During the college years, it's easy to fall into bad habits, like skipping breakfast when you're late to class and surviving on convenience foods with little nutritive value. But it doesn't have to be that way! Following our PCOS meal plan will help keep you on track and feeling good.
In this article:
A Whole New World
Starting college is an exciting experience, and one that's full of firsts:
Who will you meet? Where will you sleep? What, where, and how will you eat every day? Yes, it has admittedly been a few years since I was in college myself, but I remember all of the anticipation and nerves like it was yesterday!
If you are experiencing all of this for the first time, know that you're not alone in feeling a little (or a lot) overwhelmed. But no matter where you go to school or what your life looks like right now, the basics of day-to-day life remain the same, including our need for good nutrition.
As a registered dietitian nutritionist for the past 20 years, I have plenty of tips and tricks to share with you that can help you find your constant in a world of new adventures.
Preparing for College Life
Let's start by talking about the basics! First up? Learning your way around campus and getting to know your new living space. Here are four easy ways to set yourself up for success:
1. Come Equipped
Find out what is allowed in your dorm - maybe it’s a toaster, a mini fridge or a microwave.
If you're living in an apartment off-campus, which small appliances are available? What are you allowed to bring with you? An air fryer? A NutriBullet? Knowing this info will give you an early glimpse at what type of meals and snacks you will be capable of implementing.
2. Scope It Out
Many college campuses have several different dining halls. They may all be the same, but some may offer more specialized or specific types of food options (such as vegetarian). Learn what your campus has to offer and try to plan your daily meals and snacks accordingly.
Pro tip: Dining hall menus may be posted ahead of time, which can help with planning.
3. Learn Your New Schedule
Coordinate your meal and snack times with your class schedule, and know when and where you'll be able to eat throughout the day. For me, it was a hike from my nutrition classes back to my dorm, and I had no chance of making it back to home base for a meal on busy days.
Planning ahead, packing snacks, and learning what alternative dining options you have (and where they are located) will help maintain healthy blood sugar levels and keep energy up.
4. Get Support
Don’t hesitate to seek nutritional guidance whenever you need it!
Chances are, there is a friendly registered dietitian behind the scenes of your dining hall who will be happy to steer you in the right direction when it comes to making healthy choices or meeting specific dietary needs.
How to Build the Perfect Plate
Ready to head to the dining hall and get your grub on?
Let's start by breaking down the four steps to building a "perfect plate" (i.e. a balanced meal with colorful fruits and veggies, lean protein, full-fat dairy, essential fats, and whole grains).
Step 1: Fill ½ plate with non-starchy vegetables
Don't be afraid to load up on these low calorie, nutrient-rich foods. Strive for a rainbow!
The more variety of color you see on your plate, the more vitamins and minerals you are likely about to consume - including vitamin C, which can help ward off those fall and winter colds.
How to get extra veggies in:
- Choose steamed and grilled veggies from the hot food bar
- Try adding some extra veggies to your salad
- Grab some arugula from the salad bar to put on your sandwich
- Take some raw carrots for a crunchy side
- Throw some spinach into your omelet in the morning
Step 2: Add ¼ plate of whole grains/starchy veggies/legumes
That’s right, don’t leave out the carbs! Despite what you may have heard, avoiding carbohydrates when trying to eat more healthfully actually isn't helpful.
Why? Well, we need the energy we get from carbs to help fuel our brains for learning, our muscles for daily physical activities or sports, and important bodily functions like ovulation.
Here's what we recommend - instead of eliminating carbs completely, focus on looking for higher fiber, more complex carb options! Here are some ideas:
- Choose 100% whole wheat breads when you can
- Opt for brown rice or quinoa instead of white rice or plain pasta in the hot entrée line
- Add chickpeas and lentils to your plate at the salad bar
Why? High-fiber carbohydrates help to fill you up and keep you full for longer periods throughout the day, as well as helping to stabilize your blood sugar levels.
Step 3: Add ¼ plate of lean protein
Include protein sources with every meal and snack! Strive for lean cuts of meat, and choose baked or grilled protein options (instead of fried) to help keep cholesterol levels in check.
How to get more protein:
- Look for eggs (i.e. scrambled, hardboiled, omelet) in the morning
- Don’t forget the dairy - cheese and yogurt are great sources of protein and calcium
- Choose lean deli meats (think turkey, ham, and chicken breast) for your sandwich or to top your salad
- For plant-based options, include legumes, tofu, and nuts or nut butters
Step 4: Add heart-healthy fats
Including lean proteins and heart-healthy fat sources with your meals and snacks does two important things: 1) give you lasting energy and 2) help balance out the carbs.
How to incorporate healthy fats:
- Add nuts, seeds, and avocado to your salads and sandwiches
- Reach for olive oil when you are cooking
Note: Although it may feel nostalgic, your "perfect plate" does not have to look like the kids' plate you saw growing up (you know, the one where no two foods touched). The most important thing to keep in mind is the concept of eating balanced meals and snacks (those that contain a mix of carbs, protein, healthy fats, and veggies).
