The Grad Student’s Guide to Healthy Eating

Whether you’re cramming for midterms or spell-checking your thesis after hours, it’s easy to reach for a Snickers… or Cool Ranch Doritos… or a frozen meal that comes in a plastic bag or a cardboard box. Good nutrition and good grades don’t have to be mutually exclusive, though. From healthy eating hacks to our free downloadable meal plan, learn how to boost your nutrition while boosting your grades.

Our bodies need fuel to survive, but they need nutrition to thrive. Good nutrition improves your overall physical health and positively affects your energy levels, mental clarity and concentration, immune system, and even your sleep. Simply put, when you eat better, you feel better. When you feel better, you think better, and the ability to think clearly and concentrate for long periods is crucial for success in grad school.

Healthy eating is not always easy, though, especially in a culture filled with drive-through windows and processed convenience store snacks. Navigating the ever-changing health guidelines, trends, and claims is challenging and requires diligence. Knowing where to start, learning to maximize your time, and spending wisely combine to make healthy eating more sustainable. To help in that effort, this guide provides healthy eating basics, meal prep steps, and healthy eating hacks to make healthy eating easier for even the busiest grad student.

Know the Basics (and Yourself)

A major reason healthy eating is so difficult is that no one-size-fits-all approach exists with our varying metabolisms, body types, schedules, and dietary preferences and needs. Be wary of anyone purporting to have the magic bullet for weight loss or the formula for healthy eating. Don’t be dismayed, however, because it is possible to discover a path that works for you when you start with nutrition basics and have a sense of what you want.

What’s on Your Plate?

Start by evaluating your current eating habits. The USDA’s My Plate Quiz examines what you are eating now and makes recommendations on how to improve your nutrition as well as provides resources to help you better understand it. Starting with nutrient-dense foods, this tool helps you select healthy foods that fill you up. Nutrient density refers to the ratio of nutrients to calories, and foods scoring high in nutrient density are foods you want to reach for more often.

My Plate breaks your plate down into these categories:

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables consistently have high nutrient density scores and are allotted half your plate for this reason. They are high in nutrients and low in fat, sodium, and calories. Consume primarily whole fruits to get fiber along with carbohydrates. For vegetables, vary your choices to round out your nutrient intake.


Protein needs vary based on age, sex, height, weight, and other factors like pregnancy or nursing status. Most Americans get enough protein, but you should try to vary your protein sources and select leaner meats often. Proteins from beans, nuts, and eggs can help reduce the amount of saturated fat you consume.


Ideally, most of your carbohydrates come from consuming grains, though fruit has carbohydrates as well because of the natural sugars. Unprocessed whole grains (e.g., brown rice, whole wheat flours and bread, oatmeal, and bulgur/cracked wheat) are the most nutrient-dense. Grains provide key nutrients like fiber, complex carbohydrates, B vitamins, and magnesium.

Intuitive Eating

An intuitive eating mindset rejects diet culture and instead embraces the body’s natural cues. Paying attention to hunger and fullness cues allows you to be satiated and avoid overeating. Intuitive eating also avoids labeling foods as “good” or “bad” and instead relies on the individual to pay attention to how certain foods make them feel and basing food choices on that. Many nutritionists recommend this approach because it affirms a person’s ability to make healthy choices based on listening to their body and fueling it in a way that feels best for them. Eating spurred by emotions is detrimental to both physical and mental health since food does not actually help resolve negative emotions. Embracing intuitive eating means you’re working to establish a healthy relationship with food.

Calorie Balance

If you listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues and are practicing intuitive eating, , you shouldn’t need to track calories. Calorie intake needs vary depending on your activity and energy outputs on a given day. Every person has an average calorie need to maintain weight, and you may benefit from calorie tracking if you’re unexpectedly losing or gaining weight. Unexplained weight loss or gain can also be a symptom of an underlying health condition, eating disorder, or other cause, so talk to your primary care doctor, therapist, or another health professional if you have unexplained weight changes. You can also obtain information about eating disorders and treatment through the National Eating Disorders Association.

