A Full Plate? Gluten-Free Campuses Help College Students

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?


14 thoughts on “A Full Plate? Gluten-Free Campuses Help College Students”

  1. The unfortunate truth is that the college dining setup is not really safe for a celiac. The good thing is that it’s possible to survive quite nicely if you’re well-informed, communicate with the school in the summer prior to your arrival on campus, and set up contingency plans. My son has his own microwave and refrigerator in his room; this was arranged with special permission from the school. His premade, frozen entrees from home are stashed in his own designated storage area in the school dining room’s freezer. (Yes, I make the entrees and freeze them in individual portions.) He supplements these with fresh juice, produce, and yogurt from the campus store or from the local grocery store. He’s a sophomore now, had a great freshman year, and has had no difficulty making friends. He’s met several other students with gluten intolerance or celiac disease; those that don’t have it are quite understanding and accept his limits. If there’s any question, he just tells people it’s as serious as a peanut allergy. Somehow that makes sense to them.
    College is, after all, more than food and beer. Just be sure you have prepared yourself with food you enjoy eating and don’t let yourself go hungry to a party where you’ll be tempted to eat something that’ll make you sick for days!

  2. The unfortunate truth is that the college dining setup is not really safe for a celiac. The good thing is that it’s possible to survive quite nicely if you’re well-informed, communicate with the school in the summer prior to your arrival on campus, and set up contingency plans. My son has his own microwave and refrigerator in his room; this was arranged with special permission from the school. His premade, frozen entrees from home are stashed in his own designated storage area in the school dining room’s freezer. (Yes, I make the entrees and freeze them in individual portions.) He supplements these with fresh juice, produce, and yogurt from the campus store or from the local grocery store. He’s a sophomore now, had a great freshman year, and has had no difficulty making friends. He’s met several other students with gluten intolerance or celiac disease; those that don’t have it are quite understanding and accept his limits. If there’s any question, he just tells people it’s as serious as a peanut allergy. Somehow that makes sense to them.
    College is, after all, more than food and beer. Just be sure you have prepared yourself with food you enjoy eating and don’t let yourself go hungry to a party where you’ll be tempted to eat something that’ll make you sick for days!

  3. i am a freshman at college and have been a celiac for almost a year and my mom has been one for almost six. i decided for my first year that i would commute to a local branch campus which makes the life of a celiac much easier. last weekend i decided to visit my friend at her college and found a whole section of their cafeteria devoted to gluten free!! they offered an assortment of breads and toasters that were devoted to only gluten free bread. and had a special celiac friendly meal at every time of the day. it goes to show how much easier it is to be gluten free these days. although people still look at me funny when i say that i have celiac, its become a lot easier to live the lifestyle of being gluten free than it has a couple of years ago.

    1. Susan, I’m so glad to hear that you, your son, and the college were able to find a solution that fits — and I have to imagine that the other gluten-intolerant kids (and probably plenty of the rest of the student body) are jealous of the home-cooked meals!

      Amanda, sounds like you’ve got a good plan too. I suspect that when/if you find yourself moving to a new campus next year, it’ll be easier still to eat gluten-free at school.

  4. i am a freshman at college and have been a celiac for almost a year and my mom has been one for almost six. i decided for my first year that i would commute to a local branch campus which makes the life of a celiac much easier. last weekend i decided to visit my friend at her college and found a whole section of their cafeteria devoted to gluten free!! they offered an assortment of breads and toasters that were devoted to only gluten free bread. and had a special celiac friendly meal at every time of the day. it goes to show how much easier it is to be gluten free these days. although people still look at me funny when i say that i have celiac, its become a lot easier to live the lifestyle of being gluten free than it has a couple of years ago.

    1. Susan, I’m so glad to hear that you, your son, and the college were able to find a solution that fits — and I have to imagine that the other gluten-intolerant kids (and probably plenty of the rest of the student body) are jealous of the home-cooked meals!

      Amanda, sounds like you’ve got a good plan too. I suspect that when/if you find yourself moving to a new campus next year, it’ll be easier still to eat gluten-free at school.

  5. My son has had severe abdominal pain, irregular bowels since childhood. I was diagnosed 10 yrs ago. We’ve had him tested 3 times, he is 20, a junior in college. He had depression, weight loss, abdominal pain, muscle wasting, profound fatigue. Again tested negative. He finally agreed to try the diet and is reborn. In 7months has gained 20 lbs, huge muscles, is able to exercise, depression and fatigue gone. My problem is, the college he attends won’t help and did not let us opt out of dining charges due to no diagnosis of celiac. Can anyone offer any suggestions? Can we claim food exemptions on our taxes? (he can’t get enough to eat now, it’s wonderful!!!!!)

    1. Beverly, what kind of school is your son at? Small, big, public, private?

      I know that for some schools, a doctor’s note stating that the student must be on a gluten-free diet is enough (even if the reason for the diet is not officially celiac disease). As for taxes, I understand it to be a fairly complicated process that you’d want a CPA to advise you on.

      There is a wider discussion on our facebook page, which you may want to check out.

      Here are two celiac.com threads that may be helpful:

      Tax Breaks
      Campus Trouble

  6. My son has had severe abdominal pain, irregular bowels since childhood. I was diagnosed 10 yrs ago. We’ve had him tested 3 times, he is 20, a junior in college. He had depression, weight loss, abdominal pain, muscle wasting, profound fatigue. Again tested negative. He finally agreed to try the diet and is reborn. In 7months has gained 20 lbs, huge muscles, is able to exercise, depression and fatigue gone. My problem is, the college he attends won’t help and did not let us opt out of dining charges due to no diagnosis of celiac. Can anyone offer any suggestions? Can we claim food exemptions on our taxes? (he can’t get enough to eat now, it’s wonderful!!!!!)

    1. Beverly, what kind of school is your son at? Small, big, public, private?

      I know that for some schools, a doctor’s note stating that the student must be on a gluten-free diet is enough (even if the reason for the diet is not officially celiac disease). As for taxes, I understand it to be a fairly complicated process that you’d want a CPA to advise you on.

      There is a wider discussion on our facebook page, which you may want to check out.

      Here are two celiac.com threads that may be helpful:

      Tax Breaks
      Campus Trouble

  7. I am a college student who started on the gluten free diet my senior year of high school (due to a family full of Celiacs). I had some trouble at first in the dorms, but later found out about programs at the school for those with food allergies or special diets. I would encourage anyone at the university level to seek out the dining center personell.

    In addition, there was a story run with a little taste of my story at the link below.
    a=http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/news/story/gluten_free081310.aspx

    There are also resources available via the National Foundation of Celiac Awareness. They have a guide for college students. http://www.celiaccentral.org/Resources/Kids-Youth/Heading-to-College/360/

  8. I am a college student who started on the gluten free diet my senior year of high school (due to a family full of Celiacs). I had some trouble at first in the dorms, but later found out about programs at the school for those with food allergies or special diets. I would encourage anyone at the university level to seek out the dining center personell.

    In addition, there was a story run with a little taste of my story at the link below.
    a=http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/news/story/gluten_free081310.aspx

    There are also resources available via the National Foundation of Celiac Awareness. They have a guide for college students. http://www.celiaccentral.org/Resources/Kids-Youth/Heading-to-College/360/

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