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Eat smart - be smart 

Heading off to university is an exciting time and it is easy to overlook some more practical aspects of leaving home; like your diet and eating sensibly. The food you eat can have an impact on how your mind and body works, so a basic knowledge of how to eat healthily will help you get the most out of your university experience and create healthy lifetime eating habits.

The government recommends that we eat a diet that is based on starchy carbohydrates such as breads, potatoes, and other cereals, choosing wholegrain varieties, or eating potatoes with their skins on for more fibre. It is also recommended to eat a diet rich in a variety of fruit and vegetables, include moderate amounts of low-fat dairy products, moderate amounts of lean meat and fish and other non-dairy protein sources and limited amounts of foods containing fat or sugars.

No single food can provide you with all the essential nutrients the body needs. Therefore, it is important that you eat a wide variety of foods which will provide you with adequate amounts of essential nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals and dietary fibre, which are all important for your physical health and well-being.

Try to include fruit or vegetables with each meal, and as some snacks, to make sure you eat the recommended at least 5 A DAY. Below are some examples of what counts as a portion.

How much is one portion?
Fruit
  • 2 small fruits e.g. plums, satsumas, kiwi fruit
  • 1 apple/banana/pear/orange
  • 7 strawberries
  • Half a grapefruit
  • A 5cm slice of melon
  • 1 heaped tablespoon of dried fruit e.g. raisins, sultanas
  • 2 dried figs or 3 prunes
Vegetables
  • 2 broccoli spears
  • 4 heaped tablespoons of cooked kale/spinach/green beans
  • 3 heaped tablespoons of cooked veg (from fresh, frozen or canned) e.g. sweetcorn, carrots
  • 7 cherry tomatoes
  • 5cm piece of cucumber
Beans and pulses
  • 3 heaped tablespoons of baked beans/kidney beans/chickpeas (maximum of one portion a day no matter how much you eat)

 

As money may be tight, buying fruit and vegetables that are in season is usually cheaper, as is buying loose produce or fruit and vegetables from local markets. You can also save money by peeling and chopping vegetables yourself rather than buying ready prepared produce. Frozen and canned fruit and vegetables are also good options and still count as one of your 5 A DAY and can be stored until needed. If choosing canned fruit or vegetables try to go for versions without added salt or sugar.

Breakfast

It is very important to make time to eat breakfast, as it provides you with energy after the night’s fast. It can fill you up and may help avoid feelings of hunger mid-morning, which could lead to you having a snack that may be high in fat and/or sugars. An ideal breakfast would include sources of starchy carbohydrates, particularly wholegrains; some protein; a piece of fruit or small glass of unsweetened fruit juice and a dairy product such as a glass of milk, lower-fat milk/yogurt added to cereal to provide you with essential vitamins and minerals.

Some breakfast ideas include…

  • Wholegrain cereals such as no-added-sugar muesli or porridge with low-fat milk or plain low-fat yogurt. Try adding a handful of dried fruit to sweeten, or a few nuts for added protein.
  • Wholegrain toast with peanut butter and sliced banana.
  • Wholewheat pancakes with sliced fruit and low-fat Greek yogurt. Reduced sugar and salt baked beans on wholegrain toast with tomato and mushroom.
  • Fruit smoothie made with semi-skimmed, 1% or skimmed milk, plain low-fat yogurt and fruit such as bananas or berries (fresh or frozen)

Lunch

Lunches tend to be cheaper if you prepare something at home to take to lectures with you. An ideal lunch would include some protein and a serving of starchy carbohydrate (particularly wholegrains) with some fruit or vegetables.