Unprocessed Whole Foods

One of the simplest tests ways to evaluate the nutrition of a food is by counting the number of ingredients. Foods with a single ingredient are ideal because they are whole, unprocessed foods and naturally higher in nutrients than processed foods with numerous ingredients. Loading up your grocery cart with food from the perimeter of the store where more whole foods are found helps ensure you eat more whole foods. Also aim to buy foods with five or fewer ingredients to cut back on highly processed foods.

Sugar in Moderation

Because no foods should be labeled “good” or “bad” according to the principles of intuitive eating, sugar is not something you have to avoid at all costs, however, moderating your intake is beneficial. Sugar is often added to foods you might not expect, so it’s easy to consume more than you realize. Additionally, sugar contains little nutritional value and contributes to energy crashes, so limiting your consumption may help you have steadier energy. A balance of complex carbohydrates, proteins, and high-quality fats provides more consistent energy. Avoiding soda and other sugary drinks is a great first step to limiting sugar. Make a habit of reading nutrition labels and checking for added sugars.

Morning (Only) Cup o’ Joe

Many of us enjoy the ritual of a morning cup of coffee or tea, but according to Authority Nutrition, consuming too much caffeine or consuming it too late in the day often contributes to disrupted sleep, irregular energy levels, and increased feelings of anxiety. If you start relying more on your caffeine intake than hours of sleep for energy, consider making sleep a higher priority and limiting your caffeine intake to earlier in the day. Graduate school can make getting enough sleep difficult, but providing your body with better fuel with a balanced diet will also help optimize your energy and focus.

Water, Water Everywhere

According to the USGS an adult’s body is 55-60% water, and many people underestimate how much water they need to drink in a day. A good baseline is to drink half of your current body weight in ounces. For example, someone weighing 160 pounds should drink 80 ounces of water a day. Proper hydration improves energy levels, hunger and satiety cues, and overall health. Drink up!

Meal Prep: Step-by-Step

One of the best ways to eat healthily is through a meal prep habit. Planning ahead helps you balance your diet by creating a deliberate approach to choosing a variety of healthy meals and snacks. It also saves you time and avoids choosing what to eat when you are already hungry. Meal prep requires planning, but it doesn’t have to be a daunting task. You can plan your whole week and pre-prep meals to cook at home or eat on the go based on your schedule. Here’s a step-by-step approach to meal prep.

Step 1: Find the Time

Set aside one day a week to plan meals, grocery shop, and prep. If completing all these tasks in one day does not fit your schedule, plan and shop on one day and meal prep the next. Numerous meal planning apps exist to help you organize your menu and grocery list and to keep track of your favorite recipes. Streamlining your meal planning process can establish a rhythm of meal planning, especially once you’ve done it a while, and can quickly fill out your menu with staples from past weeks. For example, a rotation of favorite balanced breakfasts like oatmeal, eggs, nut butter on toast, yogurt and fruit, and cereal can quickly be placed on a meal plan each week.

Step 2: Make Your Menu

When choosing a menu, prioritize foods that make you feel your best and that compose a balanced diet. Use MyPlate as a starting point, then gather your list of meals and place them on your calendar. Choosing meals that build on one another allows you to cook once and eat twice. If you’re making grilled chicken tonight, for example, use the leftover grilled chicken tomorrow on a hearty salad for lunch. Planning meals helps manage your grocery bill by creating less food waste and saving you money. If you are not sure where to start, try the healthy meal prep calendar and shopping list below. It’s free and removes uncertainty and guesswork.

1-Week Meal Plan Template +

Step 3: Make a List and Check It Twice

Our bodies need fuel to survive, but they need nutrition to thrive. Good nutrition improves your overall physical health and positively affects your energy levels, mental clarity and concentration, immune system, and even your sleep. Simply put, when you eat better, you feel better. When you feel better, you think better, and the ability to think clearly and concentrate for long periods is crucial for success in grad school.

Healthy eating is not always easy, though, especially in a culture filled with drive-through windows and processed convenience store snacks. Navigating the ever-changing health guidelines, trends, and claims is challenging and requires diligence. Knowing where to start, learning to maximize your time, and spending wisely combine to make healthy eating more sustainable. To help in that effort, this guide provides healthy eating basics, meal prep steps, and healthy eating hacks to make healthy eating easier for even the busiest grad student.

