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Liz Homan is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in English and Education at The University of Michigan. Her research focuses on secondary teachers' digital practices and social networks. You can find her on Twitter at @lizhoman or on her blog, Gone Digital

Maybe you’ve heard that old adage, “you are what you eat,” and you’ve resolved to change your graduate eating habits in the coming year. Or maybe you have a locavorian disposition, and you try to find fresh vegetables, meats, and fruits in your local area when you can. Or perhaps, like most graduate students, you’re struggling to keep food in the pantry as you wait for the first teaching assistantship payment to arrive. Regardless of which category best describes your situation, it’s hard to deny that when it comes to graduate student health, food matters, and it matters in different ways and for different reasons depending on where you are in the process. My fellow Hackers have talked about maintaining health via mindfulnessmeditation, and smart networking – here are some thoughts on food habits that will improve your graduate student life and health, from the first year to the final one.

The first few years of graduate school are spent on campus, where temptations abound. In the first two years, we are moving around for most of the day, trying to juggle coursework with teaching and research assistantships. We are bonding with people in our programs, getting to know our cohort-mates, and learning how to tackle the early stressors of graduate school. These factors often add up to lunches on the run, snacks from the vending machine, or donuts nabbed from a table in the graduate lounge or morning seminar. But there are better options for the all-over-campus graduate student. Here are a few alternatives to a burrito or slice of pizza (or that oh-so-tempting donut on the table ten feet from you):

  • Bring food to campus. This might sound obvious, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt too rushed in the morning to throw a lunch together. Going to campus empty-handed means you have no option but to go in search of food. Even if you will only be on campus for a few hours, grab an apple, banana, or some nuts. A friend of mine buys a day-old baguette, makes a giant peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, cuts it up, and freezes the portions for her weekly lunches. Keeps her lunch bag cold and thaws by lunchtime!
  • Eat socially, but don’t let eating be the only way you socialize. It’s especially important that we network with our colleagues throughout the graduate process. But this doesn’t mean that every networking opportunity needs to involve food or drink, nor does it mean you must go “out” for meals. Consider cohort potlucks somewhere on campus once a week (or month), or set a regular picnic date with someone in your program. And when you do eat out, check out this good advice on nutritious eating out from The University of Wisconsin’s Health Services.

About halfway through graduate school, we retreat into our theses, which can mean different things in different disciplines. In the social sciences, this might mean a period of data collection at an off-campus site; in the humanities, perhaps long hours spent in library archives. This stage of graduate school sometimes takes us away from campus and lands us at an isolated desk, placing major demands on our stamina and brainpower as we begin taking on problems we’ve never encountered or tackled on our own before. Here are a few ideas for the thesis-writing grad:

  • Eat foods that make you full and power your brain. This can mean a few different things, but after speaking to a number of graduate students, the favorites include nuts, dried fruits, peanut butter (in sandwiches or on celery with raisins – also known as “ants on a log”), bananas, and oats. A few additions of mine for this list include chia seeds, tasteless little seeds that you can add to anything and they will help you feel full, and yogurt, especially the well-drained Greek stuff.
  • Make mealtime break time. For me, this means sitting in front of my computer with either feedly, Twitter, or CNN on the screen – no looking at data, no thinking about writing. Give yourself at least a half-hour break to eat slowly, to give your brain a break, to enjoy your meal! Consider it a reward for a productive morning, or a good way to launch into your afternoon refreshed and ready-to-go.

Need to save some money? Maybe fresh produce from the local farmer’s market is a little hard on a graduate student budget, but it is probably cheaper than the pastry at the local coffee shop! Try tracking your charges for a week to see how much you spend eating out. Then, compare that number to prices of things you usually avoid at the grocery store due to expense. Do they offset one another? Here are a few other money-saving options that have helped me stay on budget while still eating well:

  • Make what you can from scratch. In our household, the yogurt and chicken/beef broth is always homemade. Think about things you buy often, and ask yourself – can I make that?
  • Shop specials, sales, and clearances. But be judicious about it with food. Are mangoes on sale? If they’re ripe, turn them into smoothies quickly! Also shop sales for other things in your life – this will leave more money for good food!
  • Swap with friends. Recipes. Canned goods. Frozen casseroles. Home-grown vegetables.
  • Stick to the seasons. Sometimes this means being sick of squash come November, but we try to buy whatever is in season, because it is usually on sale.
  • Try canning (or freezing). For the fiercely dedicated among you, this is an extension of sticking to the seasons. Buy what you can in bulk, make extra, and freeze or can it. Here is some canning info, in case you’re curious.

We all have our food vices, too – and that’s okay! Many of my friends, when asked what their favorite “grad foods” were, mentioned the necessary morning (or afternoon, or evening) coffee. And never underestimate the comforting value of a giant piece of red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting – or even that donut that’s been tempting you all morning! One of my professors passed Ghirardelli chocolates around during breaks – a welcome shot of sweet in the middle of a 3-hour thinking session. The good news: eating highly nutritious, satisfying foods during the rest of the day ensures that these necessary grad school indulgences will not do damage to your health, energy, or waistline. Besides, cutting out these treats often backfires. Instead of trying to abandon indulgences, get inventive about ingredient swaps and practice moderation.

What are some of your favorite graduate school foods for brainpower, energy, and portability? Comment and share below!

[Image from Sakurai Midori and used under Creative Commons License]

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