Some lunch ideas include…

  1. Sandwiches make a quick, easy lunch. To vary them you could try a wholemeal wrap or wholemeal pitta or a bagel instead of bread. For ideal fillings try tuna (try to avoid canned in brine option due to salt content), chicken, turkey or cottage cheese with some salad or a small amount of pickle. If using mayonnaise, choose reduced-fat versions and go easy on how much you use.
  2. Pasta salads can be a convenient option for using up leftovers from the night before, such as cooked chicken, tuna and any leftover salad veg you might have. Try other wholegrains in salads, such as wholewheat couscous, brown rice or bulgur wheat.
  3. Try and include some fruit and vegetables at lunchtime. This could be a small glass of unsweetened orange juice, a salad, a piece of fruit or some carrot sticks. And don’t forget to add veg or salad to your sandwich.

If you are eating lunch out then try these options…

  • Baked potatoes with cheese, baked beans, tuna or chilli are filling and often relatively cheap. Why not ask for a salad on the side? And try and eat the skins as well for extra fibre.
  • A bowl of bean/vegetable soup and a crusty wholemeal roll with unsaturated fat spread.
  • A pasta, noodle or rice dish with plenty of vegetables and lean meat, fish or vegetable sources of protein like beans, Quorn or tofu

Dinner

Try to prepare something for dinner yourself rather than resorting to ready-made food which may be high in saturated fat and salt, and could cost you more. Cooking for more than one is also cheaper, so why not get together with some friends to share the cost, or make larger portions and freeze them If somebody else did the cooking when you lived at home, ask them to show you how to make some of your favourite meals.

The ideal dinner would include high fibre starchy carbohydrates (such as wholegrain bread, cereals including brown rice or wholewheat pasta, potatoes with skins) and plenty of vegetables and fruits. Eat these with a serving of protein such as beans, pulses, tofu, lean cuts of grilled meat, grilled or baked fish. Try including oil-rich varieties of sustainable fish as well like canned sardines and salmon, or mackerel). If you have catering facilities then try and choose meals that are well-balanced and include all the food groups. Try to eat your main evening meal a few hours before bedtime to ensure your body has time to digest your food before you sleep.

Ideas for dinners include…

  1. Pasta and sauce is a great staple to master. Learning how to make an easy sauce can be helpful, for example a tomato-based sauce, as this can be modified easily by adding different vegetables, meat or fish, such as canned tuna
  2. If you’re making chilli con carne, spaghetti Bolognese or other mince-based dishes, opt for extra lean mince and use smaller quantities, bulking up the dish with canned beans to reduce the cost.
  3. Couscous or quinoa make a good base to dishes and are quick and easy to prepare
  4. Chips do not have to be avoided completely. Try oven baking some chunky potato or sweet potato wedges – just cut up the potatoes , add a little oil (unsaturated like vegetable/rapeseed oils, sprinkle on herbs instead of salt – these will absorb less fat than thinner chips. If you keep the skin on the potatoes this will provide you with extra fibre, plus choosing sweet potatoes will count towards your 5 A DAY.
  5. If you’re short on time, try a quick and easy meal such as a stir fry packed full of colourful veg, a ham and mushroom omelette or a courgette frittata, which is a great way of using any leftover veg you may have.

Some useful basic food cupboard items that you might want to consider stocking up on include:

  • Tea and coffee
  • Dried mixed herbs/spices
  • Low-salt stock cubes
  • Pesto (for a quick pasta sauce)
  • Garlic
  • Olive or vegetable oil
  • Pasta, rice, noodles and couscous (choose wholegrain ones)
  • Porridge oats
  • Plain flour (for baking and thickening sauces)
  • Canned chopped tomatoes
  • Canned fruit (in fruit juice not syrup)
  • Canned pulses such as chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans (not in salted water)
  • Canned fish e.g. tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines (try and make sure these are sustainable and canned in water or unsaturated fats)

 

Snacks

When you’re heading to the library or need a quick energy fix, take along items like bananas, cereal bars, dried apricots or a handful of unsalted nuts or rice crackers. This will help you be prepared and you may not be tempted to grab a snack that may be high in fat or high sugars like fried chips, a chocolate bar or cake.

