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Famished First Year

Can new college students eat healthily?

By Sami Arseculeratne Martinez

Each fall, we send our young adults off to college to gain an education, expand their circle of friends, and grow their life experiences. But the first thing many of them gain is weight—about 15 pounds, on average.

Anthony Hinkelman, 21, of Syracuse, a junior at Le Moyne College, had a problem as a freshman, with the temptation of all-hours cafeteria buffets and the unhealthy food they offered.

“I started out by heading straight to the salad bar, but that got old,” Hinkelman says. “And because I was still hungry, I would end up eating greasy food like pizza late at night.” For a moderately active young person with a healthy metabolism, pizza or other fast food won’t pack on the weight—unless, of course, it becomes a daily habit.

When my own daughter, Rachel, went off to college at SUNY Geneseo, she gained nearly 25 pounds during her freshman year. Like Anthony, she holds the readily available buffets accountable, along with not having her mother around to tell her what she should eat and when.

  pizza snack

© Erwin Purnomosidi | Dreamstime.com

“For about $5, I could eat anything I wanted,” Rachel says, “so I would have a salad with some creamy dressing, then would try the pasta, but it wasn’t as good as what I was used to getting at home, so I also tried a bit of the hot entrée of the day.” Partaking of all the buffet offered made her feel greedy but she didn’t really enjoy any of it.

With no bedtime, no one cooking a balanced meal, and the nightlife in the first-year dorm, Rachel ended up snacking throughout the day and into the night. In high school, she had been in sports year-round; in college, the sudden switch to a sedentary lifestyle took a toll. And there were other factors that led to weight gain.

“Stress causes you to make bad decisions,” says Hinkelman. Rachel agrees that adjusting to college life, missing family and friends, and managing a strenuous course load can cause students to comfort themselves with food.

However, college freshmen don’t have to let the environment determine their eating habits. And if they start off on the wrong foot, they can assess and change direction. Hinkelman recognized that he was in control of his eating habits and began to apply what he was reading about in books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin; $16).

“Because a bunch of my friends were either vegetarians or vegans, I ended up becoming a vegetarian,” he says. Now Hinkelman’s diet centers on rice and beans—the gorgeous combination that provides protein and carbohydrates in a way that brings out the best of both. He also incorporates as many vegetables as possible into each meal by mixing and matching with foods like rice and pasta.

He still indulges in the occasional late-night gooey cheese pizza but also has started jogging and lifting weights.

Rachel started running for exercise, began to watch portion size, and avoided the buffets entirely. She chose foods such as “build your own” sandwiches, olive oil and vinegar dressing for salads and fresh vegetables. Above all, she scheduled food breaks so that she didn’t become famished and automatically reach for cookies or chips.

Parents can help their young-adult children head off to college by giving them information to help make good food choices, avoid overeating and establish sound habits that will last a lifetime. However, we also know that sometimes the best lessons are the ones you have to learn the hard way.

Weight-Gain Culprits

1. No one is telling you what to eat and when

2. Ready access to food (round-the-clock buffets, vending machines, dorm room snacking)

3. Empty alcohol calories

4. High school athletes become sedentary

5. Emotional eating to deal with stress

Combat the Chubs

1. What Mom said: Eat your vegetables

2. Exercise daily, especially during study sessions

3. Allow yourself a junk-food indulgence once a week

4. Watch your portions: Eat what you like, just less of it 


Ramen Grows Up

Long the staple of college dorms, ramen noodles are only high in sodium and fat when you use the seasoning packet. Throw out the packet and enjoy this filling and healthy dish. All you need is a micro-fridge and a trip to the grocery store.

1 package ramen noodles, crushed up a bit

Coleslaw cabbage mix (prepackaged shredded cabbage with carrots)

Crunchy peanut butter

Thai chili-garlic sauce or Sriracha sauce

Lime juice

Heat water to boiling in microwave or use a hot pot. Immerse noodles in hot water and let soak for 2 minutes. Pour off all but ½ cup of liquid and add a handful or two of coleslaw mix, a tablespoonful of peanut butter, a squirt or two of chili-garlic sauce and a squeeze of lime juice. Stir well and enjoy!

Mushroom Scramble

Makes a great breakfast or a fine quick lunch. With just a couple of minutes in preparation time, it works even when you’re running late for class.

Handful of sliced (washed or brushed clean) mushrooms

Two small eggs

1 tablespoon milk

Pinch of salt and pepper to taste

1 teaspoon butter or olive oil

Microwave sliced mushrooms on high for 30 seconds on a paper towel. Meanwhile, beat the eggs in 1 quart glass mixing bowl with a fork or wire whisk. Add butter or oil, cooked mushrooms, and salt and pepper to taste, then mix with spatula. Cook for 75 seconds at full power. Mix with spatula and dig in. You can also put it between two slices of soft bread for a meal on the go.

Nuked Rice
You can cook rice in a microwave in about 10 minutes and combine it with a few fresh vegetables or a bagged salad for a real meal that will fill you up at very little cost.

½ cup of uncooked white rice, rinsed in cold water and drained

Salt, pepper or butter to taste

1 cup cold water

Combine rice and water along with a pat of butter (if desired) in a microwave-safe bowl or large mug. Stir and microwave for 9 minutes. Let rice sit in the microwave for 5 minutes after it turns off and without opening door to finish the cooking process. Fluff with a fork, then add salt and pepper to taste, and serve with steamed carrots, green beans or broccoli. (Steam veggies like carrots, broccoli or green beans by placing cut pieces in a micro-safe dish along with a couple tablespoons of water. Cook for around 2 minutes on high, checking for doneness and then cooking in 1-minute increments if necessary. Stir in a drizzle of olive oil or butter.)

Chili Cheese Dip
There’s nothing “lean” about this dip, but it is easy to make and will keep the calories in check (when shared among eight people, calories are just over 200 each).

1 8-ounce package of light cream cheese, softened to room temperature

1 15-ounce can of chili with beans

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

In the bottom of a 9-inch microwave-safe glass dish, spread the cream cheese. Top cream cheese with an even layer of chili. Sprinkle cheddar cheese over chili. Heat in microwave on high for 5 minutes or until the cheese has melted. Serve with tortilla chips or pita chips.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York