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Navigating Eating in College – Part One: Where Do I Start?

Navigating Eating in College – Part One: Where Do I Start?

By Paige Mandel, MS RD CDN



Whether you’re the new kid on the block as a freshman, or gearing up for your final semesters as a senior, you are in the driver’s seat for almost all of your food decisions. For many, this may be very different from what you’re accustomed to at home. Historically, you may be used to what Ellyn Satter has coined as the “Division of Responsibility” in Feeding. This outlines that to nurture a positive feeding relationship the parents are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding, and the child does the how much and whether of eating1. So what happens once you go off to college?


This is a big fear for many current and soon-to-be college students, amongst many new decisions you have to make. Navigating your way, being the little fish in a big pond, can come with many challenges, obstacles and opportunities to finding your authentic self. It is important that your body is adequately fueled to guide your journey.


Therefore, let’s start at the very beginning.  Whether this is the first time you are learning how to feed yourself or relearning to eat in order to heal your own relationship with food, understanding what normal eating may look like this:


Step One.

“Normal Eating is:

  • Going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied
  • Being able to choose food you like and to eat it and truly get enough of it- not just stopping because you think you should
  • Being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food
  • Sometimes giving yourself permission to eat because you are happy, sad, or bored, or just because it feels good
  • Mostly three meals a day—or four or five – or it can be choosing to munch along the way
  • Leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or eating more now because they taste so wonderful
  • Overeating at times—feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be underrating at times and wishing you had more
  • Trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating
  • Takes up some of your time and attention but keeps its place as only one important area of your life

In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food, and your feelings”1.


Step Two.

Next, you need to develop an understanding what makes up a balanced and nourishing meal or snack to keep you energized, satisfied and sated throughout your busy day. This will help cover the what of eating. A balanced meal has 3 main components, otherwise known as the 3 macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat2.


Why Carbohydrates? Carbohydrates are the body’s main and most efficient source of energy.

What is considered a carb?

Bread, pasta, cookies, cakes, pastries, fruits, vegetables (emphasis on the starchy veg such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, butternut squash), beans, legumes, rice


Why Proteins? Proteins are the primary component of muscle and essential for the formation of all cells and repair of all tissues of the body. Protein also helps to keep us full between meals.

What is considered a protein?

Eggs, chicken, turkey, seafood, beef, pork, lamb, yogurt, tofu, beans, nuts, nut butters, cheeses


Why Fat? Fats support organ and tissue structure and function as well as aid in the absorption of fat soluble nutrients. Dietary fat is essential for growth and brain development as well as blood pressure, heart rate and nervous system regulation. Fat is known as the “satiety” nutrient (along with protein) to keep us feeling sated, giving our meals “staying power”

What is considered a fat?

Avocado, olives, olive oil, canola oil, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, nuts, hummus, butter, whole fat milk, cheeses


Step 3

Now is the time to create a flexible meal structure for yourself3, relative to your schedule, access to food and social life. This will help cover the when of eating. This could look like breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, evening snack, or on some days can look like snack, breakfast, lunch, snack , snack, dinner, or any combination of meals and snacks. The goal is to aim to fuel and refuel your body every 3-4 hours to keep your energy stable and to teach your body that food is always accessible. This also prevents you from becoming too hungry or hangry, often leading to mindless eating, overeating or disconnection from your body’s innate hunger/fullness cues.


What about the dining hall? What should I have in my dorm/apartment?  What about late night eating? What if I need to pull an all-nighter for an exam? How do I know how much to eat? Am I eating too much/too little? What about exercise?


All of these questions are common from college students, and will continue to be answered throughout this series – Navigating Eating in College. If you have any topics you would like to know more about, or would like to schedule an individual session to get your personal questions answered and needs met – email me at paige@lauracipullo.com



  1. Satter E. Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook. Kelcy Press; 2008.
  3. Cipullo, RD L. The Women’s Health Body Clock Diet.


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