Drinks

Having enough fluid is also essential. Without adequate water our bodies cannot function properly. You should aim to drink about 1.6 to 2 litres (about 8-10 glasses) of non-alcoholic fluids each day. The best choice to keep hydrated is water (tap or bottled) but low-fat milk is also a good choice. If you’re allowed, take a bottle of water into the exam with you to keep your fluid levels topped up, as dehydration can affect your concentration.

Sugars-sweetened drinks (e.g. carbonated drinks, squash and energy drinks) provide a lot of free sugars (the type of sugars that we all need to cut down on) in young adults’ diets. Try to minimise these types of drinks in your diet, and opt for water, lower-fat milks and ‘no-added-sugars’, ‘no calorie’ or ‘diet’ versions instead.

Tea and coffee can be included as part of your fluid intake but be careful not to overdo it on the caffeine – try not to have more than 4 cups of instant coffee or 5 cups of tea a day (up to 400mg caffeine a day). Remember energy drinks and some soft drinks contain caffeine too, and coffee from a coffee shop or restaurant may be stronger compared to coffee you make yourself.

Alcohol

Drink sensibly! Adults are advised not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week (equivalent to 6 pints of 4% beer or 6 glasses of 13% wine), which should be spread across the week with several alcohol-free days, rather than the units being saved up for one occasion. Examples of how many units different types of alcoholic drink contain include:

  • 2.1 units in a standard (175ml) glass of 12% ABV wine;
  • 2 units in a pint of lower-strength beer (3-4% ABV);
  • 1 unit in a single small shot (25ml) of spirits;
  • 1.1 units in a 275ml bottle of alcopop (4% ABV).

Nowadays, drinks tend to be much stronger. For example, a pint of premium lager (around 5%) contains about 3 units and a 175ml glass of 14% ABV wine contains 2.4 units. If you’re not sure how many units you are drinking then you can calculate this yourself:

Strength (ABV) x Volume (ml) divided by 1000 = Number of units

Drinking more than the recommended amount can have adverse effects on your health. There are now stronger links between drinking alcohol and an increased risk of certain cancers. Having one or two heavy drinking sessions a week increases your risk of long-term illnesses (such as heart disease), accidents and injuries.

Alcohol can also increase the risk of you becoming dehydrated as it causes your body to lose more water than normal, so you should replace lost fluid by drinking plenty of non-alcoholic drinks throughout the evening. This will help you feel less dehydrated.

Exam time…

During the stress of exam time it is easy to let your healthy eating habits slip. You may feel that preparing food is a waste of valuable revising time and grabbing a quick fix that may not be nutritionally balanced, like a bag of fried chips and a chocolate bar, is an easier option. But, good nutrition is even more vital at times of stress when you may be run down, and eating healthily should be an important part of your revision plan.

Top tips for clever eating during exams

  1. Remember to eat a healthy breakfast! This is even more important if you have an exam in the morning.
  2. Eat regularly. This will help keep your energy levels more stable.
  3. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables. A variety is best as different fruits and vegetables give you different vitamins and minerals.
  4. Stay hydrated (see Drinks)
  5. Don’t rely on dietary supplements. Whilst these can help when vitamins and minerals are lacking in your diet, it is better to get everything you need from the food and drink in your diet. For example, oranges not only contain vitamin C but also fibre, phytochemicals, beta-carotene and other components that you cannot get packaged together in a tablet.
  6. Spend time outside. As there are few natural food sources of vitamin D, it is important that we spend enough time outside during the summer months to make most of what we need of this vitamin through exposure to sunshine.
  7. Don’t rely on energy drinks either for energy during revision and exam time. Whilst they can give you a quick boost, in the long-term the high levels of caffeine in these drinks can make you feel irritable and affect your sleep. Drinking a lot of these types of drinks can also lead to health problems such as high blood pressure, and if they contain sugar can also lead to weight gain.
  8. Drink responsibly (see Alcohol)

For more information on the sources used in this text, please contact postbox@nutrition.org.uk

Last reviewed February 2016.

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