Picture this: It’s your first day at college. You woke up early to grab a coffee (with plant-based milk, of course) before your 8 a.m. lecture, read through countless syllabi, and made plans with your roomie to explore campus later. Yet there’s one daunting task ahead of you: eat at the dining hall.

Meal card in hand, you wait in line with several other freshmen, fruitlessly looking around for any hint of a menu. Finally, your turn comes, and you’re swiped into the dining hall. Around you, everyone seems to know what they’re doing, pushing past you in a frenzy. Someone drops their plate and it clatters loudly on the ground. A student standing right next to you yells across the dining hall to their friends, deafening you. You’re overwhelmed.

Eventually, you decide to pick up a plate and head to the nearest station. To your dismay, all you see are cold cuts. You turn to the next station: grilled chicken, pork fried rice, and steak await you. At the third, you think you’ve found a potential vegan meal, only to realize it’s soaking in butter. You eventually find the fruit baskets and settle for a slightly bruised apple, which barely fills you up before your next class. At dinner, your luck isn’t much better: you find the salad bar and fill your plate with iceberg lettuce, red peppers, and carrots. Unfortunately, this is a common fate for many plant-based individuals in college!

At home, I had the luxury of multiple dinner options: veggie burgers, falafel wraps, tofu scramble, and on and on. At college, I could count on having one vegetarian option (usually roasted vegetables of some kind) and occasionally the odd fish dish.

You aren't really a UConn student until you've had the scrod. @UConnMemery on Instagram. 

Had I been vegan, I likely would have struggled a lot more (I’m a pescatarian, but I mainly eat plant-based). Still, there were days where I ate nothing but salads and plain pasta. I fondly remember one truly awful day in which I returned from the dining hall, opened my reusable bag, and found my to-go box (filled with pasta and sauce) had become completely damp and mushy. I did not eat dinner that night.

Gourmet! Photo by Kathryn Atkinson.

Despite this horror story, I actually was able to have fairly decent meals at college, especially while the “healthy” dining hall was open (unfortunately, it was closed due to COVID restrictions). Through it all, I’ve been able to realize a few main tips to maintaining a vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, or other plant-based lifestyle while in college, so let’s get into it!

Salads can be so much more than iceberg lettuce.

This may be a safe choice, but you can do so much better. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just loaded up a plate with iceberg lettuce, baby carrots, and cherry tomatoes. While it is easy and familiar, it certainly isn’t going to provide you all of the nutrients you need. Try dressing your salad up with spinach, grains, chickpeas (or other beans), and some olive oil. Not only will adding protein and fat to your salad keep you full for longer, it’ll also add in some delicious flavors to step your meals up a notch.

Trust your stomach.

For a period of time, every time I ate the French toast from my dorm’s dining hall for breakfast, I would find myself violently ill several hours later. I still have no idea why (likely the eggs), but after the first two times this happened I probably should not have been so trusting. Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice, shame on me. The good (and bad) thing about college food is that it is very standardized. If you enjoy a food product, stick to it, and if it leaves you extremely nauseous, it’s probably best to steer clear of that one. (Cough, cough, UConn French toast.)

There’s safety in numbers.

Find fellow plant-based people and share contact information. If one person finds a dining hall particularly well-stocked for veggie eating that night, they’ll be able to share the good news with everyone. Plus, you’ll be able to bond over the plethora of meat options and the lack of vegetarian ones at the dining hall.

Stock up on the staples.

I made sure to have a drawer of oats and nut butter in my room for the days I couldn’t find anything I wanted to eat at the dining halls. Other shelf-stable options include crackers, dried fruit, seaweed snacks, and canned goods. Just having another option in the back of your mind can lower mealtime anxiety by so much.

Invest in a microwave or other cooking device.

If you have something that’s able to get water to a boiling temperature, you’ll expand your options tenfold. Dried pasta, rice, and beans are all fairly easy to cook and can be a great addition to a plain dining hall meal of roasted vegetables.

Have a little fun with your meals.

Some people are able to eat the same meals every single day and not get bored. I, on the other hand, would go insane. During the last two weeks of the spring semester, the vegetarian options often were limited to a salad, a grilled cheese, or a slice of pizza. I am not a fan of cheese, and thus I had many a salad during that time. Thankfully, I was able to get a little creative and add pickles, pepperoncini, hummus, kidney beans, and other foods that made my daily salad a little less monotonous. Try new things — you might be surprised what you end up enjoying!