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When You Don’t Have Time For Lunch: The Best & Worst Meal Replacements

No two days are alike for college students. Some nights you get to sleep a full eight hours, while other nights you’re up until dawn. So does it really surprise you that many collegiettes ™ don’t have time for ‘real’ meals during those crazy days?
We talked to real girls to see what they’re substituting for meals and why. Dr. Melissa Rittenhouse RD, CSSD helped us grade each substitution and give you tips on how to make them better. And if you find yourself in the situation where you need a quick bite that’s a solid option, we’ve got that too!
Real Girl Meal Replacements
1. Slimfast bars and shakes
Valentina, Sophomore at Syracuse University, Magazine Journalism and English major

I eat Slimfast bars and other granola bars for breakfast because most of my classes are early. Originally, I started eating bars for breakfast as part of a weight loss regimen, but now I’ve grown so accustomed to them and I find them useful in my college eating schedule. It’s become such a habit for me that I feel strange if I don’t have my breakfast bar in the morning.” 

Rebekah, Senior at Ohio University, Magazine Journalism major
“Twice a week I have class from 11-4 straight. So I pack a chocolate…shake and a granola bar. It’s a great pick-me-up.”
What the expert says: These options are good in that they are usually fortified with several vitamins and minerals but often have 200 calories or less which may lead to overeating later in the day due to the calorie restriction during the day.” says Rittenhouse. She advises that a way to make them a better meal replacement would be to add a piece of fruit, or a glass of skim milk “for a more balanced meal and to feel more satisfied.”
Grade: C …with a few changes and ‘extra credit’, it could be a B+
2. Coffee
Lauren, Junior at George Mason University, Biology major

“It’s hard for me to find time for lunch during specific days of the week…my classes are back to back! The easiest thing for me to do is just grab coffee on the way and pray the caffeine will pull me through.”
What the expert says: This is not a good option for lunch. There is no caloric value, meaning no energy nor is there any nutritional value here. In addition excessive amounts of caffeine can leave you feeling drained instead of giving the desired pick-up.” Something also worth noting is the tolerance level you build. “The more caffeine is consumed the more caffeine you will need to get the pick-up, until you reach the point there is no benefit,” notes Dr. Rittenhouse. To make this meal better, opt for a non-fat vanilla latte with a roasted veggie sandwich (with four grams of fiber). Or, if you find yourself at Starbucks closer to breakfast order up an egg white, spinach, and feta wrap (6 g fiber), “both of which will keep you feeling full longer and allow you to feel more alert.”
Grade: F
3. Powerbar
Annie, University of Connecticut ‘10, Psychology major
Annie’s reasoning for a Powerbar really summarizes why most of us pick up an alternative meal… “No time to grab a real meal.” Truer words have never been said.
What the expert says: Powerbars are similar to the SlimFast mentioned earlier except they “typically offer more calories.” If you’re opting for a Powerbar, “It is recommended you drink 8-16 oz of water with these. Since they are dense and designed to give you the energy while working out, they can be dehydrating if not consumed with enough water.” Make the meal better with Dr. Rittenhouse’s suggestion to have a piece of fruit in addition to the bar and a tall glass of water.
Grade: C
4. Yogurt
Kristen, Senior at Boston University, International Relations major

“I always substitute a yogurt for an actual meal because I’m always in a rush to class. A yogurt is tasty and healthy and will usually keep me satisfied ‘til dinner.”
What the expert says:  Kristen chose wisely for a start to a good meal fix. “This is a great snack, high in calcium and a good source of carbohydrates and protein. It is not enough on its own.” To step up the nutritional value and energy, Dr. Rittenhouse advises the addition of a side salad, dinner roll or pretzels and piece of fruit to keep you energized until you have a chance to sit down.
Grade: B
5. Froyo
Jackie, Cornell University ‘10, Business major
“I sometimes eat froyo as lunch with some crackers or for dinner with peanut butter when I’m on the run or not that hungry and want a sweet dinner.”
What the expert says: Froyo just isn’t filling and “you will likely be hungry again in one hour. If you can pack a turkey sandwich, some baby carrots to munch on and grab some froyo you will be better able to focus on your tasks.”  Froyo can be a part of your meal…but it needs some help. Add a turkey sandwich from the deli and a few baby carrots to round out a mediocre meal.
Grade: D
Best Meal Replacements
If you find yourself in a crunch for lunch, here are some of the best meal replacements, better than those above:

  • Fruit and 2 tablespoons of nut butter.  Choose fruit that’s self-contained, like a pear, apple, or banana and pick up some single serving peanut butter or almond butter tubes. Top it off with a handful of whole-wheat crackers and this easy meal fix will leave you satisfied and ready to focus on your tasks.
  • Small Fruit Smoothie and to-go sandwich.  So many restaurants or delis offer fruit smoothies these days, this option applies nearly everywhere. Lean away from ‘dessert’ smoothies loaded with chocolate and sugar, and stick to a choice with low added sugar and lots of fruits or veggies. While you’re there, snag a pre-made half sandwich to balance your lunch in a crunch!
  • Tuna Pouch with a Pita. This is the essence of on the go. StarKist even has flavored tuna pouches that you can put directly into the pita for a special kick. The whole-wheat pita gives fiber to keep you sated, and the tuna is a source of healthy omega 3 fats for a healthy heart. 
  • Low Fat Yogurt with Individual Cereal Box and Banana. Ultimate easy dining hall or convenience store grab! Pick up your favorite flavor of low fat yogurt, a banana, and an individualized cereal box portion (like you see in hotels).  If you can’t find the small cereal boxes, grab a zip lock and fill from the large box you keep in your house. Who cares if it gets mashed? It’s going in yogurt to make a perfect parfait!

We know your life is hectic! While it is ideal to have a relaxing well-balanced meal, we’re also realistic. If you’re in a rush, keep this great list of go-to meal replacements in your wallet for options you know will work.
HC Readers and Writers Jackie, Kristen, Annie, Lauren, Rebekah, Valentina
Dr. Melissa Rittenhouse, RD, CSSD James Madison University professor of dietetics

Carlene Helble is a senior dietetics major and family studies minor at James Madison University. She is the '10-'11 President of JMU's student dietetics association and the school's student council liaison to the American Dietetics Association. Carlene is also the weekend food blogger for All Access Internships and writes for Balanced Health and Nutrition, the Elite Nutrition blog. Originally from Loudoun County, Virginia, she has a passion for cooking (especially French Macarons), entertaining, pilates, and enjoying the beautiful outdoors. Classic fashions are her favorite and she never goes anywhere without a monogram. After graduation Carlene hopes to obtain a spot in a dietetic internship to learn more about clinical dietetics, pediatrics, and continue writing about food.
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