College is supposed to be an educational experience, preparing you for the wonderful life awaiting you beyond the walls of academia, but let’s be honest. Most look forward to a fun time with new friends, in a new environment with a new way of life called independence.
Pizza parties late at night, a burger on the run or just maybe when no one was looking an illicit beer or two from an upper classman are a few of the many things that make up college life. Oh yeah! There are those study groups too, but still a social scene nevertheless.
Being away from home for the first time and rooming with one or more people you hardly know while trying to learn the ropes of which professor to sign up for which class can be a little daunting. I can tell you right now; this country girl was overwhelmed during those first few days at The University of Montevallo, especially when my history professor made the proclamation at the beginning of our first class that she was “married” to history. I knew I, as in the entire class, was in trouble.
Many freshmen experience a bout or two of homesickness, particularly when they get that first test back with a grade somewhat lower than what they had been accustomed to receiving in high school. Rooming situations sometimes do not work out as well as anticipated, or that love of your life from the year before finds someone new.
That eagerly anticipated first taste of freedom away from the watchful eye of parents can prove to be rather lonely, especially before a new routine is established and new friendships begin to blossom. When you throw a monkey wrench, such as Celiac disease, or any severe food allergy or sensitivity for that matter, into the mix, the long awaited college scene can suddenly become a nightmare—a dangerous nightmare.
Anyone with food allergies or sensitivities may begin to feel very isolated and set apart from the remainder of the folks around them. Spontaneous stops with friends at local hot spots become dreaded experiences.
Navigating the food waters of a college campus really should begin months prior to “move-in” day. So, just what can students (and their parents) do to ensure safe food and a good college experience. Here is a cursory list to get you started in the right direction.
- Get a letter from you doctor explaining your food allergic, sensitivity or disease, such as Celiac. Ask you physician to include what is required to meet your needs. This is especially important if you are planning to live in a dorm and eat most of your meals on campus.
- Develop a chef’s card (click link to our Chef's Card) explaining your particular dietary restrictions and what needs to be done in the preparation of your food to keep you safe. Also, include what happens if these requests are not met. Have the cards printed on brightly colored, as in neon, card stock. Try to keep the size to that of a post card.
- Wear a medical alert bracelet stating your food problem, such as Celiac, gluten intolerant, peanut allergy or whatever. Keep it on at all times.
- Register with the office of disability services. Yes, the office of disability services—this office can help make your requirements heard and your needs met.
- You will also want to make sure to talk directly with the head of food services and the campus dietician.
- Since most Celiacs, gluten intolerant and those with most any food allergy will accidentally ingest the very thing they do not need to eat, the director of the student health center director needs to know about your health concerns and dietary restrictions in the event you do get sick.
- Tell everyone about your dietary problems. Get as many people involved with your health care as possible. Roommates, friends, the resident advisor or landlord, your professors and anyone else willing to listen so that they can help you avoid problems and know how to help you if you do get sick.
- If sharing a kitchen, ask your roommates to store their food on the bottom shelves so that if something leaks or fall, your food does not get contaminated. Have your own pots, pans and utensils. Label everything that belongs to you as gluten free.
- If living in a dorm, seek special permission to have a hot plates, refrigerator and toaster oven so that you can prepare you own foods.
- Stock up on dorm friendly foods such as gluten free snack foods, granola and energy bars such as Kinds fresh fruits, cheese, peanut butter and deli meats from brand’s such as Boar’s Head. When purchasing deli meats, give the clerk one of your Chef’s Cards and demand the machine be cleaned BEFORE slicing your meat or cheese.
- Download apps for your smart phone or iPad that will help you navigate the gluten infested waters of buying food or eating in restaurants. Take these with you, especially when shopping for food. Mark websites that list terms commonly used that indicate the presence of gluten
- Purchase groceries during on weekdays during normal business hours so that you can call companies about products. Ask these questions:
- Does this product contain any ingredient that may contain gluten or any derivative of wheat?
- Was this product processed in a plant that also processes wheat, barley, rye or oats?
- Was this product processed on shared equipment?
My best advice to students facing navigating college while coping with a restrictive diet is to hold your head high and stand your ground! Let’s face it; if you have eaten something that makes you sick, there is no fun to be had. Even worse, some allergies such as peanut could lead to death.
You will enjoy college life so much more and make better grades to boot if you stick to your food regimen.
Author: Dr. Jacquelyn P. Horne