How to Be Vegan in College

It seems like the majority of people who are becoming conscious about what they eat and are turning towards a healthier, more sustainable and ethical lifestyle are young people. While some older individuals are turning to a plant-based or vegan lifestyle for health reasons, it seems like there are even more young people in college turning to healthier diets. Transitioning into a healthier lifestyle while being in college may seem difficult. However, provided you have the correct tools and knowledge, it can be worry-free and easy. Below I explain how to eat a vegan/plant-based diet while you are still in college.

For those living off campus

The main thing that university students worry about is not whether or not they can find vegan or plant-based options and the grocery store but how much the food costs. If you are concerned about eating vegan on a budget, check out my article Healthy on a Budget. It has useful tips and lots of advice for what to buy and what not to buy. Basically, if you want to eat vegan on a budget in college buy staples, in bulk, in-season, canned and frozen.

There is no need to create over-the-top meals like your mama makes. The idea of a balanced meal with ingredients from all five food groups is outdated. More important than the food groups are the nutrients you consume. Therefore, there is no shame in eating simply but nutritiously. This can mean banana smoothies for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This can mean eating a meal of baked potatoes topped with salsa. This can mean eating a minimalistic meal of cooked brown rice topped with a stir-fry or a little sweet and sour sauce. I understand most university students don’t have much interest in creating elaborate meals. By choosing a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) (vegan) diet, you don’t need to worry about meals being “balanced”; the food you consume will be more nutritious than meals of ramen noodles and takeaway pizza that other students eat.

college food pyramid

A plant-based diet is so much better than the standard college student’s diet!

On the other hand, if you are interested in creating more extensive meals, this objective is attainable as well. Make sure to check out the recipes under the Healthy Recipes section on the website. Earthy Shepard’s Pie will is a surefire crowd-pleaser that looks complicated but isn’t difficult to whip up.

For those living on campus

Your strategy to eating a WFPB diet is different than individuals who live off campus. I didn’t have trouble eating a plant-based diet while living on campus at NDSU for my second semester. My most helpful advice to those living on campus: be informed.

Being informed means you know what ingredients your food contains. NDSU provided commercially available cereals to eat for breakfast so I chose a few, looked them up and discovered if I wanted to eat them. Nowadays nearly every college student owns a smart phone and keeps it on their person nearly 24/7. My phone became my most useful tool when deciding what to eat. I looked online to see what ingredients were in commercially available products (like cereals) and what the university dining centers were serving for their meals. My university was kind enough to put up weekly menus and the ingredients for each prepared food option they served. They also kept breads and other prepared foodstuffs in original packaging so I could easily see the ingredients in each food item. Your university may or may not serve premade options that are vegan friendly, such as refried beans or pasta with marinara sauce. If they don’t have the information about their food online, you can ask them in person about any animal products such as meat, dairy, eggs, etc. they use in the process of preparing foods. They need to know these facts for those who have allergies.


Disregarding the fact that it contains lots of nasty ingredients (enriched flour and oil- ick!), one can clearly see that this product is not vegan

It is possible to eat simple and complex in the dining centers on a college campus. Because cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals it is possible to eat cereal with soy/rice milk for each meal with piece of fruit. Or you could have sandwiches for your meals. On the other hand you can prepare your own meals provided that your university supplies ingredients, utensils and ways of cooking. NDSU offered hot stovetops, basic spices, a salad bar, a sandwich bar and a rice cooker (with cooked white rice) to the students. The meal I most often made was vegetable stir fry with rice. I also experimented with my meals and made interesting substitutes. I made “beanadillas”— mashed beans between two tortillas (like a quesadilla but with beans).

Going out to eat

Eating at restaurants is a common social activity that college students engage in. Eating vegan at a restaurant is not terribly challenging. Yes, food served at restaurants will be less nutritious and healthy than food prepared at home. Yet as long as you don’t make going out to eat a weekly activity, eating a meal once in awhile that has been nutritionally compromised by extra sodium or oil won’t impede your health. Chain restaurants have ingredient information on their websites that allows you to decide what to eat before you arrive. is a good resource for vegans who want to know what restaurants in the area are vegan, vegetarian or veg-friendly. While Vegweb won’t help determine whether or not the food is healthy, it’s a good place to start.  In general, Asian cuisines are the best places to find plant-based meals. Here is how to order at other types of restaurants:

  • Spanish- choose a rice dish or a soup. Watch out for meat stocks, dairy and seafood.
  • Italian- choose a pasta dish (regular or gnocchi) with marinara, risotto (no butter or cheese) or a cheeseless pizza. Watch out for cheese and eggs.
  • American- try a soup and salad combo. Watch out for milk, eggs and cheese.
  • French- choose a bean, vegetable or potato dish. Watch out for butter, cheese and eggs.
  • German- choose a bread or potato dish with sauerkraut. Watch out for eggs, meat and milk.

While on the topic of vegans in college I will briefly take a moment to discuss drinking alcohol as it is commonly associated with the college experience. The main thing that I have to say about alcohol is that it is okay in moderation. You are the individual who ultimately decides how healthy you want to be. Alcohol may or may not fit into your desired level of health. Some alcohol is clarified with isinglass— a fish product. Research is necessary to determine which alcohols use this method for clarification. While alcohol doesn’t promote health, drinking alcohol responsibly every now and then is acceptable. Alcohol may appear to be necessary to experience the “real” college experience, however the most important experience in college is not drinking and partying but establishing friendships, connections and relationships. If you don’t desire to drink alcohol you can find individuals with similar desires in your college and around the community.

In short, eating healthy (and vegan) in college is all about being diligent, conscious and informed. Enjoy the food that you make and you will set yourself up for a healthy life.

  • Updated a couple of years ago
Sara Binde

Sara is a health and nutrition coach. She advocates for a whole foods plant-based lifestyle and teaches the world how to achieve weight loss.