Your PCOS Meal Plan
While each student's dietary needs will vary, the following sample PCOS meal plan will give you a better idea of what a day in the life might look like. Let's break it down:
A spinach and tomato omelet with whole wheat toast (or my personal favorite pre-organic chemistry test breakfast from college: a whole wheat English muffin with peanut butter, a few banana slices, and a glass of milk!)
A loaded salad with veggies, grilled chicken, feta cheese, and black beans, or a delicious soup made from chicken, barley, and veggies.
Traditional spaghetti and meatballs (ideally turkey meatballs with whole grain pasta) and green beans, or a "burrito bowl" with quinoa, black beans, grilled chicken, avocado, and veggies.
Choose Balance Over Perfection
All of these are great examples of a balanced meal, and each include several components of the "perfect plate" we discussed above. But we all know that some days will be tougher than others - and that's okay.
If you're feeling stuck or limited on choices, don't fret!
Even when you can't always choose the leanest protein choices, or that yummy pasta dish is really calling your name, know that simply being mindful of your serving sizes and striving for balance can still make a positive impact on glucose and insulin levels and leave you feeling satisfied and nourished.
On-the-Go Healthy Snack Ideas
In addition to the great easy-to-pack snack options listed below, don’t forget to grab extras from the dining hall if they're included in your plan.
- Trail mix (add nuts, pretzels, Cheerios, raisins)
- Good old PB&J sandwich
- An apple and a cheese stick
- Oatmeal with peanut butter in a to-go mug
- Hummus and baby carrots
- Greek yogurt and nuts
5 Ways to Set Yourself Up for Success
Preparation and planning are key, especially with a busy student schedule! Here are a few tips for getting your semester started off on the right foot:
1. Stock Up
Grab some of your favorite snacks from home or a local store to stash away in your dorm room. Try to avoid refined and processed carbohydrates that get digested very quickly.
Here's how: Aim to limit processed snacks and refined grains, such as white flour, white bread, white rice, and white pasta, as well as sweets, candy, sweetened beverages, juice, and soda - both regular and diet. Instead, stock up on the nutrient-rich choices below.
For the closet/pantry:
- Peanut butter
- Dried fruit
- Oatmeal packets
- Snack bars (limited ingredients, low added sugars)
- Fruit and veggie pouches
- Dried chickpeas
- Cheerios or other whole grain cereals
- Whole grain crackers
- Whole wheat English muffins or bread
- Banza mac and cheese
For the (mini) fridge:
- Cottage cheese
- Cheese sticks
- Hummus (try the snack packs for on-the-go)
- Whole fruit
- Pre-cut veggies (baby carrots, baby bell peppers, snow peas)
And finally, for the freezer: frozen fruit and whole wheat waffles.
2. Don't Skip Meals
Put your "stock" items to good use for breakfast, lunch or snacks! Have a variety of healthy, balanced breakfast and snack items to easily grab and go so you stay fueled up all day.
Skipping meals can actually increase your risk of developing insulin resistance, contribute to weight gain, add metabolic stress, and even keep you from being able to think clearly and retain information in class. Think of it this way: a car needs gas to go, right? So do you!
3. Know Your Options
Being prepared and having something available to eat can help curb cravings, reduce the chance of picking less healthy food choices when hunger strikes, and prevent you from waiting too long between meals.
4. Stay Hydrated
Aim for 60-80 ounces of water daily.
There are lots of simple (and fancy) water bottle options these days, so take your pick! My current favorite water bottle has a straw, which makes optimizing my water intake much easier. Limit diet drinks, sodas, and alcohol as much as possible.
5. Keep It Moving
Balanced eating and exercise are key components of living your best life with (or without) PCOS. Going to the gym is a great way to stay active at school, but there are also new opportunities such as club sports or intramural sports, if you're athletically inclined.
You may also discover that you live near hiking trails or ski slopes that are fun to explore! Put yourself out there a bit - make new friends who align with your fitness goals and introduce you to new exercise classes or physical activities.
Staying active can help improve glucose control, reduce your risk of developing insulin resistance, and ward off any unwanted weight gain - not to mention help with stress relief.
The key is simply finding something you enjoy and sticking to it!
The Bottom Line: Balance is Key
Being mindful of your nutrition doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or enjoy your college years! Choosing nutrient-rich foods more often will simply help you feel more satiated, keep weight stable, and ensure that you get all the nutrients you need.
As you navigate your journey through college, don't be afraid to try new foods, cook with friends, and share recipes or snack ideas. These years are also perfect opportunities to learn about new cultures and cuisines as you make new friends.
While each student's experience will look a bit different, the need for a good nutritional foundation remains the same. By prioritizing building healthy, sustainable habits now, you will be helping set yourself up for a lifetime of success.
Jill is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who has been providing nutrition guidance to children and adults for over 20 years. She currently supports both PCOS and fertility patients at Illume Fertility with her broad experience and unique perspective. Jill is passionate about helping people work towards their healthiest selves by providing evidence-based, sustainable, personalized diet and lifestyle guidance.