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How to Eat Vegan in College

by tamarajune
Published: Last Updated on

I had my first taste of veganism the summer before my senior year of college.

I had just finished reading Whole, which drastically changed my perception of what healthy food actually is.

But once the semester started again, it didn’t take long until I went back to my old eating habits. 

All on-campus students were required to have a meal plan.

We only had one dining hall, which didn’t offer many vegan options besides the salad bar, fries, rice, oatmeal, and over steamed veggies.

I felt like I couldn’t meet my calorie or nutritional requirements nor get full with these few dishes. So I quit. 😔

But just a few weeks later, my mind was changed again by the documentary Earthlings.

Suddenly eating meat just wasn’t an option anymore❌. I decided to go vegetarian and eat vegan as much as possible.

And I was determined to make it work this time. 

For a while, I did live off of oatmeal, salad, bread, rice, and steamed veggies (and sometimes fries 😅).

But with time, I learned how to create my own meals out of the available vegan options. 

Eventually, I met some other vegans at my college, and they taught me so much. It didn’t take long until eating vegetarian became an exception. 

The support of other vegans was invaluable in my journey to veganism.

So I want to pay it forward by sharing the best tips and tricks that I learned that helped me navigate and conquer the often tricky landscape of eating vegan in college. 

I know how difficult and overwhelming it can feel to eat vegan in college, but I also know that it is possible and that it also gets a lot easier with time.

So, if going vegan or eating more plant-based has been on your heart, but you felt that it’s not possible in your current situation, then this post is for you. 

So, let’s get started. 

Tips for eating vegan at the dining hall

Breakfast line at a college dining hall

The variety and amount of vegan food available in college dining halls varies significantly from institution to institution.

Some are a paradise for vegans; others have very few options available.

But no need to despair if your school falls into the latter category. 

There is a general trend towards more vegan meals being offered in dining halls. So we can be optimistic that the vegan food options will increase and improve.

Meanwhile, the following survival tips for eating vegan in the dining hall will help fill your stomach and keep you energized for study sessions and adventures. 

Arrive prepared

This first tip applies mostly to those heading to college, transferring to a new school, or getting a meal plan for the first time. 

Before your move on campus, it’s a good idea to have a basic idea of which foods are offered in the dining hall.

Most institutions publish their weekly menu online. If yours doesn’t, reach out to dining hall managers and ask if they could send you a few sample menus. 

Knowing what to expect allows you to prepare accordingly. It can aid in the decision of which meal plan and dorm you choose.

For example, if there are only a few vegan options in the dining halls, you could opt for a smaller meal plan and cook more food yourself (in which case you should ensure that your dorm offers a (communal) kitchen. 

Leverage the customizable food lines 

Vegetable stir fry in a pan

Most college dining halls have sandwich and stir fry lines where food is prepared “on-demand”. This allows you to customize what goes into your meal.

Thus, you can veganize many of the offered dishes simply by declining some ingredients.

Moreover, you can make meals more nutritious by asking for additional veggies, grains, or legumes.  

Let’s see how this can work in practice:

When you are in the sandwich line, you can keep it basic by making a veggie sandwich/wrap with hummus and avocado.

 You could also ask for a tortilla, grab some rice and beans from other dining hall areas, and add some veggies from the salad bar. And in no time, you have a delicious burrito. 

Or you can get into the stir-fry line, get some veggies, add some tofu, and grab some potatoes and rice for a yummy meal. 

You can get really creative here and significantly expand the variety of meals that are available to you.

While you may feel a bit overwhelmed at first, more and more ideas will pop into your head with time. 

I always found it helpful to think of creating my meals as if I were putting together a Buddha bowl.

So I made sure I had a source of plant protein, a few servings of veggies, a (whole) grain, a delicious dressing (lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, etc.), and some nuts or seeds as a topping. 

Bring some of your own ingredients  

A bowl of hummus surrounded by fresh vegies

My dining hall finally started to offer hummus in the last few months before my graduation. And only after so many kept asking for it.

