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When I tell people I’m vegan, they normally stare at me for two full — and very awkward — seconds before shaking their head a little bit and asking, “holy crap, you’ve never had cheese?” For the record, I’ve had cheese. And butter, for that matter. Heck, I used to eat steak on a weekly basis. I was not, as most seem to assume, born vegan. That probably would have constituted as a mild form of child abuse because my favorite foods growing up were macaroni and cheese, and ice cream (Lay’s Salt and Vinegar Chips were also up there, but they are dairy-free, so they don’t fit into the story as well). I was born a normal, healthy meat-eater, egg-eater, and dairy-eater.

In ninth grade, I saw a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) video called “Meet your Meat”. I was horrified, shocked, repulsed, etc. It’s basically half-an-hour’s worth of bleeding animals and disease-ridden factories. I think a lot of going vegetarian had to do with the kind of person I was at 14: annoying, stubborn, and attention-hungry. Sure, a lot of my decision was based off the video — the cow footage was especially revolting — but I’d be lying if I said that some of it wasn’t based off of getting to tell everyone the next day that I couldn’t have any of the cafeteria chicken nuggets because suddenly eating an animal was just disgusting. So my vegetarianism began. Soon the novelty of telling people I didn’t eat meat wore off, but I didn’t ever go back to the life of an omnivore. Now, even though more time has passed — seven years, in fact — it’s far less about the reaction than it is about the video. 

But we’re not here to talk about my vegetarianism (though I could have fooled you with that last paragraph). We’re here to discuss my veganism and how I managed to survive most of my college career — still have one year to go — without straying from the dairy-free path. Well, it actually wasn’t that hard for me, but that’s because I made some pretty stupid decisions and sacrificed my health a lot of the time. I’ve been vegan now for five years, so when I first got to college, I had two vegan years under my belt. I was totally prepared, right? Nope, not at all.

So that’s why we’re here. Today, we’re going to use my stupidity to make you, well, not stupid. (Even if you’re not vegan — which is probably 95 percent of readers — there’s some useful stuff in here, I promise).

At college, you’re going to be eating a lot of dining-hall food. Too much, actually. By November, you’ll be sick of it, but your parents bought you a meal plan and you damn better be using it, so, despite your cringing taste buds and tightening waistband, you carry on. But how do you handle being vegan in the dining hall? Are you stuck eating rabbit food? Not necessarily. Will your friends be jealous of your post-year-one body because you are vegan and therefore gained no weight? Ah, if only. These days, most colleges and universities are obscure-diet friendly, meaning they have options for all nutcases out there: They have options that are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, etc (actually that “etc” might not be true). You’re not going to have to sacrifice too much to maintain your vegan lifestyle. Just keep these tips in mind:

1. Fried food isn’t your friend

A Guide to Being Vegan in College French Fries

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Most fried food — French fries, onion rings, fried okra — is actually vegan, which is both wonderful and terrible. It’s wonderful because, come on, it’s fried food. But it’s terrible because, come on, it’s fried food. The point is this: I discovered that every dining hall on my campus served French fries with lunch and dinner every day. So you know what I did? I ate French fries for lunch and dinner every day. Vegans should be able to spoil themselves once in a while, I thought to myself. Of course, I was an idiot and seemed to think that “once in a while” meant “twice a day”. Don’t do what I did. Just because something is vegan doesn’t mean you should eat it. Sure, treat yourself occasionally. Occasionally. Occasionally. Did you catch that? Occasionally.

2. Your salad is tricking you

A Guide to Being Vegan in College Salad Dressing

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“I’m just having salad, so I might as well have three servings.” That was me for a full year. For some reason, in my warped, vegan brain, I seemed to think that a salad was automatically healthy. Nope. Wrong. Of course, salad is healthy a lot of the time, but that means you shouldn’t be smothering your lettuce in dressing. Seriously, imagine your lettuce is a child who can’t swim and the dressing is water. Don’t drown your kid, okay? Just let him play in the sprinkler. Wash him off with the hose. Do not throw him in the deep end of the pool. A lot of delicious dressings are vegan, but — and I hate to tell you this — the more delicious they are, the less good they are for you. Of course, vegans are required to steer clear of Caesar, Thousand Island, and Blue Cheese just by nature, but, once again, just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Go easy on the dressing. You’ll thank me later.

3. Sushi

A Guide to Being Vegan in College Sushi

(Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)

I discovered way too late in the game that one of the dining halls on campus served sushi. Obviously, vegans can eat only vegetarian sushi — which is a huge bummer for some people — but I’ve never liked seafood, so no big deal. Anyway, vegetarian sushi is vegan, and the great part about dining-hall sushi is that it comes in servings. See, the issue with a lot of cafeterias is that you’re given abnormally large amount: If it’s a create-your-own dish — like the salad bar — you’re likely to give yourself a large serving, and the people behind the counter are bound to do the same when they’re making up your plate. Sushi, on the other hand, normally comes in six-piece servings. It’s good for you, it’s filling, and you’re forced to go up and get seconds if you want to eat more.

4. Your Crutch 

A Guide to Being Vegan in College Chipotle

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Find your crutch. Or your not-so-guilty-but-kind-of-guilty pleasure. It’s the place you can hit up whenever you’re sick of dining-hall food or you just need a pick-me-up after you bombed an essay and your boyfriend just hooked up with your best friend (actually, if that happens, you’re going to need something, ah, stronger, than a vegan crutch).  The point is this: Find a restaurant around your campus with a delicious vegan option (a good veggie burger, yummy tofu tacos, a tempeh stir-fry, etc) so you know you’ll always have some place to go when the well runs dry. My personal choice is Chipotle. You probably wouldn’t believe how much I love it or how often I go if I told you. (For my last birthday, my family bought me a share of the company. No, I’m not joking. The employees who work at the one in my hometown know my order and my name. I am far from ashamed.)

Trying to stay healthy and steer clear of the Freshman (or Sophomore, or Junior, or Senior…) 15 seems like an easy task for a vegan, but it’s really not. Scope out your school’s dining halls at the very beginning of the year so you know what each has to offer. Find the one with the best vegan options — no, not the best French fries — and try to head there the most. And please, please, please don’t think something is healthful just because it’s vegan. I learned that one the hard way.

I would keep going, but that would be a whole new post about how Whole Foods saved my life and how embarrassing it is to try to walk into a Costco without a membership card and how it’s really hard to watch friends drunk eat pizza at three in the morning while you beg for pieces of their crust. So, for right now, let’s just stick with surviving the dining halls.

Do you have any other advice for being vegan in college?

Featured photo credit: Mr. Greenjeans via photopin cc