Step 4: Make It Portable

For busy people, meal prep containers make eating on the go sustainable. You can invest in microwaveable meal storage containers, mason jars, bento containers, or reusable baggies based on what suits your needs and preferences. Microwaveable containers work well for storing and heating pre-prepped meals or leftovers. Stacked salads, soups, and overnight oats can all be stored and transported in mason jars. Bento containers are visuals reminder to vary what you’re eating and often have built-in silverware. Reusable baggies work for transporting healthy snacks like pre-cut veggies, fruits, homemade trail mix, or your favorite crackers. Using your prep day to cut up vegetables and pre-cook portions or entire meals saves you time throughout the week. You’ll also likely use fewer ingredients that require cooking to speed up the process. Salad greens, for example, split up into ready-to-grab containers with toppings in a reusable baggie make a great grab-and-go lunch option.

Step 5: Enjoy Yourself

With intuitive eating, dieting is not the mindset. Enjoy your favorite restaurant occasionally. Plan for it and write “Dine Out” on your meal plan for that night. If you are planning to eat out, balance your food choices earlier in the day to account for the fruits and vegetables you might not have with your pizza and wings that night. Keep healthy eating basics in mind and enjoy the pleasure of a meal out knowing you have fueled your body in healthy ways throughout the day.

Alternate idea:

For many grad students, extra time is not abundant. Fortunately, meal prep services can help by doing much of the work for you. If cost is not a major concern, this is a good option. Meal prep services are more expensive than planning, shopping, and preparing your own meals, but they work well for someone who is already crunched for time.

Quick Ideas: Healthy Meals in Minutes

Still not sure how to get started? Decision fatigue, especially for busy grad students, often gets the best of us. To help, we’ve put a list of easy and balanced meal ideas in a downloadable guide to get you started with the basics of meal planning and prepping. After considering the week of sample meals provided on the first page, use the blank page to create your own meal plan and grocery list. Below are easy meal suggestions that you can make ahead, grab, and be on your way.


  • Overnight oats with berries, chia seeds, and Greek yogurt. You can make these in a travel container such as a mason jar and stick it in the fridge. Tomorrow morning’s breakfast will be ready to grab and go when you are!
  • Breakfast protein box: Think hard-boiled eggs, cheese, fruit, raw veggies, and hummus. Mix and match your favorite easy finger foods for an energy-packed breakfast that won’t result in a huge crash.
  • Smoothies are endlessly variable. Make them with protein powder, fruit, and/or veggies. They can be assembled as needed, or you can pre-pack freezer bags with all the ingredients for one smoothie, label it, and quickly make your smoothie in the morning.
  • Freezer breakfast sandwiches, like these from Tastes Better from Scratch, are easily customizable. Choose a protein (e.g., ham, turkey bacon, bacon, sausage, egg), then add your favorite cheese. Wrap sandwiches individually for easy reheating in the microwave. Add minced veggies to your eggs before cooking for extra nutrition.
  • Make on-the-go parfaits by filling a mason with yogurt and fruit. Keep your granola or other crunchy toppings separate and add them right before eating. Parfaits are great because you can prep multiple ones at once and can vary the yogurt type and flavor as well as the fruit and extra toppings.
  • For a much quicker version of pancakes, try this 2-minute pancake bowl from the Jordo’s World blog. Add fresh fruit as a topping or protein powder to the mix for a more satiating breakfast.


  • Lunch protein box: Deli meat, or something less processed like leftover grilled meat, cheese, crackers, your favorite raw veggies, and hummus.
  • A faithful healthy choice, a salad can be topped with veggies and your favorite protein and toppings. Keep your dressing on the side until you’re ready to use it. Vary your greens, protein, and toppings to balance out your nutrition, and try mixing herbs into your greens for an extra kick of flavor.
  • A sandwich or wrap with whole wheat bread, protein, and veggies makes a solid lunch for most people. Add fruit on the side for even more nutrient variety.
  • If you like pasta salad, choose whole-grain pasta and add veggies and protein. In addition to the many varieties of pasta salad you can make as shown in this online roundup of recipes from Ree Drummond, fruit is a great companion to this cold meal.
  • Leftovers are the easiest grab-and-go lunch. Store in a portable container after dinner and label with the date made. Add pre-cut vegetables or a piece of fruit on the side to balance out your lunch.


