Going away to school is both a huge blessing and curse for those who have struggled with an eating disorder. Since no one knows you’ve struggled with that, you can avoid the fear that people are watching you eat, but the curse is exactly that too: no one is watching what you eat, so no one can keep you accountable.
Most people think, ‘it’s college, so I’ll eat whatever I want.’ But the person in recovery thinks, ‘It’s college, I won’t eat anything.’ – girl in recovery
Even though college can be a time for your eating disorder to potentially re-emerge, there are some things that you can do to stay committed and perhaps get even get stronger in your recovery. You have to be in a place where you are really committed to it and create ways for you to stay and get stronger in recovery. It’s also important to keep in mind that people are in varying phases of recovery and have different needs, so use these guidelines as appropriate to you and ignore the rest!
First thing: picking a school
Just like someone with celiac disease wouldn’t choose a school without gluten free food options, a person in recovery from an eating disorder should choose a school with care. When choosing schools, consider the dining hall situation. As counterintuitive as this may seem, pay attention to what the daily options are. Is there a salad bar with nutritionally adequate toppings? What about certain kinds of sandwiches every day? Do they have some of your favorite on-the-go snacks like a protein bar or yogurt? Are the dining hall hours limited or flexible?
Next thing: preparing for school
Visiting a school for the first time is very daunting. If this doesn’t feel like something you can do right away, make sure to bring a support person with you who can look after you. Consider putting this on that long list of college to-dos and make sure to call or email those who are on the food staff over the summer before class starts. Remember that these people are there to ultimately help you.
Be willing to ask about some of their standard meals offered. If this is overwhelming, ask your dietitian to do this with you during a session. They will be more than willing to call and they might even be able to get the nutrition information from the food staff at your school.
Some questions you or your dietitian can ask the food staff or the residence life staff:
- To the residence life staff: “Is there anyway I can be in a room that has cooking supplies/capabilities? I have some special food needs, and it’s very important that I can cook my own food if necessary.” Some people in recovery have found that it’s very helpful to be able to cook at least some of their own food. Others find they need to move out of their comfort zone and eat food prepared by the dining hall. Either way, the worst thing they can say is no, but at least you’ve asked! You don’t have to be specific and say what is going on; they should respect your dietary needs just like someone with a disability.
- To the food staff: “Is there any way I can have a copy of the nutritional information of some of the main foods you serve? I have some special food needs and it’s important that I know what is in the food being served.” The same goes for this question; the worst thing they can say is no. Most food staff might even have a dietitian that can work with you as an alternative to your own dietitian.
From there, you and your support team can help to make a set of meals that you know will fit in with your plan and that you can start out with. If you live near a local university (or even a local buffet style restaurant), have your dietitian or a trusted support person practice a meal with you. Remember once you’ve been to the dining hall a few times, you’ll learn where everything is and what the menu rotations are (most are 7-21 day cycles) – you will become less anxious because of the unknown.
Setting a plan: creating regular meals and accountability plans
You might first consider all the places you will be eating and for most students, these are their dorm room, the dining hall, and places to eat on or off campus.
“Having the obligation of meeting someone made me do it, but there were many times when, if I didn’t have anyone to eat with, I would skip going to the meal altogether” – one girl in recovery said.
- Dorm: Keep some of your favorite “safe” foods in your room at all times. Going away to college is full of new and unfamiliar things, which can be incredibly triggering for someone who dislikes change AND who has struggled with an eating disorder. Having some familiar, “safe” foods with you at all times can help someone in recovery still have a feeling of control of at least one area of their life but in a healthy way. Good examples: yogurt, applesauce, cheese sticks, single serving packs of nuts, pretzels, chips, etc. It’s helpful to keep some of these “safe” foods on-the-go like protein bars so that if something comes up you can still fuel your body until the next full meal comes.
- On campus: Create a favorite spot on campus, one that you feel comfortable eating in, or that has food nearby. This can be in the library that sells food in a cafe, or a cozy corner somewhere else that you know you feel comfortable if you have to grab a quick snack before a lab or exam. Eat there as often as you need – variety can be overrated at certain times of recovery or stress. For off-campus places, pick a favorite place and meal and use it over and over. For example, a burrito bowl from Chipotle might become your Saturday lunch go-to!
- Accountability: Have a friend meet you for lunch and dinner. You don’t have to tell your friend the details or that you’ve even struggled with an eating disorder. Simply suggest a place off of your meal options or a place you feel comfortable. Being assertive ensures you’re comfortable even though you might want to avoid thinking about where or what you will eat. It’s likely your friend won’t object. For the person in recovery, sometimes it’s just nice to have someone who’s there.
The more someone in recovery is around someone who has healthy habits with food, the more it becomes normal.
It’s important that you plan ahead and lay a good foundation to ensure your success in eating for recovery at college. Stay tuned for parts two and three of this series where we cover triggers, stress, managing social events, dealing with movement and behaviors, and meeting new people.
– 3 Tips to Survive College When You Are Recovering From an Eating Disorder
– College, Recovery and (Relapse) Triggers: How to Stay on Track