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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How to Navigate Gluten Free College Dining


It's difficult, writing with a little kitten snoozing on your shoulder. You'd really like to have full arm movement in order to type properly, (your 6th grade typing instructor would be so proud) but one look at that tiny little nose, a sweep of velvety fur across your cheek, a single plaintive mew - you resign yourself to a state of half-body petrification. Ahh, that's better. He has removed himself to melt into the top of the couch, clutching his favorite green feather. At last, I can comfortably write about the biggest decision Gluten Free college students are confronted with: how am I going to eat Gluten Free in College?

To be honest, being a Gluten Free college student is a bit like balancing a sleeping kitten on your shoulder. (You like how I did that, incorporating my current personal events into the post? NICE) It's a little tricky, sometimes it restricts you from doing things in just the way you'd like to do them, sometimes it can even be a little painful - but in the end, it's all worthwhile. Seriously. That whole analogy really came together in a nice little package. I was always really good in English class.

The Big Decision: Gluten Free College Dining

This was initially going to be a compilation of some of the pivotal choices you, as GF college kids, will be confronted with. However, the discussion of the first choice became so long winded that I've shortened it to one: To Eat at the Dining Hall or to Dine Alone. Your choices aren't etched in stone - you can adapt and alter and switch it up on a case by case basis or when new alternatives come to light. I'm going to try not to pass a value judgment on this discussion but it will be a little hard because I've lived through it and I know which worked for me. So, your job is to weight the options, take a good look at yourself and choose what will be best for you, sir and madame. Luckily, we're talking about food here, not an artificial light allergy or an intolerance to oxygen. Those would seriously fuck up your social life.

This is, obviously, the number one question on every Celiac's mind. How the hell am I going to eat? Basically, you have three choices. A. You can rely on the college cafeteria to provide you with safe meals. B. You can hack it dorm-style. C. You can get your own apartment and enjoy the luxury of a stove.

A. GF Meals in the College Cafeteria: The key word here is "safe". I really only have my own experience to go on here, and it really wasn't good. To start, the food my college served normally was mediocre at best. There wasn't any kind of separation of foods and the only thing I could really see as safe - the salad bar - was often sprinkled with stray croutons. They did not put out ingredient cards and, frankly, were unable to not burn spaghetti sauce. So how could they possibly navigate the ins and outs out GF eating? I simply did not trust the school to provide me with meals 2-3 times A DAY that would not make me absolutely miserable for several days to come. In this case, rather than pursue the issue, I simply accepted the fact that I had to have a meal plan per the school's policy and cooked my own meals in my dorm.

Unfortunately, school policies and general knowledge and accommodation of Celiac Disease are not really up to the level we'd all like. Many schools have mandatory meal plans that do not consider the needs of Celiac students and do not consider cross contamination to be an issue. If you want to pursue the cafeteria route, try the FAAN College Network. Search for the school you are interested in, see if they have a "Food Allergy" representative and begin the discussion of your needs from there. If your school doesn't have a representative, speak with the dietitian, food service manager or other administrator in charge of food.

There is one thing I strongly suggest: if the people you talk to do not address your needs to your satisfaction, do not acknowledge the cross contamination issue, do not make it completely safe and feasible for you to eat in their cafeteria - DO NOT DO IT. Your next step should be going to the Dean of the college, explaining the situation in terms of what eating Gluten does to your quality of life and insisting your mandatory meal plan be waived. Parental assistance can often be helpful in this endeavor as schools often see them as the money bags and the ones to please. Also insist you be allowed a microwave and George Foreman grill in your dorm if this is against normal policy. Unfortunately, in many states Celiac is not considered to be a 'disability' and thus, schools are less willing to go above and beyond providing foods that seem to be GF. Bottom line: if their cafeteria cannot accommodate you to your satisfaction they must adjust their policies to suit you. It is helpful, in this case, to stop thinking about the school as a school - it is a business, you are a customer and you are paying good money to be there. You have rights.

Not everyone wants to be a revolutionary, but it is important that everyone who is able takes the opportunity to stand up for their dietary rights. Just as we try to be good Celiac Ambassadors in restaurants (not agreeing to just 'pick out' croutons from salads, insisting on a dedicated fryer - so restaurant staff do not think ALL Celiacs can handle cross contamination) it is essential that today's Celiacs insist on safe accommodations and further expansion of knowledge.

B. Dorm Style Dining: My solution of choice. When I was in college, I was still battling through trying to figure out my additional food allergies and couldn't be bothered with things like proper nutrition and fighting for my dietary rights. Much to my regret, I assure you. I basically lived off pretzels, hummus, sandwiches and delicious tidbits hand delivered by Alex. After being GF for several years now I'm more aware of quick GF dining options. We are a culture of GO, and as such we have a vast selection of microwavable, ready to eat foods - some of which are GF. Huzzah! Rice, noodles, cereal bars, microwavable meals - they're all at your disposal. If you want to stock up your own GF dorm kitchen, check out my Top 10 Cooking Tools for the GF College Student and take a gander at My Top 10 Ready Made Snacks. You can also navigate yourself through my GF College Guide for college recipies or recipe adaptations for dorm cooking. I'm adding more all the time so keep current.