  • Any of the above lunch recipes work for dinner as well.
  • Pre-prep a protein, veggie, and carb, then pack it up. Eat it cold, or warm it when you’re ready. Choose dishes you enjoy heated or cold for best results.
  • Make this quick bread packed with cheese and herbs from Recipe Tin Eats to serve as a side with any protein and veggie of your choice. Eat fruit as your dessert.
  • These gluten and dairy free Salmon cakes from the Cotter Crunch blog made ahead are great hot or cold. They’re also a great protein topper on a salad.
  • Breakfast for dinner is never a bad choice and whipping up an omelet with veggies, toast, and fruit is never a bad way to end the day.

Dining-out Tips

  • Avoid fried or highly processed foods and look for higher-quality whole foods and ingredients. Don’t be afraid to ask your server for suggestions or about ingredients.
  • Choose water (or sparkling water if you like carbonation). Avoid soda and other empty-calorie drinks.
  • Order a lighter side option like a salad or steamed vegetables instead of fries.
  • Balance is everything. If you plan to join your friends for pizza and beer night, make sure you eat your fruits and vegetables earlier in the day. Plan ahead. The key is to make good choices most of the time while also being flexible, especially when socializing.
  • Take home leftovers. Restaurant portions are often much larger than the recommended size. Stretch that meal into two by bringing home your leftovers.
  • Order first. Don’t let yourself be influenced to choose something less healthy. When your server asks who wants to start, pipe right up. You’ll be less likely to waver in your healthy choice if you go first.

10 Healthy Eating Hacks for Grad Students

  1. Eat slowly and savor your food

    It’s hard to pause and enjoy your food, especially when you are eating on the go, so take the time to enjoy your food and rest your mind. This also gives your body more time to communicate fullness to your brain, which limits overeating.

  2. Be realistic and kind to yourself

    Healthy eating is a habit. You won’t make the transition all at once. Let small steps add up to a big difference over time.

  3. Keep your home stocked with healthy ingredients

    Avoid having a lot of highly-processed convenience food around. When you’re hungry, go to your well-stocked fridge of fruits and vegetables for a between-meal snack.

  4. Use frozen fruits and vegetables if food waste is a challenge

    Depending on the number of people you have in your household, using all your fresh produce can be a struggle. Frozen veggies and fruit are actually packed at the height of the growing season and are a fantastic option for quality veggies, especially during the winter months.

  5. Choose variety

    Few people enjoy eating the same thing repeatedly, so plan for a variety of meals, flavors, and spices to keep your palate excited and your stomach full. Cooking your chicken breast with entirely different flavors, for example, helps avoid monotony. Follow this same principle with fruits, veggies, and grains. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new flavors and cuisine styles.

  6. Make your own salad dressing

    Make your own salad dressing by mixing up a batch of healthy vinaigrette like this simple recipe from Cookie and Kate to keep on hand. Make as much as you need, customize the flavors to your liking, and avoid highly processed salad dressings sold in stores

  7. Vary your cooking methods

    If you already have an arsenal of favorite recipes but many include fried foods, try baking or using the air fryer to lighten up your favorite meals.

  8. Feed yourself

    Don’t skip meals because you’re busy. Plan for busy days by keeping easy-to-grab, healthy, and sustaining snacks like nuts and seeds on hand. Eating regularly keeps your metabolism going and helps avoid making poor food decisions when you’re overly hungry.

  9. Eat at the table

    This signals your brain that you have shifted from working to eating. It also helps you be mindful as you eat and pay attention to your food and your body.

  10. Eat what you enjoy

    This may sound counterintuitive, but remember you are training yourself to listen to your body’s cues. Don’t force yourself to eat foods you hate because they’re “superfoods.” That said, if all you enjoy is pizza, you might need to branch out and try and find more foods you like. Variety and balance are key.

Pro Tips from a Registered Dietician


Katherine Zavodni, is a registered dietitian, nutrition therapist and certified eating disorder dietitian, passionately committed to helping others tune out the external noise to enjoy food and find peace with their bodies. She aims to empower people to resist the world’s message that our bodies are a problem to be fixed. You can find Katherine at and on her Podcast, Feeding Humans.