So if yours doesn’t provide some basic vegan options, be consistent (but kind) in asking for it. 

Meanwhile, it might be a good idea to bring some things yourself. This can be hummus, avocados, or other specialty items you might like.

The point is not to go all out and bring a whole spread.

But bringing one or two things here and there will allow you to create a larger variety of meals, improve flavor and enjoy more satisfying meals.

Know what sides and staples are vegan-friendly

A bowl of cooked grains

While many dining halls don’t offer entirely vegan meals, most do have a few staples and sides that are vegan.

Finding out which ones your dining offers will help you create our own dishes.

You can combine various staples and sides and add items from the salad, sandwich, or stir fry line to prepare a delicious meal. 

Following is a list of sides and staples in college dining halls that are typically vegan. However, if they are not labeled as such, ask to know for sure. 

  • Oats & oatmeal – check if oatmeal was made with milk or butter
  • Potatoes – if they are whole, roasted, or fried, they are usually vegan. Beware of mashed potatoes as they may contain milk and butter 
  • Rice – generally vegan, but may contain butter 
  • Pasta – a lot of pasta is made with eggs so double check 
  • Bread – almost all bread is vegan, but some kinds may contain milk products 
  • Fruit
  • Nuts & Seeds
  • Soup – Check which broth was used and if milk/cream was added 
  • Steamed vegetables

Here are some meal ideas that you could make from these sides: 

  • Vegan pasta with tomato sauce and steamed veggies, and a salad topped with seeds as a side.
  • Vegan pasta salad with veggies you find at the salad bar.
  • Rice with beans, potatoes and steamed veggies paired with a big salad
  • A bowl of soup with some bread and a fruit salad.

Arrive at the dining hall prepared 

Almost all dining halls upload their menu for the week online. Checking what is offered in advance can help you decide at which one you want to eat.

Moreover, if you look online first, you can start to plan what you’ll have.

Doing so will save you time, frustration, and overwhelm when, at the moment, it seems like there are no vegan or options or nothing sounds good. 

Don’t skip breakfast 

Vegan breakfast cereal with fresh berries und nts

In many dining halls, breakfast is the most vegan-friendly meal, so if possible, take advantage of that.

One of my go-to meals was a simple peanut butter toast topped with banana and oatmeal with berries. So yummy and so nutritious! 

Leave your feedback and make suggestions 

Reach out to dining hall managers to speak to them about offering more vegan options.

During the conversation, give them a few ideas of what they could provide. You could even suggest a few recipes. 

Further, you could ask if it were possible to make a few simple swaps that would increase vegan options.

Maybe they could switch to vegan pasta or start preparing oatmeal with plant milk. 

You could also suggest that one of the soup options could always be vegan and that they regularly offer a vegan dessert. 

Moreover, you could ask if it was possible to add tofu or tempeh to the salad bar and stir fry lines.

These were just a few examples; the number of possibilities are almost endless.

However, try to be reasonable with your requests.

For example, if your salad bar/sandwich line doesn’t offer vegan cheese, don’t ask for three different vegan cheese options. Ask for one and don’t be specific about the brand.  

Furthermore, to see results, you likely have to be persistent. Don’t be afraid to inquire again if you were promised a change, and it didn’t happen. 

After all, you pay a good amount of money to eat there. 

But please also remember to always be kind and respectful in your interactions. Being nice and friendly will make dining hall managers and cooks more willing to accommodate you. 

While you can also leave feedback in suggestion boxes, I’m sure that a personal inquiry will bring better and quicker results.

The secret menu

There is another benefit to talking to your dining hall manager about your dietary requirements:

Some dining halls keep various vegan-friendly foods in the back that they can bring out on demand.

Once you know if your dining hall offers that and what they are, you can ask a staff member anytime, and they will bring the item to you. 

Take a piece of fruit with you as a snack

Various pieces of fruit (grapes, peaches, apples)

Most dining halls allow you to take a piece of fruit or a dessert to go, which is fantastic. 

Every time you go to the dining hall, take one piece to enjoy as a snack during a study session.

