Curly-haired female smiling in kitchen with veggies and cucumber slice on eye

A Vegetarian's Guide to College

Though many campus dining halls may offer vegetarian stations, being a vegetarian or vegan can still be tough in college. Luckily, we put together the ultimate guide to eating meat-free while avoiding starvation at your college cafeteria and beyond.

You can’t possibly ask me to go without having some dinner. It’s absurd. I never go without my dinner. No one ever does, except vegetarians and people like that. – Oscar Wilde

Animals are my friends . . . and I don’t eat my friends. – George Bernard Shaw

A little over three years ago, on a sunny March afternoon, I became a vegetarian. I remember it well. I woke up a carnivore (well, omnivore, I suppose) and went to bed a herbivore, and I never looked back. I’d dabbled with the concept a few times in high school, and I rarely ate red meat anyway, so the transition was fairly easy. Watching the documentary Food, Inc. and reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s revelatory book Eating Animals solidified my decision.

Though choosing not to eat meat hasn’t been difficult, eating at restaurants or friends’ houses does occasionally put me in some tricky culinary and social situations. Dinner at a nice steakhouse means I’ll be eating a plain baked potato and a side salad and then raiding the fridge when I get home. Brunch at a friend’s house means finding a polite way to turn down the quiche lorraine or sausage and egg casserole and, again, raiding the fridge when I get home.

I can only imagine how difficult it must be to maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet in college. Between classes, study sessions, and a bustling social life, there’s hardly enough time to shop for and prepare three meat-free meals a day. And campus dining halls don’t exactly conjure up images of tofu scrambles and veggie burgers. True, the college dining experience may not be inherently veg-friendly, but, at the same time, there are more options today than ever before.

Whether you’ve gone meatless for moral or health-related reasons, sticking to your vegetarian or vegan lifestyle can be challenging in college, but it’s not impossible.

Vegan-/vegetarian-friendly cities

When choosing the list of schools you’re going to apply to, consider looking at a few located in or around these cities that really roll out the red carpet for folks on a plant-based diet:

  • Austin, Texas: Known as the Lone Star State’s hippie/hipster enclave, it makes sense that Austin is home to some excellent and innovative meat-free dining options, boasting no less than three dozen vegan/vegetarian establishments. In this dynamic and culturally diverse college town, you’re as likely to find lip-smacking barbecue ribs as you are mind-blowing babaganoush. Be sure to check out the city’s über-cool burgeoning food trailer scene.
    Nearby schools: The University of Texas at Austin, Concordia University, St. Edward’s University
  • Boulder and Denver, Colorado: In Boulder, another hippie haven, and nearby Denver, the Mile-High City, you can enjoy beautiful views of the Rockies, unrivaled outdoor activities in both summer and winter, and a host of vegan and vegetarian restaurants. And some of the cities’ omnivorous restaurants have even started offering Meatless Monday fare.
    Nearby schools: University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Colorado, Denver, University of Denver
  • Burlington, Vermont: If you long for a small town that’s big on veg-friendly foods, look no further than the charming lakefront town of Burlington. Located in picturesque northern New England (Canada is just a stone’s throw away), Burlington is brimming with unique meatless dining options, such as quirky Sabertooth Bakery, which serves up delectable all-vegan baked goods from an adorable pink bicycle cart.
    Nearby schools: University of Vermont, Burlington College, Champlain College
  • New York, New York: The city so nice, they named it twice . . . and then went on to cram the 33-square-mile island with more delicious food than anyone could possibly eat in one, or even two or three, lifetimes. And a good portion of that food didn’t have parents. New York City is arguably the best place in the world to get a steak, but with such a wide array of restaurants, it’s also one of the easiest places to survive as a vegetarian. For a cheap meatless meal, stop by Mamoun’s in Greenwich Village for what is hands-down the world’s best falafel.
    Nearby schools: New York University, Fordham University, The Juilliard School (and the list goes on)
  • Portland, Oregon: Portland is synonymous with healthy living, and no list of vegetarian-friendly cities, including PETA’s, would be complete without it. Vegans in particular will enjoy Portland’s impressive variety of restaurants, such as East Side Delicatessen, which serves up roast beef and vegan “meat” sandwiches with equal aplomb.
    Nearby schools: Oregon State University, University of Portland, Reed College
  • San Francisco, California: Yet another hippie hangout (I don’t mean to imply that all hippies are vegetarians, or vice versa, but they’ve certainly championed the cause), San Francisco has one of the most innovative restaurant scenes in the veg-friendly state of California, and it was the first U.S. city to adopt Meatless Mondays. In the City by the Bay, steering clear of meat and other animal products is easy. Indulge your inner hippie at Haight-Ashbury’s Cha Cha Cha, where you can tuck into Caribbean-themed vegetable dishes while admiring the neighborhood’s tie-dyed populace.
    Nearby schools: UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco, Golden Gate University

