Guide to a Gluten-Free College Experience
Heading to college and needing to stay safely gluten-free? Or are you already in college and recently diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity? Either way, living gluten-free comes with some challenges that may require planning and being prepared so you can enjoy all the activities and opportunities that going to college presents.
We spoke with twins Hallie and Rayna, 21, who are rising seniors in Schenectady, New York. Hallie is double majoring in psychology and sociology, and Rayna is majoring in sociology with a visual art minor focused on photography. Rayna and Hallie were both diagnosed with celiac disease when they were 13 years old and shared that they feel very lucky to be on their lifelong gluten-free journey together.
Here are some of the challenges you might face as you try to stay safely gluten-free at college along with some tips from Rayna and Hallie on how to navigate them.
If you’re at college and gluten-free, eating at on-campus dining halls can present some challenges.
Rayna recommends that before committing to a college, it is necessary to make sure that there are food options available for you.
“The easiest way to do this is to visit the school’s dining halls yourself and by asking the staff to lead you through your options while having the opportunity to ask them questions about the precautions they take and their kitchen practices,” says Rayna.
She adds that if you cannot go visit the college in person, email the Head of Dining, or an equivalent Dining role, to directly ask them questions.
“Do not base your opinion of the dining options solely off the college website,” says Rayna, adding that the website may be outdated or inaccurate.
Once you’re at college, how do you navigate common eating spots and remain safely gluten-free? Some tips that can help you keep gluten at bay include:
- Ask servers handling food to change their gloves before handling gluten-free items.
- Avoid the busiest times in dining halls if you can to give you and the dining hall staff more time to ask and field questions about the gluten-free status of foods.
- 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.
- At breakfast or brunch, omelet bars can be a good option. 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 good option. 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.
“Even if you’re shy, try to get a little out of your comfort zone and self-advocate about your dietary needs,” says Hallie. “You deserve food that is made safely so you can eat with as much ease as any other student.”
Hallie also recommends finding friends with celiac disease or other dietary restrictions. “Having a buddy to walk through the dining hall with to find allergen safe food makes it a lot more fun.”
For more details on these tips – and for additional ones – check out our article on College Dining Halls.
When you order delivery from an unfamiliar restaurant, you have less ability to tell if they are following sound gluten-free food preparation, storage, and serving practices.
“Make sure you’re ordering from a safe establishment,” says Hallie. “If you are ordering with a group of people, ask that your order is packaged separately and is labeled as being gluten-free, so you know which meal is yours.”
You should also do the following when ordering delivery:
- Check the containers they use to store food for delivery. Do they seal tightly or are they loosely covered plates? Are they using plastic wrap or foil? If they do not use containers with tight seals, ask when you place the order that they add a layer of plastic wrap and foil or place your gluten-free dishes in a separate bag or box from anything containing gluten.
- Use only individually wrapped eating utensils or use your own that you know are clean and free from gluten crumbs.
- Ask to hold any sides, garnishes, sauces, or dressings or to put them in a separate, well-sealed container if you’re ordering with people who eat gluten. Not all add-ons are gluten-free. You want to be completely sure of what is inside and on top of the dish you’re ordering.
If you plan on storing leftovers, move them from the takeout containers to better quality ones that are dedicated to your gluten-free food and that seal tightly.
Shared Housing and Kitchens
Living in a dorm room or other shared college housing probably means you’ll be living with someone who eats gluten. Sharing a fridge and/or pantry space with a non-gluten-free roommate is a common occurrence and one that requires extra care to keep gluten out of your gluten-free food. Using the same kitchen area, particularly for food preparation, presents many opportunities for cross-contact to happen.
If you’re sharing food prep and eating spaces with gluten eaters, here are a few tips:
- Talk to roommates. A lot of people don’t know what it means to eat gluten-free or how important it is for some people’s health. The more they know, the more they can help you minimize the risks of exposure to gluten.