If you live fairly close to your parents it's also a great idea to stop by for more than laundry. While you're there, cook up a Bottom Roast and feast on Shredded Beef Tacos, Stir Fry and scrumptious sandwiches throughout the week. Make cookies, muffins or brownies which will keep well in the fridge or freezer. your mom up and moan pathetically about how you're starving to death and inquire sweetly as to whether or not she happens to have a Bottom Roast on hand to deliver. Either way.

A great solution to the social issue is to have a lunch bag in which to transport these meals into the cafeteria where you can eat with friends. Best case scenario, your school will allot you a space in their fridge/freezer for your microwavable foods, milk, lunch meats, bread and so on and you'll be allowed to assemble and cook them right there in the dining hall while everyone else slops Tuesday night's who knows what onto their trays. Bringing "outside food" into the dining hall may also be against the rules - so you'll have to follow the 'dining hall manager - dean' plan of attack.

Dorm cooking doesn't have to be hard, there are lots of products to make it easy. Besides microwavable meals like Annie's frozen products and noodle bowls there are lots of naturally GF foods that will enhance your meals. Purdue Shortcuts can jazz up pizza, rice meals or salads, rice will cook all on its own in a rice cooker, frozen veggies can be steamed up in the same appliance and frozen fruit can adorn cereals, yogurts or mix up for smoothies. It takes a little extra time, but you'll know you are eating safe foods and taking care of yourself.

C. GF Apartment Living: Apartment living can be a viable option, but it is really an age appropriate choice. First, many schools do not allow Freshmen to live off-campus. If you truly want to pursue this option, you will again need to tackle the Dean's office with parental units in tow. Another obstacle would be cost, unless you know a handful of awesome upperclassmen people who will be attending your college and want to get on a lease with you, you could very well be left high and dry. Apartment living takes a lot of planning so it's something best tackled by Junior year at the earliest. Additionally, living in the dorm is one of the very best ways to meet people, it's not something you want to miss out on. Besides - you don't want to be that kid who can't eat what now? and also be secluded in your own little kingdom off to stick to the above two options during your first two years at school.

Apartment living provides a whole set of obstacles because you'll be sharing a kitchen with people who, most likely, love gluten. Also, unlike your family, they are probably not totally tuned in to your needs and making sure everything is safe for you (unless you've got the most awesome friends...ever). Their brains are full of physics equations, pick up lines, that chick's number from last Thursday and who won Edward Fortyhands this week - they are probably not going to bat an eye when they make a glutenous delight in your clearly labeled GF pan. Your options are to designate a cabinet for all your shtuff or store it all in your room. Either way, be prepared to battle crumbs galore and someone using your toaster.

College is a time for raucous socializing - socializing which is best started out in the dorms. Be the cool kid with the apartment later on...just be prepared for some wild parties and hide the valuables. Celiac disease, if you choose to be really committed, makes you grow up and take on responsibility pretty early. Good or bad, you'll probably be more mature than many people you meet because you have a lot more to consider. Try to stay as young as you can in the ways that you can - living in the dorms, trying to eat food (provided by your or them) in the dining hall, taking everything in stride.

A Few Final Words (after that long winded spout)

I urge you not to choose a school just because you think they'll feed you well. Decide what you're interested in - even just generally, and find a school that suits your passions. After you've found it, make them work to fit you in the culinary department. Back when I was a mormon I was told I had to go to BYU or I'd never marry a nice mormon boy and be privileged enough to birth his 12 children. (Darn!) What a horrible feeling to be told you only have a few options for school. I'm here to say: you can and should go to any school you want, you have the ability to make ANY situation work for you. Find what fits your life and enjoy yourself! Remember: you're eating to live, not living to eat. There are many more exciting things waiting for you in college, and let me tell you - the food is never one of them.

If you have any individual questions you can leave them in the comments or email me at glutenfreechops {at} gmail [dot] com


  1. I am a senior at my University but still live in the dorms due to my position on Residential Life. I was diagnosed in November, two days before my 21st Birthday. I thought my world was coming to an end, realized that I was loosing so much more than beer and cupcakes. With the support of my family, weeks worth of figuring out what was and wasn't safe on campus, and MULTIPLE frank discussions with my dining services I've learned to make it work.

    By no means have the last four months been easy, but 99% of the time I'm healthy and that's in large part due to my hard work to get the help and support I needed on campus. I urge celiac who live in residence halls to keep fighting and challenging your food services department until they provide you with wholesome, well cooked, SAFE food. You're life doesn't need to revolve around salad alone!

    Good Luck :-)

  2. Hi Anon!

    Thank you so much for sharing your (successful!) experience. It sounds like perseverance is key - don't just stop at one disappointing meeting. I'm so happy you were able to make your situation work for you. Thanks for the encouraging words and I wish you the very best - and happy almost graduation!


Thank you for stopping by Gluten Free Chops, if you have questions please leave them in the comments so others can contribute to the conversation and learn from the responses. You can direct all other queries to glutenfreechops{at}gmail[dot]com Thanks for your praise, critiques and perspectives!

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