Food Allergy

College Dining and Celiac Disease

Sending children away to college is stressful for any parent, but when their young adult has a medical dietary restriction such as celiac disease, that anxiety is even more pronounced. Luckily for them, you as the RD are here to help new college students with celiac disease and their families prepare for this transition. Using the tips outlined below, RDs can guide parents and students in self-advocating for their needs and making safe gluten-free food choices on campus.

Knowing the new school’s foodservice and dining policies and procedures is paramount. Policies will vary, but most schools require students living on campus to pay for a meal plan during their first two years of school, usually to ensure that the school has enough funding to maintain foodservice operations and contracts.

The foodservice provider with whom the school contracts typically will bring in other vendors such as on-campus coffee shops and supply food options across campus. Depending on the foodservice company, this can be a problem for students with celiac disease if the company and its vendors don’t provide enough appropriate choices for them.

Some providers lump all dietary restrictions into one, for example, dairy-free, nut-free, gluten-free, and egg-free choices per day, which can feel limiting and/or force kids to wait for a special menu item to be made if the premade dish doesn’t suit their needs. Students with celiac disease also may feel left out when their friends are chowing down on pizza but they’re stuck with a gluten-free dish they may not enjoy.

Even if several gluten-free food choices are available in the main dining hall, food courts around campus—which may be closer to academic buildings—may offer few or no options for students with celiac disease, making it difficult for them to grab food on the fly on their way to class.

The possible mishaps can be overwhelming for parents and students alike, but addressing potential issues with the school’s dining services staff and advocating for menu choices before a problem occurs can prevent unexpected snafus. Encourage parents to investigate the school’s dining services website, and suggest they call or e-mail with questions such as the following:

  • Is there a cooking area in dorms or elsewhere on campus where students can prepare their own food, and is there a separate dedicated gluten-free cooking space?
  • What are students allowed to have in their dorm rooms? Having a refrigerator and a heating element such as a microwave (hot plates, toasters, and toaster ovens rarely are permitted due to fire safety policies) enables students to prepare gluten-free snacks and meals on their own.
  • What specific gluten-free foods are available in on-campus foodservice establishments? Items to ask about may include bread and rolls, frozen meals, desserts, and snacks such as bars and chips. Can all of these options be purchased using meal plan dollars?
  • If a student wants a burger on a bun, a pizza, or a prepared sandwich, are gluten-free selections available? Can they just come in and ask for this, or do they have to order days in advance?
  • Does the school have a dedicated gluten-free toaster and microwave in foodservice areas?
  • Will the school accommodate students who make requests or is a doctor’s note needed?
  • If the school doesn’t supply adequate gluten-free options, will the meal plan costs be discounted or credited so parents can use the money to pay for food off campus?

If the student with celiac disease already is at school and having trouble getting healthful and/or palatable gluten-free options, RDs should encourage parents to reach out to the foodservice director to see what can be done. If that doesn’t work, parents should talk to school administrators or the provost. Parents also can call the foodservice contractor’s corporate office to complain, as the contract foodservice staff at the school might not have the authority to make the requested changes.

Parents also may want to discuss off-campus housing options with the school if the dining hall can’t or won’t cooperate with requests.

If all else fails, parents should remember that contract foodservice companies are up for negotiation every few years, so the last thing they want is negative feedback about their service and often will go above and beyond to prevent this. At one school, a student wrote a few articles in the campus newspaper about the dining service’s lack of vegetarian options; as a result, the foodservice company set up an entire vegetarian station in the dining hall and provided choices throughout campus to reverse this negative buzz.

— Marlisa Brown, MS, RD, CDE, CDN, is an award-winning dietitian, chef, and public speaker. She’s president of Total Wellness, a private nutrition consulting company specializing in diabetes, CVD, gastrointestinal disorders, gluten-free diets, culinary programs, corporate wellness, and medical nutrition therapies, in Bayshore, New York, and is author of Gluten-Free, Hassle Free and Easy Gluten-Free. Marlisa blogs at http://marlisaspeaks.com/marlisas-blog and www.GlutenFreeEZ.com.

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