and completed her dietetic internship through Simmons College in 2007. She is a proud mother to her daughter, as well as a “fun-loving” lab named Finn.