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

The Ultimate Vegetarian and Vegan Guide to Good Eating in College

Though many campus dining halls offer options, being a vegetarian or vegan can be tough. Here's an ultimate guide to your college cafeteria and beyond.

Though choosing not to eat meat isn't difficult, eating at restaurants or friends’ houses does occasionally put ypou in some tricky culinary and social situations. Dinner at a nice steakhouse might mean you'll be eating a plain baked potato and a side salad and then raiding the fridge when you get home. Brunch at a friend’s house could mean finding a polite way to turn down the sausage and egg casserole. 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 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- and 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. 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. Nearby schools: University of Vermont, 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. Nearby schools: New York University, Fordham University, The Juilliard School (and many more)
  • 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, San Francisco has one of the most innovative restaurant scenes in the veg-friendly state of California, and it was the first US 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

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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 offers an entire on-campus all-vegan café called Mean Greens. 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: 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.
  • Northwestern University: Northwestern, which has adopted Meatless Mondays and other sustainable food initiatives, 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: 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.

Related: Most Vegetarian-Friendly Colleges in the US

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, 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.

Related: The Best Ideas for Dorm Meals Without a Kitchen

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 Veg Club hosts vegetarian feasts and invites guest speakers to discuss topics like animal rights. The University of California Los Anegeles’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!

Connect me with UD!

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.

Start planning out your best meals at the top food spots near colleges with The Best College Restaurants Across the Country: Part 1.

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