When I got to college, I already had a year of gluten-free living under my belt. I’d spoken with dining services, and they’d assured me I wouldn’t have a problem eating gluten-free on campus – I could even give them some ideas of foods I’d like to eat, and when I’d be at which dining hall, and they would have a special meal ready for me.

Just to be on the safe side, I smuggled in some contraband: a hot pot, a rice cooker, and a bar mixer.

If you look closely, you'll see signs of my hidden kitchen

If you look closely, you'll see signs of my hidden kitchen

A few weeks in, I’d learned a few things:

  • A bar mixer makes daiquiris just as well as it makes smoothies.
  • You shouldn’t let your new best friends drink daiquiris near your new laptop.
  • Don’t trust the dining hall.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out what was safe:

  • Frozen yogurt
  • Bottles of water and soda
  • Jars of peanut butter
  • Salad bar (sometimes)

Despite their best intentions, the staff just wasn’t equipped to take care of me. Some of the blame falls on me: I doubt I explained my needs as clearly or forcefully as I should have. The next semester I got a medical exemption from the required meal plan, and was relieved to fend for myself.

And yet – this post is not meant as a horror story, for two reasons:

  • I didn’t starve, and I had plenty of fun.
  • College today is very different than it was then.

What happened to me? Well, I made friends with a girl who hated the campus food, and together we cooked some improbably delicious things. We even planned to write a cookbook about rice-cooker meals, but it seems like Roger Ebert beat us to the punch.

I learned my way around the off-campus dining options, of which there were plenty. After that year I always had a kitchen, which was of course helpful. Added bonus? I had an excuse to decline the terrible beer that most freshmen learn to enjoy guzzle.

And if I were going to college now? As general awareness of the gluten-free diet increases, so do gluten-free campuses. More colleges and universities have dedicated programs for gluten-free students than I could list here; even my alma mater now has gluten-free meals in the dining halls on a daily basis.

This is a difficult topic to offer generalized tips for. Every campus will be different, and students who enter college already on a gluten-free diet will have a very different experience than students who learn midway through college that they need to adopt a gluten-free lifestyle.

A difficult topic, but not an impossible one. A few actions come in universally handy:

  • Research. Is your school already helping other gluten-free students? How?
  • Communicate. Get in touch with dining services, or disability services, or whichever department can help you to feel comfortable starting the school year.
  • Educate. If your school hasn’t got much experience with gluten, you’ll likely need to explain your needs clearly and often. Bring a letter from your doctor, bring a stack of disposable dining cards to hand out to cafeteria workers, and be ready to talk. Remember all those things you were surprised to learn had gluten in them? Share your knowledge with your school; after all, they’re there to help you.
  • Plan. Can you get a dorm with a kitchen, or even a partial kitchen? Will it cause you to miss out on a significant part of the social experience (and if so, is it worth it)? Are there other gluten-free students you can meet, and can you accomplish more by working – or eating – as a group?
  • Enjoy. This is college! I hate the phrase, “best time of your life,” but it is a unique time in your life. Take the precautions you need in order to be safe, and then get out there and make some memories.

If you are (or know) a gluten-free college student, what are your experiences on campus?