- Keep things separate. Designate gluten-free areas, and label everything that needs to stay gluten-free including utensils and storage containers. Get your own condiment jars or use squeeze bottles to avoid errant breadcrumbs.
- Claim the higher shelves. Minimize the chance of gluten-containing crumbs and food particles dropping on top of or into your gluten-free food by storing your food on the top shelves of cupboards and the fridge.
- Wash thoroughly. If you can’t have your own, make sure to wash everything, including surfaces, well with soap and water.
“It’s very helpful to have your own kitchen utensils, pots, and pans in a separate cabinet or in your room to reduce cross-contact,” says Rayna. “You only need one of each larger item, especially if you have access to a dishwasher.”
Hallie says that she and her sister both had their own mini fridge in their rooms even when living in dorms or houses with communal kitchens.
“If you cannot do this, just make sure to label everything clearly. Ideally, the people you live with will want to support you and keep you safe, but accidents and mistakes do happen. It’s always a safe bet to have some backup food or snacks in your own room.”
If you’ve been living in a household where you share a space with people who are not gluten-free, bring some of your best tricks and techniques to avoid gluten in your college living situation. Read more at College Navigating Shared Housing and Kitchens.
Food at sporting events is typically available for sale at concession stands or through concessionaires roaming the stands. Watch out! Because much of what you can buy at a sporting event contains gluten—burger and hot dog buns, and soft pretzels. There are also many opportunities for cross-contact with gluten to happen such as gluten-free foods like potatoes cooked in the same oil used to cook gluten-containing foods like breaded chicken tenders.
The best way to avoid gluten at a sporting event is to:
- Bring your gluten-free food and snacks, if that is allowed at the venue.
- Purchase packaged food or snacks that are labeled or certified gluten-free such as nuts, certain potato chips and corn chips, and some candies). If not certified or labeled gluten-free, be sure to check the label for gluten in the ingredients before buying.
- Eat before you go to the game. Stick to buying bottled water or canned soft drinks. Be careful of fountain drinks and milkshakes as you cannot guarantee everything is being kept clean and free of gluten-containing crumbs from other foods.
You could also reach out to your school administration and request gluten-free options or a vending machine with gluten-free snacks. You could even gather signatures from other students who also need to be gluten-free to show there is a genuine, health-related need for alternative food choices.
You may have the opportunity to attend special events when at college that are catered. Many caterers are aware of dietary restrictions and can provide alternative options for you.
“Reach out to the dining staff to ask if they will have safely made gluten-free options or if they are able to make you some of your own gluten-free food to have separate for you on the side,” says Rayna.
Whether it is a fraternity or sorority party or one in your dorm, any time people get together and there is food and drink available, you need to watch out for gluten.
“If you’re at a party or hanging out with friends, always make sure you know what’s in your drink, alcoholic or not. Drinks are sneaky and are sometimes flavored or mixed with something that contains gluten,” Hallie says.
Rayna recommends bringing your own snacks to parties while Hallie also suggests introducing friends to gluten-free snacks that you enjoy.
“Our friends fell in love with gluten-free pretzels and often have them on hand for us in their houses,” she adds.
Going on a date – especially with someone who eats gluten – can be tricky. Hallie recommends doing your research on local restaurants or cafes before going on that date.
“If you know a few safe places where you can eat, make sure to offer those up as options to your date so you can go somewhere you feel comfortable,” says Hallie, adding, “You should never feel pressured to eat somewhere that you feel isn’t safe. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself and for your needs.”
Rayna acknowledges that going to college is a big change but adds that it helps to be prepared.
“It was super helpful to have already met and had the contact information for the Head of Dining at my college before starting my freshman year,” she says. “He was so kind and willing to help me find food safe for me or answer questions I had.”
Three years into college, Rayna says the Head of Dining is still her main dining contact and resource.
“My biggest piece of advice for navigating celiac disease in college is that there is nothing more important than making connections and advocating for yourself.”
The information on this website is for educational purposes only. Consult your healthcare team when considering this information.
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