Recently, my youngest child, Meridith, returned home from college for the summer. She is featured in VegHead Speaks #3 podcast where she and I discuss the challenges of eating and explaining the plant-based lifestyle while at college.
Living in college dorms can be challenging for new students because not only are three people (as in my daughter’s case) living in a traditional style dorm room and sharing very little space, but students are also faced with eating dorm food and making daily food choices for themselves away from their parents’ watchful eyes. The image of students living off of only pizza and instant noodles is perpetuated in the movies and the debate over whether the ‘freshman 15’ is real or a myth continues. What is known is that for many students their level of physical activity may diminish, they consume fewer fruits and vegetables, and dorm food is often more calorically dense then the homecooked meals students may be used to. Additionally, for students that are plant-based, food choices are limited at many colleges. However, though some universities are making an effort to accommodate students with specific eating requirements, my daughter’s college is not one of them. One of her meal choices was a salad bar, which was well stocked with an assortment of additions such as beans and cut vegetables, or tofu as an additional protein source. Another option was pasta with meatless sauce but it, unfortunately, had oil and did not use whole wheat noodles. She could also get a burrito bowl or a veggie sandwich (with no meat or dairy). Overall, she had four choices with toppings that could be changed up for variety (however minimally), but week after week it became redundant for her. Did I mention that this kid LOVES food? She is my “foodie” and from a young age would eye what everyone else was eating, give a little sniff and say “so, whatcha eating”, hoping for a taste. For this kid, four meal choices were torture after a few weeks but here are some of her tips:
- Make friends with an upperclassman with a car or sign up for Zip Car to get to and from the grocery store;
- If you have a fridge/freezer in the room and access to a microwave, purchase fresh or frozen veggies in microwaveable bags. She would purchase green beans, broccoli, or other veggies, microwave to cook, lightly season with some lemon, and eat straight out of the bag;
- Stock up on stacks for the dorm room such as Clif Bars, almonds, rice cakes, pretzels, or low-sodium soup. Also keep a small stash of tupperware containers, disposable napkins, bowls, forks/spoons, etc. – these also came in handy when she brought back leftovers from home;
- Buy a small cutting board and a paring knife to cut apples or other fruits you may purchase to keep in your room (a bag of mandarin oranges is convenient when you’re on the run and need a quick snack).
How to explain the plant-based diet: Fortunately for Meridith, she has been plant-based since middle school so she is experienced with explaining her food choices to curious people and naysayers alike. Initially, embarrassed by the questions and discussion that would ensue over her huge lunches while in high school, she now is a seasoned plant-based eater and can field questions and concerns quickly so she can get back to eating her food. Here are Meridith’s tips on responding to common questions:
- Q: How do you get your protein?
- A: “Beans! (and peas). There is also protein in lentils, seeds/nuts, tofu, and some in veggies. In fact, broccoli has more protein per calorie than beef.”
- Q: You don’t eat cheese? How do you get your calcium?
- A: “There is more calcium in fruits and vegetables than you think, with an added bonus of fiber! For example, dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and broccoli, as well as oranges, almonds, etc. are packed full of calcium. Additionally, many processed foods probably already in your diet are fortified with calcium (cereals, orange juice, etc.)”
- Q: Why? Why are you plant-based?
- A: “Because it works for me and I feel better not eating meat or dairy. When I do eat cheese, I end up feeling sluggish and gross. Keeping animal products out of my diet allows me to feel energized and clean, especially when exercising.”
- Q: If I paid you $1,000 to eat this meat would you? (This is a more common question than you would believe)
- A: “Maybe if it was a million dollars! But in actuality, eating meat would just make me sick. I would have to weigh the cost and rewards of the situation.”
Meridith can easily identify when someone is really interested in learning about a new way of eating and when someone wants to find fault and argue. Either way, she has found that saying less is better because she just wants to enjoy her meal like everyone else and get on with her day.
Finally, I have to add one last note. If you are beginning the plant-based lifestyle and share with others your choice, be prepared that people will begin to police the foods you are eating. They will be quick to point out that this or that is not vegan and try to make you feel guilty. Ignore it. Just make the best choices you can, given the meal. Remember, each meal is a new opportunity with new choices and those choices should really be no concern to anyone other than you. Be a rebel. Break from the pack and forge a new path to health. In college lingo, HMU or “hit me up” if you need any tips.
You can listen to VegHead Speaks episode #3 “Interview with Meridith” at https://anchor.fm/veghead-speaks/episodes/3-Interview-with-Meridith-Wong-e1ln3s/a-a41t42
Google podcasts: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.android.apps.podcasts
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