How to Avoid the Freshman 15 (or sometimes 20)

I have 3 daughters, each 5 years apart, and all were fortunate enough to go to college. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about how to help kids transition into living independently and learning to take care of themselves.  

How to manage food in college is a big deal. It’s right up there with time management, developing good sleep habits, study habits and self control. All of those will be tested. As parents, we helped them understand what their bodies needed to make them feel and do their best. As young adults, they may or may not have grasped what it takes to take good care of themselves, and watching them make those mistakes can be painful. Here are some things I’ve learned.



  1. Choose the right meal plan.
    Most freshmen live on campus and have access to a cafeteria and meal plan. Your tendency might be to sign them up for the 3 meals a day + snacks 7 days a week. After all, the LAST thing you want is for your child to be hungry. The reality is that these days, with so many different sources of food, it’s easy to get food from many places. Friday night’s evening meal may often be pizza or sub sandwiches, out or ordered in. Really talk through the meal plan options with your son or daughter. You can always add on, but they usually don’t let you subtract meals from your plan. If you don’t use them, you usually lose them.
  2. Come up with a list of healthy snacks for their dorm fridge.
    It’ll happen that your student will forfeit the cafeteria and eat something out of their dorm fridge, especially if they have an early morning class. Encourage them to EAT SOMETHING before they head out or at least pack something for later. Good snacks for the dorm room include hard boiled eggs, deli meat and bread, peanut butter, protein bars, fruits, carrots, low sugar cereal, milk, yogurt and nuts, cottage cheese and popcorn. The inevitable snacking is another reason why that meal plan doesn’t have to be the absolute biggest.
  3. Teach them how to make healthy snacks.
    If you give them good fresh ingredients, they need to know what to do with them. Spend a little time coming up with simple things for them to make. Watch quick cooking videos for ideas. There are lots of easy video recipes that teach your student tricks on how to make snacks in their dorm room. Remember that protein stays with you longer and boosts brain power. Include protein in all your meals and snacks.
  4. Talk to them about waiting too long to eat.
    This is a classic freshman problem. They don’t get up for breakfast and by the time they are done with their morning classes, it’s early afternoon and they are ready to eat their hands off. They wolf down 3 or 4 large servings of pasta and then feel really bad for the rest of the day and may or may not eat a decent dinner. That is the formula for slowing your metabolism down to a screeching halt. They need to develop a habit of eating something before they start classes so they will make better eating choices the rest of the day. They also need to pack a snack for midmorning or midday to keep that metabolism burning efficiently and to boost their brain power.

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  5. Talk to them about portion control.
    College cafeteria food has more calories than homemade meals. Talk about healthy portions. This is where waiting too long to eat comes into play also. It’s easier to make healthy choices if you are not starving. Use a small plate and give your body 10 or 15 minutes to feel full before going back in line and filling up your plate again.
  6. Discuss the energy drink dilemma.
    Another classic college food problem is their decision to consume energy drinks to keep them going. This is usually related to poor sleeping habits or just not getting enough sleep, but it can end up being a disaster for some. The first time my daughter called me after she was all stoked up on an energy drink, I thought for sure she was on something. Exactly 5 hours later, she was in a heap sleeping it off and missing her class. Encourage them to fight the urge to stay up too late because, well, they can, or because everyone else is or because they procrastinated and are up against the wall on a deadline. Good food and good sleep keep you straight.


  7. Prepare for the meltdown.
    When they call you, and they are having a meltdown do this: 90% of the time when the girls called me super-stressed out, I’d asked them when they ate and showered last. Seriously, most of the time, after they had something to eat and had a hot shower, they were much better. They test the limits of what their minds and bodies can live on, or can’t live without, and sometimes the combination they choose doesn’t work and they fall apart. The beauty of being young is that a shower and a sandwich can sometimes fix things.
  8. Encourage them to get regular exercise.
    Most colleges have so many great opportunities to keep active. It will help their bodies work better, and it will reduce stress and keep them focused. No need to be an athlete — just grab a buddy and do something 3 times a week. Run, walk, build a snowman, join an exercise group, hike — anything. Just do it.
  9. Remind them that alcohol has lots of calories and so does the late-night pizza after that beer.
    There is a chance that your student will be exposed to alcohol in college. Teach them what they need to know before they go to college so they aren’t going into it blind. One out of my 3 kids didn’t experiment with alcohol at all before going to college, but she did have a good understanding of the “science” of alcohol. That, and she watched her two older sisters make bad choices and decided she wanted no part of it.
  10. Be mindful about what you eat.
    Think about it for just a second. If you’ve had a good food day, then enjoy that small sweet thing. If it’s been a high-sugar day (watch out for those coffee drinks) then just say no.


  11. Mistakes will be made—be prepared.
    They’re gonna screw up. It’s hard to watch your kid come home for the holidays and she or he is 10 pounds heavier, or even worse 10 pounds lighter. When they come home for their first winter break, they are usually exhausted, sort of smelly and sound like they have a plague. It takes them a while to figure it out, and at the end of day, sometimes they need to learn things the hard way.


  12. Expect some anxiety.
    Since there are 10 years between my youngest and oldest, I’ve notice an increase in what is now an epidemic called “social anxiety”. Not all communication can be solved with a text or a… snap…whatever… but they will avoid talking to anyone in person like the plague. Oh, and they’ll call you and ask you what to do. Like you know. My advice: let them know asking for help is not a sign of weakness, and it will get easier the more they do it. Anxiety is part of life unless it’s an unhealthy amount. Try to learn how to manage it.
  13. Remind your student to keep things clean.
    About mid-first-semester, a lot of kids come down with a cold or the flu. It’s always tough to get the phone call from them telling you they are not well. One thing that they can do to avoid this is to keep things clean. The “floordrobe” isn’t the problem. It’s the unclean dishes and bathroom where the bacteria is growing. Your student needs to disinfect every once in a while, as well as wash their sheets more than once a semester. I was told when I was young that sheets and pillowcases were like underwear for your bed. That stuck with me and motivated me to keep my bedding clean.

Dropping your child off for college is both happy and sad. They are about to start a very exciting and important time in their life, but it can be hard to let go. Mistakes will be made but in a controlled environment. You’ve given them the tools and now it’s time for them to use them. The school year will go fast, and before you know it, they’ll be home for the summer. That’s a whole different story ;)

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