What Do Vegetarian College Students Do for Food?

I don’t think a bowl of cereal and mashed potatoes is a nutritious dinner. Vegetarian college food is hard to find.

hungry woman

My daughter attends McMurry University in Abilene, TX. When she was interviewing at the school, they assured her it would be no problem for her to eat at the school. We are required to pay $1500/semester since she is in the dorm.

I wouldn’t mind that except her choices have been mixed pasta with pepperoni and sausage, chicken thighs, white rice, always mashed potatoes. She is always hungry and has to heat up veggie burgers before bed. She lost 15 pounds just last semester which puts her about 115 lb at 5’4″.

We have talked to the president of the University, to the Dean of Students and to the cafeteria manager. Nothing is changing. What do vegetarian college students do? I don’t think a bowl of cereal and mashed potatoes is a nutritous dinner. She has been vegetarian all her life – J.M.

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This is a familiar problem on college campuses these days. An estimated 5% of the US population are vegetarian or vegan, and while I have no statistics at hand, it’s a safe bet that a high percentage of those are college students.

College administrators are slow to adapt, but there are more colleges every year offering vegetarian (not so much vegan) options in their cafeterias. Some are doing better than others, and some, like your daughter’s school, are all talk and no action.

Perhaps your daughter might consider transferring to a more veg-friendly college for the rest of her college education. Peta lists 10 universities in the US which have adapted to the veggie trend (picked from 30 contenders):

If that’s not an option, she could be active in changing things at the college where she is now. And in finding creative ways around the system. I recently wrote a short article with 10 tips for vegan college students, some of which could be helpful. Here they are:

1. Don’t waste time and energy on anger or self pity – just think about what you can DO.
2. Vegetarians & vegans are a significant, rapidly growing minority on campus. Organize, agitate, make change happen. Here’s an article from PCRM which has some good ideas. And this one, from Peta.
3. Study vegan nutrition. I recommend the books ‘Becoming Vegetarian‘ and ‘Becoming Vegan’ by Melina & Davis.
4. Choose the most nutritious food in the cafeteria. Eat ALL the veggies, beans, anything whole grain (like oatmeal).
5. Accept that you have to feed yourself, then get creative and push the dorm food rules hard.
6. Make your food $$ count: fill in the nutritional gaps with fruit & veg, nuts & seeds, whole grains – get your vitamins and minerals.
7. Pick the most unprocessed food you can find – think granola, trail mix, apples instead of cocoa puffs, oreos and fruit pops.
8. Take a high quality nutritional supplement including B12, Vit D and omega 3.
9. Exercise, get out in the sun, get enough sleep – just as important as what you eat.
10. Take it easy! You wouldn’t expect to become a concert violinist overnight, and you won’t go from junk food addict to healthy vegan overnight either.

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Would it be possible for your daughter to live off campus, in a shared apartment or other situation where she can cook for herself?

At some point, she will have to take charge of her diet, and learn how to eat a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet under challenging conditions – which is the case for most vegetarians living in the real (non-veg) world. Going to college is a good place to start.

Judith Kingsbury, Savvy Vegetarian

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8 Responses to “What Do Vegetarian College Students Do for Food?”

  1. Lviing, Learning, Eating says:

    I’m a vegetarian college student starting a blog of my (budget) food adventures in LA. Check it out!

  2. Savvy Veg says:

    Hi Erica, please see the comment from Katie, 4/16/10 about getting snacks to fill in the gaps in the meal plan. You say you can’t afford any extra food, but things like fruit, trail mix, granola, cereal bars, yogurt, carrot sticks, sunflower seeds, almonds won’t break the bank and will help fill in those nutritional and calorie gaps. Also, discard your food likes & dislikes, and follow her suggestion about analyzing the dining hall offerings and picking the absolute most nutritious items they offer. E.G. ALL the veggies and fruit, esp. raw, ANYTHING whole grain, like whole grain bread or cereals, ANY carb that’s not pasta or potatoes (like rice), ANY legumes, nuts or seeds (maybe in the salad bar). Most people gain weight in their first year at college. It’s quite an achievement to lose 30 lb! I’m sure your parents don’t want you to suffer from malnutrition, also common in college students, and would pay for a good vitamin supplement. Rainbow Light makes a good food based supplement for women.