Vegan-/vegetarian-friendly schools

When it comes to campus dining options, you can always find something meatless to eat. But man cannot live on side dishes alone. In recent years, some schools have gone the extra mile for vegans, vegetarians, and students who just want some healthier meals to offset all the pizza and French fries. When applying to schools, be sure to explore their dining services. Get started here by checking out just a few of the schools that make it easy to eat your veggies:

  • University of North Texas: UNT recently opened Mean Greens, the school’s first all-vegan dining hall. Popular with carnivores and herbivores alike, the menu includes such inventive and delectable items as quinoa paella, Moroccan couscous, and garbanzo bean shepherd’s pie.
  • University of California–Los Angeles: At UCLA, where 94% of freshmen live on campus, dining halls are unavoidable. Fortunately, the school has committed itself to sustainable dining, adopting such programs as Beefless Thursdays and serving cage-free eggs and organic herbs grown in the school’s own herb garden.
  • Cornell University: Cornell’s dining services include One World Café, which offers vegan and vegetarian meals made from natural, locally grown ingredients. The school’s All You Care to Eat dining rooms also serve clearly-labeled meatless entrées, and soy milk is available in all campus dining rooms and convenience stores.
  • Northwestern University: Northwestern, which has adopted Meatless Mondays, offers both vegan and vegetarian entrées, such as tofu French toast, tortilla soup, and vegetarian fajitas. There is also a wide selection of “well-balanced” menu options with fewer calories and less fat and cholesterol.
  • Wesleyan University: In 2009, Wesleyan was named the Most Vegetarian-Friendly College in the country by peta2, and with good reason. The school’s dining services offer many meatless options and there’s even a student-run organic farm where students can learn about sustainable agriculture. The best part? Some of the produce they grow is donated to a local food pantry and served in campus dining halls.

To learn about some other great schools that make it easy to maintain a meat-free diet, check out this list of the Most Vegetarian-Friendly Colleges in the U.S.

Dorm food and dining out

Now that Mom’s not around to buy your overpriced Whole Foods granola and nutritional yeast, you’ll have to stock your dorm room with healthy go-to snacks on your own. And depending on your meal plan, you won’t be able to get your three squares a day in the dining hall, at least not every day, so you’ll need to venture off campus once in a while. Here are a few suggestions to help you fend for yourself:

  • Keep a few healthy snacks in your room so you can turn to them whenever you’re tempted by junk food, or if your roommate decides to test your willpower with a bucket of fried chicken. Things like nuts, protein bars, low-fat popcorn, cereal, apples, baby carrots, and peanut butter and jelly with whole wheat bread are filling and easy to have on hand.
  • For an easy lunch or dinner, there are plenty of vegan and vegetarian soups and frozen dinners to choose from. Stock up so you can avoid fast food on the weekends.
  • For something more homemade, consider investing in a few college-friendly cookbooks, such as PETA’s Vegan College Cookbook or The Starving Students’ Vegetarian Cookbook, which are full of healthy recipes you can whip up with little more than a microwave.
  • When going out to eat, Middle Eastern, Greek, Italian, and Indian restaurants are great places to find vegan and vegetarian options. Of course, you may occasionally be the odd man out with your salad while your friends tear through 50 hot wings, but you’ll also be perfectly positioned to avoid the dreaded “Freshman 15.”

Vegan clothing

For those of you whose vegetarian convictions extend to your clothes and accessories, back-to-school shopping can be a challenge, especially when searching for things like leather-free shoes, bags, and jackets. Learn to check labels to ensure you’re getting man-made materials, and do some research to find vegan-friendly brands. Converse, Rampage, and Steve Madden all make vegan shoes, and retailers such as Alternative Apparel, H&M, Target, and Urban Outfitters are known to offer clothes and shoes made without animal products.

Vegetarian/vegan groups on campus

“Like attracts like,” as the saying goes. Once you land on campus, consider joining a student organization that supports your vegetarian lifestyle. You’ll make friends with like-minded people with whom you can check out campus dining options and local restaurants. At the University of Delaware, the Vegetarian Students Association hosts vegetarian feasts and invites guest speakers to discuss topics like animal rights. UCLA’s Bruins for Animals! group dedicates itself to respecting and protecting animals and holds vegan potlucks throughout the year. Similar organizations exist at schools across the country, but if you happen to end up at a school without one, consider starting it yourself!

Trading in your normal routine and the comforts of home for a brand-new life in college can be particularly trying when you’re on a meat-free diet. But rest assured you won’t end up starving or living off of soy milk and salads. Look at it as an opportunity to explore your campus and the surrounding city, get creative in the kitchen and try new foods, and encourage healthy meal options at your school. You might even make a few friends along the way.

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