a vegan college guide to survive & thrive

Since I am about to graduate college, what better time to share my college tips and advice than right now?
It’s also an appropriate time to share these particular tips because May 1, 2016, marks my official day I began living a plant-based lifestyle. My veganniversary, if you will. How exciting is it that two years ago, I adopted a truly healthy relationship with food and became an advocate for compassion and sustainability?! I’m still going strong and plan to be for the indefinite future.

For those of us living on a college campus, we feel like we have to reconfigure our lives even more than the average student to make veganism possible. Especially for those of us living on smaller campuses where required meal plans don’t offer us too many options to work with.
It sucks. But it isn’t impossible. In fact, you can eat some decent food to fuel you through grueling projects and study sessions. Here is my vegan guide to surviving college.

1. Know what you’re getting into.

I think anybody who wants to begin the transition to a vegan lifestyle, that is amazing. Undergoing the transition in college, however, is often a tricky situation.
Please know that veganism is not and should not be considered simply a “diet” or a “fad.” It’s so much more than what you put into your mouth. Before you take the plunge into eating a brand-new lifestyle, do your research and have a really strong reason why you’re doing it.
When I first tried out going vegan, I went about it the very wrong way. I used it as another way to restrict my calories that wasn’t sustainable or healthy. I wasn’t educated about veganism, and I became vegan in college when I had the freedom to do so and easily mask the fact I was using it as a way to “stay skinny.”
Even those without disordered pasts can still misuse and misunderstand veganism and what it’s truly all about: compassion, health, and sustainability. Some of the most engaging sources of information are documentaries like Cowspiracy and Forks Over Knives. Arm yourself with the facts first, and you’ll be more prepared and informed going into veganism at college where people are bound to ask questions and dining services are likely still behind the times.

2. EAT!

First off, and I stress this the most, eat enough calories. The staples of a vegan diet are naturally lower in calories than animal products. It can feel weird when we’re so used to thinking about small, specific portions to maintain, but abundance is key when you’re eating fruits, veggies, grains and legumes. If you don’t feel energized after you eat and your stomach is growling throughout the day, your body is telling you to eat more food. So just do it. Carb up.
Don’t only chow down on the carbs, but keep your meals as balanced as possible. You certainly don’t need to be counting macros and that hullabaloo, but be mindful of what you put into your body. Lots of “accidentally vegan” foods that are likely available (hello, Oreos), but that doesn’t make you and your body feel their best. Eat as fresh as possible, focusing on a variety of whole foods, but make do when you have to.
Plus, Oreos are delicious. They bypass your stomach and go straight to your soul. That’s…science…right?

3. Think outside the box.

When it comes to navigating the dining hall, it’s time to get creative. In my case, my college provides an okay salad bar and at least one vegan meal option per day. Over the course of my college career, they’ve (somewhat) stepped up their game by offering rice and beans and another vegan option at lunch and supper (which just shows that people are asking for more healthy food, and companies are slowing but surely responding). The fruit selection is very limited with usually only apples and bananas, sometimes the occasional orange rolls by.
This situation might sound dire, but fear not. Work with your basics and build upon them. Rely on your bases of grains, either rice or pasta, and make friends with that salad bar to dress it up. Grab a wrap or a few slices of bread and build a sandwich using, again, the salad bar. And usually the offered vegan entree isn’t too bad, but if the school lacks variety, the rotation could get old very quickly if you aren’t willing to branch out a little bit.
For me, I have “flex money” every semester to use at on-campus restaurants and convenience stores, so check out your options and learn the art of making any restaurant vegan. Well, most. I have an Einstein’s Bagel, which offers vegan bagels and sandwiches. Qudoba is easily vegan when you avoid meat, cheese and sour cream. Run over the Papa John’s and order yourself a vegan pizza, just lose the cheese and pile on the veg. Now Chick-fil-a is trickier. Unless you just want to eat a bunch of fries, I’m not judging. The “c-stores” generally have some fruit available, along with potential snacks (if you’re into the accidentally vegan items). Again, creativity is encouraged.

4. Be mindful with your budget.

The number of schools expanding their variety of fresh, plant-based foods is very promising. But we still have a long way to go.

I know, money is tight during school for all of us. But sometimes we have to head over to the local grocery store for some more oomph. Especially in the fruit department. Those specialty meat and dairy replacements and snack foods look very tempting, but if you stick to the basics, veganism is the cheapest lifestyle on the planet. Along with paying attention to seasonal fruits and any deals, you can never go wrong with potatoes, rice, beans, and oatmeal. This also means you have to learn how to cook your own food. I personally love cooking, but it’s just a basic life skill I feel like we all need.
My local grocery store has a full aisle full of organic products that I could easily spend hours strolling through, but be careful to not get too caught up on the fancy labels. With all those key words like “organic” and specifically labeled “vegan” processed foods, you’re paying more. Often, the generic brands still work; just make sure to read ingredient labels to make sure no sneaky eggs or milk are going into your products.

5. Be gentle with yourself.

Sorry to say, but you will make mistakes. Probably a lot in a college environment. If your dining program doesn’t share its nutritional information, or you’re in a pinch without any possible vegan options, you’ll probably eat an animal product. We’ve all done it, and it’s okay. Use that opportunity to evaluate how that food affected your body and how it made you feel. Chances are, it’ll just help you appreciate veganism even more. And your mistake could help show someone else interested in veganism to not be scared or hesitant about it. The transition is truly a process full of obstacles, but in the end, it’s so worth it.

6. Speak up!

Although I really haven’t done much to promote action and awareness, if you’re interested in contacting your dining program to discuss providing more options tailored toward vegans, that is amazing. If everybody were to just meander along, silently struggling without wanting to cause a ruckus, we would never see change in anything. Veganism is becoming a very prominent concept in society, so the more we can educate others into an approachable and reasonable life decision, the easier veganism will become for everyone.
I hope one day in the near future we see widespread vegan options, but for now, we make do. I feel like college is a fantastic time to make that transition as you’re learning more about yourself and the world. Don’t let cafeteria food scare you. The fact that we eat decaying flesh is scary enough.
Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie
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