I can’t tell you how many times something as simple as an apple with peanut butter or a banana has saved me!

Cooking vegan in the dorm 

A college dorm room

In my opinion, you hit the jackpot if you can get a small meal plan and have the possibility to prepare meals in your dorm as well. 

Going to the dining hall is great when you have a super busy day/week and little time to cook or go grocery shopping.

Moreover, getting a meal can be a great way to connect/catch up with your friends and peers.

At the same time, having a (community) kitchen in your dorm allows you to cook your own food, which tends to be cheaper, fresher, more nutritious, and more varied. (Most dining halls offer the same dishes again and again). 

You can check out the tips above for when you eat at the dining hall. And now, here is how to make preparing meals while living in a dorm possible and affordable.

First, you need to figure out which amenities are available in your dorm.

  • Do you have a communal kitchen?
  • If so, what items are available for use?
  • Are there apartment-style dorms?
  • What equipment do you need to purchase/bring?
  • Do your roommates have stuff they can bring?
  • What appliances are you allowed to have in your room? 

Going off of that, you can then decide what you need to make cooking in your dorm quick, easy, and feasible.

Appliances

Here are some appliances that I think would be helpful to have in your room:

  • A mini-fridge – if possible with a built-in freezer, or even better, if rules and room allows, a separate mini fridge and mini freezer
  • Microwave 
  • Tea cattle
  • Various food storage containers 
  • Reusable to-go containers 
  • Coffee maker
  • Blender or food processor 

Next, it’s time to stock up your pantry. Naturally, what you put in it will depend on how much space you have as well as your personal preferences.

Pantry staples

Pantry shelves with various staples

But here are a few items that I think are handy to keep in your dorm pantry:

  • Nutritional yeast
  • Bread
  • Fruit 
  • Dried Fruit
  • Peanut Butter
  • Energy bars or homemade energy balls 
  • Oats and other whole-grain breakfast cereals 
  • Whole-grain crackers 
  • Dairy-free milk of your choice
  • Tofu and tempeh 
  • Canned Beans and legumes 
  • Various whole grains (brown rice, couscous, quinoa)
  • Whole-grain pasta
  • Whole-grain tortillas 
  • Avocado
  • Hummus
  • Vegan chocolate
  • Carrot sticks 
  • Spices 
  • Other snacks of your choice 
  • If you have a freezer available, you may keep frozen spinach, frozen fruit, frozen veggies or freeze your leftovers 

Have to save time when cooking your own food

Student cooking in the communal kitchen

Keep it simple: Choose to make simple recipes that only require a few ingredients and make them more interesting with spices, seasonings, and dressings/sauces. 

Make use of meal prep and batch cooking. Essentially this means that you set aside an hour or two one day to prepare several meals at once.

The idea is that for the rest of the week, once you are ready to eat, you only have to warm up your meal or take a few additional steps until your meal is ready to enjoy.

Here is an excellent article on meal prep for vegans.

Moreover, you can try out no-cook meals or ones that you can make in your microwave for even more convenience.

There are also many amazing cookbooks for vegan college students such as this College Vegan Cookbook as well as helpful recipe round-ups like this 41 Easy College Dorm Room-Friendly Vegan Recipes one.

Snacks

Vegan granola bar as an examaple of what to eat as a vegan in college

Always having snacks on hand will keep you from going insane, I promise you.

Ideally, most of your snacks are healthy; this will give you the energy you need to study and get work done.

Your healthy snacks can be as simple as a piece of fruit with some nuts, trail mix, or crackers with hummus or veggie sticks dipped in hummus.

You could also prepare energy balls to snack on or some healthy muffins or cake. Unhealthy snacks are fine now and then as well 😉. Sometimes you just need them.

Summary: How to eat vegan in college

Summary of the best tips for eating vegan in a college dining hall
Summary of the best tips for eating vegan in a college dorm

Now, I’m so curious to hear about your vegan college experience! Are there any vegan options in your dining hall? Do you have any favorite vegan college dorm recipes you like to make?

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