College Dining Halls
If you’re at college and gluten-free, eating at on-campus dining halls can present some challenges. How do you navigate common eating spots and remain safely gluten-free?
Before the semester begins, you may want to speak with your school administrator, someone responsible for student affairs, and an on-campus healthcare provider to find out what accommodations your college provides for gluten-free students. Consider connecting with someone in the Food Service group responsible for dining hall food as well.
When you meet in person with a dining hall manager or food service dietitian (or both), outline your specific dietary restrictions and requirements. Specifically ask how gluten-free food is prepared at the dining halls where you plan to eat, what is offered and when, how foods are labeled, and what measures are in place to prevent cross-contact with gluten.
While a few colleges and universities have dedicated gluten-free dining halls, most do not. These days, most are aware of the needs of gluten-free students and try their best to provide safe dining options.
Another good way to get the inside scoop on eating gluten-free on campus is to ask other gluten-free students for their tips. Look for relevant student groups on campus such as a gluten-free or allergen-free meet up to join. Also see if there is a local GIG support group on or off campus in your area.
Tips for Staying Gluten-Free
Here are some tips for eating gluten-free in dining halls:
- Request that any server who might be directly preparing food for you change their gloves before handling special gluten-free items.
- Avoid the busiest times in dining halls if you can. The staff will have more time to attend to your requests and to answer any questions you might have as you’re selecting food options.
- Ask food service management staff about their gluten-free offerings. Find out what ingredients are used for dishes you’re interested in eating, even if the item is usually considered gluten-free. Check how food was prepared, and if cross-contact with gluten is being avoided in the kitchen. For example, if they offer plain grilled fish or chicken, confirm that nothing containing gluten was grilled on the same surface and that no seasoning mixes or flavorings of any sort were used unless it can be confirmed that they are gluten-free. You can also ask staff if they are a GFFS Gluten Free Safe Spot for added assurance.
- At breakfast or brunch, omelet bars can be a good option. If you’re ordering a custom-made, individual omelet, make sure the pan has been thoroughly cleaned after previous use or ask if a separate, clean pan can be used instead.
- DIY sandwich bars could be a viable option for you. In some cases, gluten-free bread may be available. Make sure it remains packaged or in a sealed container that’s separate from gluten-containing bread before you use it. Try gluten-free deli meats as an add-on to a salad or, if gluten-free bread isn’t available, make a lettuce wrap. Confirm that deli items and condiments are gluten-free and that there is no risk of cross-contact with gluten-containing bread when others are making their sandwiches. When in doubt, you could also ask food service staff for sandwich fixing that come straight from packages in the kitchen to minimize potential cross-contact.
- For any self-serve food, examine how items are offered and served. Are serving platters or utensils doing double duty for gluten-containing and gluten-free items? If so, avoid those items due to potential cross-contact with gluten. Ask if a fresh portion could be served from the kitchen before it is subject to cross-contact out in the dining hall.
- Most condiments are gluten-free, but if you don’t recognize the brand – or they are not in their original containers – stay clear. Do not use condiments from communal containers: there is a high risk they’ll contain gluten from serving utensils or from crumbs that could have fallen in. Instead opt for single serve condiment packets if they’re offered. If not, you could bring your own.
- Ask to see original packaging for dishes that could be made from packaged foods such as soups, stews, dressings, etc. Sometimes food service staff are unaware of the unexpected places where gluten might appear.
Gluten-free foods that are self-contained or in original packaging are a safer choice, minimizing the risk of cross-contact. Good options include:
- Hard boiled eggs (still in shell)
- Unpeeled whole fruit
- Wrapped cheese sticks
- Single serve yogurt
- Wrapped/packaged gluten-free muffins or protein bars
- Single serve bags of chips or other gluten-free snack items
- Single serve packets of peanut butter, to add to yogurt, fruit, or on gluten-free bread
Questions to Ask Staff & Servers
Here are a few ways to ask questions about the gluten-free status of dining hall foods to get to the information you need:
- “I have a medical need to be gluten-free. Can you tell me if this dish is safe for me?”
- “I need to know if all the ingredients in this dish are gluten-free. Do you have any information handy, like the ingredients label or packaging? Is there someone in the kitchen you could ask who would know?”
- “I need to confirm that ‘x’ is gluten-free. I know what the basic ingredients are, but I have a medical need to be gluten-free and need to check that there is no risk of gluten crumbs getting into this dish.”
- “I am so glad to see that gluten-free pasta is available. Can you tell me if it is cooked in a pot separate from regular pasta and if it is drained using a separate colander?”
Be sure to thank the dining hall staff for their help. Accommodating students with strict dietary requirements can be stressful for any food service staff member. Courtesy can go a long way toward ensuring you get a consistently safe, gluten-free eating experience. Work toward building a good relationship with them so you have an ally in the dining hall.
NOTE: Some colleges and universities are validated as GFFS Gluten Free Safe Spots, taking steps to make sure they follow safety measures for gluten-free food prep. Check the GFFS database of Safe Spots to see if your college or university is on the list!
This article has been assessed and approved by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
The information on this website is for educational purposes only. Consult your healthcare team when considering this information.
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