Q. What are the basic principles of intuitive eating and how does it differ from typical diet culture?

A. Intuitive eating is based on trust that our bodies can guide us toward a pattern of eating that is flexible, satisfying, and meets our needs, and that we don’t need to adhere to external rules and standards in order to achieve a functional eating pattern. Diet culture teaches us that we cannot be trusted, that our bodies cannot be trusted. If we believe our bodies are actually our opponent and not our partner, we must outsource our decision making about how to feed our bodies, and often pay money for products, information, rules, or plans, which is why the diet and wellness industry is worth $70 billion a year. The other critical feature of intuitive eating is that the shape and size of our bodies is not entirely within our control, and does not need to be a deciding factor in how we eat. In fact, if we make our eating decisions based on a desire to change our appearance, we set ourselves up as opponents of our body, become more disconnected with our body and less attuned to our bodies needs. Intuitive eating is about trusting that our bodies will communicate with us if we are willing to listen, and we can best respond and meet those needs if we let go of the thin ideal and the desire to control our bodies according to that standard.

Q. What are the most common misconceptions you encounter about intuitive eating?

A. The most common misconception is that eating intuitively is equivalent to gorging on “junk” foods and being totally out of control, or alternatively, maybe it works for some people but for me, who has no willpower, I would only ever eat French fries and milkshakes and Snickers bars. When we first begin to let go of rigid food rules and the illusion of control they provide, we may feel a bit out of control, and that may feel scary, but with unconditional permission to eat any and all foods we choose to, we eventually habituate to the more palatable foods that used to be off limits, and they lose a lot of their power. Once that habituation takes place, our bodies naturally crave a variety of foods, including foods that are conventionally thought of as “healthy.” This allows us to eat foods we enjoy across the spectrum, moving away from binary thinking about “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods, and prioritizing satisfaction and pleasure in all the foods we eat.

Q. What are some ways that intuitive eating can help students?

A. Intuitive eating offers lots of benefits for students. Because eating intuitively is responsive to the body’s signals of hunger and satiety, preferences, appetite, etc, the body is consistently well nourished, which allows the body and the brain to function optimally. Because a fraught relationship with food typically means constant preoccupation with food and eating, another benefit of eating intuitively is that it allows food to take up an appropriate, not excessive, amount of mental space, leaving plenty of room for studies and social life.

Q. What are some ways a grad student can find balance in their diet without it taking too much of their time or brain energy?

A. Prioritizing regular meals and snacks that include a combination of carbohydrate, protein, adding fruits and vegetables to a degree that is satisfying and comfortable, is a great way to achieve balance for busy grad students. Some degree of planning and prioritizing is necessary to achieve this consistently, but neglecting that will result in a chaotic and inconsistent food intake, which may jeopardize mental function and energy levels.

Q. How do you strike the balance between knowing what foods make you feel best and what you feel like you “should” be eating with all of the opportunities for eating junk food that college students are presented with?

A. When students give themselves unconditional permission to eat any and all foods, the body naturally craves balance and variety, so that one might enjoy food that would be considered “junk” but also will gravitate toward a variety of other foods across the nutritional spectrum. When we fret about trying to avoid those “junk” foods, our minds become preoccupied with those foods, increasing their appeal and our desire to eat them. That unconditional permission takes some of that assigned power away, neutralizing those foods to some degree. They are still highly palatable, and give us a more pleasurable response to eating them, but if they are morally neutral, we do not have that added compulsive desire to consume them that is triggered when they are “forbidden.”

Q. What advice would you give a grad student who is struggling to find a healthy balance with food?

A. Get clear on what is bothering you the most about food, or what the fear is. Usually there is a lack of trust that results in the struggle with food, specifically that we believe our bodies cannot be trusted. And it’s no wonder, we get this message from every direction, everywhere we go. So identifying the specific beliefs that we have around food and our bodies can help us know how to make shifts to challenge those beliefs. I also strongly encourage students (and everyone else!) who consume social media to curate their feeds to support that body trust, unfollowing accounts that encourage restriction or disordered behavior, and following accounts that embrace body diversity and body trust. It is well documented that social media can be a huge contributor to poor body image, disordered eating, and mental health disturbances, but it is possible to curate a social media experience that is supportive of healthy body image, balanced eating, and positive mental health.