  3. Erica says:

    Hi I am a vegetarian college student about to begin my second year at school. I lost 30 pounds last year because I could literally find NOTHING to eat. I’ve been desperately trying to read up on advice but every piece of advice is sooooo frustrating. At my school we are required to live on campus our freshman and sophomore years and we must pay for a meal plan. That being said I have NO money to spend on extra food. And when I do spend money on food my parents get upset (with good reason) because we are paying so much for the meal plan. I know exactly what I should be eating because I am somewhat of a health nut it’s just that I have to access to those foods. Because my school is a small private university options are very very limited. Also, it’s a social thing to go to meals. Grabbing dinner with friends is a way to take a break from studying and connect with people. I don’t want to have to skip spending time with friends so I can stay in my little room and try to concoct something somewhat nutritious in my microwave. That’s no fun and makes you seem like a snob. I am so nervous for going back to school and would absolutely love some sound advice.

  4. Savvy Veg says:

    Hi Kirsten, I’m from Canada too, and I always seem to be missing something! :-) Generally, unless communal kitchens are provided in the dorms, cooking opportunities are limited for students who live on campus. They aren’t allowed to cook in their dorm rooms except maybe to store a few things in a tiny fridge and use a microwave. Often they are required to sign up for a meal plan and eat in the dining hall, at least in first year. My kids either lived at home, and commuted, or shared apartments with other students. But they still didn’t do much cooking!

  5. Kirsten says:

    I’m from Canada so I might be missing something, but why can’t the students cook for themselves? Is it mandatory to be on the school’s meal plan or something?

  6. Katie says:

    I am currently a vegetarian college student, and while living on campus, I experienced the same thing. All I had to eat for a whole semester was spaghetti or rice. Though there were not a lot of options, I began to supplement my diet with fruits and nuts, which I purchased on my own and kept in my dorm.

    Also, I would ask upper class friends if I could use their kitchens, and cook enough of a meal to last a few days. I would then keep the leftovers in my mini-fridge until I needed more! If you switch between friends and recipes, this is actually quite a good arrangement. My friends got a delicious meal, and I was able to keep my vegetarian lifestyle!

    It was very frustrating to have to pay for a meal plan that I was not using as much as some students, but it was something my parents and I felt strongly that we needed to do. Hope this works out for you!

  7. Annette says:

    While I live a vegan lifestyle, both of my kids were eating mostly vegetarian foods at home. Their colleges, Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, and Saint Leo University in Saint Leo Florida do a good job of providing non-meat options. In fact, at Saint Leo, the dining hall person actually told my daughter to let her know what sorts of things she would like to eat. I couldn’t be happier with both of those schools. In addition, most students eventually find out that eating out breaks the monotony. Check out the town for healthy veg foods as well and above all, let your voice be heard!

  8. Indie says:

    When I was in college, I worked in the cafeteria and my roomate was a vegetarian due to a medical condition (she couldn't digest meat). At first she was unsucessful in getting them to provide adequate food. What I explained to her is that the cooks in the cafeteria have no idea what vegetarians eat and do not know where to start. So my roomate met with the cafeteria manager AND the head cook and very specifically outlined what sorts of things they needed to provide for her.

    She was able to demand this because she had a medical condition and they could not require her to buy the food if they couldn't provide for her medical condition. What I would suggest to this mother is that they have their physcian write a note for the daughter specifying what type of diet she needs to be on. This became a medical issue when the food they provided caused her to lose an undue amount of weight. I've used this method as a way to get my children out of the state required milk at daycare. Of course its not right that you have to resort to this sort of thing, but it does work.

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