How we look after ourselves at university can dramatically affect how we perform physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially.

If you’re heading off to university, chances are that good nutrition is last on your list of priorities — unless, of course, you are studying nutrition...

Yet eating well, some exercise and good quality sleep are important tools in your student survival kit.

Good nutrition

Most of us can exist on poor quality food, yet we wouldn’t put the wrong fuel into a car.

Recently [in Autumn 2019] it was reported that a teenager who lived off crisps, chips, white bread and an occasional slice of ham or sausage not only lost some of his hearing but was registered blind by the age of 17.

This is an extreme case but demonstrates that eating just to satisfy hunger isn’t enough.

Macro and micronutrients

Macronutrients are the nutrients that we consume in large amounts. These include fibre, protein, fat and carbohydrates.

Micronutrients are the nutrients that we eat in small or trace amounts. These include the entire range of vitamins and minerals. We should be able to get adequate amounts from a varied diet.

Knowledge is power

Knowing how to cook is a great way to nurture friendships — and look after yourself!

But if you can’t cook, fear not — ask friends and family to show you how, look at cookbooks and find tips online.

Liam, a fifth-year medical student, told Optimum Nutrition that when he started university he was “scared” in the kitchen.

These days, he is proud of his culinary skills — although it took him a few years to get there.

Catered halls

For Liam, living in catered halls in his first year was a useful but imperfect arrangement because the canteen was not synchronised to appetite or timetable.

“I wasn’t necessarily hungry [when the canteen was open] or I had activities which clashed, such as hockey training. So I ended up missing a lot of meals and eating toast in my room,” he says.

The canteen food didn’t always hit the spot, either.

“I found the dinners to be very poor quality and often just consisted of a dry piece of meat, soggy veg and copious pasta [or] potatoes to bulk out the meals.”

He says catered students had £5.30 meal cards which enabled them to buy meal deals at the university restaurants and cafés, but there the options were mainly “burgers, pizza, burritos etc.” and he found it difficult to find nutritious food.

Like many first year students, Liam gained weight. “I definitely found… [that I] felt a lot more bulky than I had before and didn’t feel very in control of what I was eating.”

Student house

After moving into a shared house in his second year, Liam attempted to cook in what he describes as probably the first time in his life.

He says: “The food was bland and I was too scared to attempt following recipes out of fear of my lack of skills.”

Yet, for Liam, takeaways were not the answer either. “With takeaways... I have found that the allure of them is never as satisfying as they make you feel... afterwards I feel greasy and very self-conscious of what I had put in my body.”

Learning with recipe boxes

Half way through his fourth year, on his mother’s advice, Liam began using recipe boxes to learn to cook.

Because these are delivered with easy recipes and ready-measured ingredients, they gave him the confidence to cook meals he would never have attempted before.

“Once I did I absolutely loved it, and still thoroughly enjoy it now,” he says.

“I’ve cooked classic dishes that I never before would have attempted, like lasagne and cottage pie, to more exciting meals like kung pao chicken, fish cakes and ramen noodle bowls.

“Each week there are new recipes... and the meals predominantly take between 20 and 40 minutes to cook.

“This for me is perfect as they keep me engaged and don’t take too long. I viewed cooking as a chore before... but no longer.”

Cooking to impress

Liam tried various recipe boxes before settling on one brand. He adds that since using recipe boxes, he and his girlfriend have barely eaten the same meal twice.

“We’ve loved trying out things we hadn’t heard or wouldn’t have thought of... they’ve made me fall in love with my own home cooked food.

“I’m less embarrassed when I cook for my girlfriend as I have confidence in my skills and what I’m making.”

He is also more aware now of what goes into his food and how it makes him feel.

“I have definitely found I feel better when I’ve had a run of eating good healthy meals... the whole experience of university life is making me more aware of what my body likes, what fuels me better to play sport, and how I feel about myself.

“Good homemade food, coupled with an active lifestyle are a necessity.”

“As a medical student wellbeing is extremely important, especially in regards to mental health. The course is very intense and can be extremely stressful, so a good diet especially around exam time can be beneficial.”

Build a repertoire

So if you struggle in the kitchen, learning just a few simple recipes will stand you in good stead for university.

Liam suggests learning to cook in a relaxed environment and to use time at home, perhaps during holidays, to build up a repertoire of six or seven meals — with the help of a relative if need be.

“Being able to cook six or seven meals well allows you to settle into uni without having to worry about learning to cook.”

And if you do try recipe boxes, Liam suggests looking out for deals and offers.

"Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t be afraid to make some rubbish meals,” he says. “As with everything in life, failure is the best way to succeed, and allows you to rectify mistakes.”

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