It’s exam time. Your desk is buried under piles of notes and empty coffee cups – and balanced meals are the last thing on your mind. Unfortunately, this scenario is one that most students are all too familiar with. Even though nutritional choices play a major role in energy, memory, and overall academic performance, university students are likely to ditch healthy cooking in favour of extra studying or a bit more sleep during these stressful times. It’s no wonder that the average university student will gain nearly 3 kg during his or her first year! It might seem like convenient meals are inevitable during finals week, but with these five easy tips, keeping your mind and body in tip-top shape will be a piece of cake fruit.
- Beware portion distortion. The bagel you pick up for breakfast every morning is actually four servings of grains, and the entire box of mac and cheese houses 67% of the grains you need for the entire day. Perhaps even more surprising, a foot-long sub is equal to six slices of bread! Listen to your stomach rather than the size of the package. You can also save on more than just the bill by sharing food with a friend when dining out, or taking half of the meal before digging in for a fuss-free meal the next day.
- Be food safe. 25% of Canadians get food poisoning every year. To avoid being part of this scary statistic, thaw frozen food on the bottom shelf of the fridge instead of the counter. Be extra careful about cooked food, or dairy products, that have been left at room temperature for over two hours. It is also a good idea to have several cutting boards: some for raw food and others for ready-to-eat food.
- Keep your belly – and your wallet – full. Cook at home as often as possible. Did you know that a coffee and a bagel adds up to $75 a month? That’s $900 a year for an unsatisfying and repetitive breakfast void of nutrition. Frozen fruits and vegetables are healthy, convenient, and economical. You can also reach for store brands, because they have the same taste and quality but cost much less. In addition to swapping meat for beans, eggs, canned fish, and peanut butter, buy in bulk for baking ingredients, grains, nuts, and spices. Be aware that you pay more for ready-to-eat food (ie. Pre-washed greens, grated cheese, pre-cooked chicken), but these options will still cost less than eating out.
- Snack your way to success. Believe it or not, snacking is arguably one of the key components of a healthy diet. Eating a meal or balanced snack every 3-4 hours is critical for preventing dips in blood sugar – in other words, to keep energy levels up and prevent overeating later on. Try healthier nibbles that combine protein with carbohydrates to fuel your brain: trail mix and milk, yogurt and fruit with granola, crackers with hummus, peanut butter and a banana, popcorn and a hard-boiled egg, or veggies and roasted chickpeas. You probably already know that chips and chocolate bars are best in moderation, but be aware of seemingly-healthy snacks. That carrot muffin is actually 500 calories, so why not use just a quarter as a yogurt topping, or split it with a couple friends?
- Be sugar smart and fill up with fiber. A 20 oz bottle of pop houses over 5 tbsp of sugar. For good digestion and regularity, as well as disease prevention and weight maintenance, aim for 25-35 grams of fiber daily. Keeping the skin on a potato or apple will increase its fiber by 50%, or try adding dried fruits, nuts, and seeds to yogurt and salads. Beans and lentils can be thrown into soups, chili, tacos, burritos, and wraps.
Contrary to popular belief, healthy food is certainly not equivalent to boring, flavourless, or time-consuming. In fact, it can be quite the opposite! Try some of these simple meal ideas for ultimate deliciousness and loads of brain fuel. Top a whole wheat pita with pasta sauce or pesto, chopped meat, veggies, and cheese, then bake until cheese melts. Cook vegetables, pour whisked eggs on top, and sprinkle with cheese before baking until the frittata is solid. Mix pasta with canned tuna and vegetables (frozen work beautifully!), top with cheese, and broil.
Most importantly, have fun with food and savour each and every bite – even if your plate is sitting in a sea of textbooks!