College Resources

Gluten-Free College Survival Guide

Moving away from home the first time is an exciting time in your life.  Continuing to live a healthy gluten-free life at college is absolutely doable!  It just requires a bit of advance planning, communication and a peek behind the scenes of university food services.  This section provides guidance for the college search and application process as well as tips for gluten-free living at college.

Prior to Applying
  1. Do your homework  

Visit or call each school you are interested in. You will find that schools have different set ups for handling and serving gluten-free food. You want to be aware of each school’s set up before you apply so you can make an informed decision. You will find some various ways of handling gluten-free meals in dining halls. Some schools dedicate one dining hall to serve gluten-free meals, some have a special room within the dining hall, some have you order in advance, and many other scenarios.

  1. Talk to the school’s registered dietitian/nutritionist and the head of dining

If you are visiting a school, make an appointment to see them in person and incorporate a tour of the dining hall. If you are not visiting, call them. Find out how they handle gluten-free foods and what is necessary for you to receive safe options. Get the name of the head of dining if you didn’t get a chance to meet them. Ask to set up a meeting or call with a current student who has celiac disease or needs to use the gluten-free area for other health reasons. It can be very helpful to get a first-hand account of how it works at the school. 

While touring the dining hall or talking with the dining hall representative, be sure to ask questions as if you are going to a restaurant for the first time. Some typical questions include:

  • Do all dining halls serve gluten-free options?
  • How is it handled within the dining hall to prevent cross-contact? (i.e. is there a special section or room, is it in only one station within the hall, what are protocols if stations are shared)?
  • Do you have to pre-order meals and if so how far in advance? If they use an app for ordering, ask to look at it. 
  • Is there a wait time if you ask for food once you arrive at the dining hall or will it be ready at the same time as other food?
  • Can you meet with a current student who has celiac disease or utilizes the gluten-free food area already. It is great to have a discussion about what they like and don’t like.
  1. Research the area

You will want to be able to go out to eat off campus with new friends or even live off campus eventually.  If you are visiting a school, check out the stores and restaurants in town. Find out if there are any of your favorite foods or restaurants available. This really varies by state and town so take time to look around. If you are unable to visit a school beforehand, utilize apps or searches to see what stores and restaurants are nearby campus.

Once a Decision is Made
  1. Tell people about your dietary needs

Contact the following people at your school:

  • Office of Disabilities – They will usually give you paperwork to fill out and let you know about any other requirements or details specific to this school. We recommend calling this office as soon as you decide to attend. It can take time to fill out paperwork and some schools ask for documentation from your doctors. 
  • Registered Dietitian or Nutritionist – They can give more details about dining halls and gluten-free areas at the school. They can assist you with developing well-rounded eating habits and help if you are not getting adequate nutrition options. 
  • Head of Dining and Dining Staff – Call to introduce yourself and set up a meeting with the head of dining or other administrator for when you first arrive. They can  give you a tour of the gluten-free options and it will be the beginning of a very important relationship. 
  • Coaching Staff/Program Directors – Contact the head of any program you will be a part of that will require traveling and let them know your needs. They can help you work out the best way to prepare for travel. Perhaps they will let you bring more food than usual or a cooler. They will also need to know in order to ensure they stop at restaurants with gluten-free options. Some schools have a special dining hall for athletes so be sure to ask about it.

If you don’t get clear answers or information, keep at it. Utilize your academic advisor, dean of students, school nurse or health office if needed. They can’t help you if they don’t know about your needs! 

  1. Be specific about your needs 

Utilize the same questions listed above under, “Prior to Applying”. Being gluten free means different things to different people. Don’t assume that when you tell them you have celiac disease they will understand what that means. Be prepared to discuss your needs and safety such as issues with cross-contact; gluten free means 100% gluten free all the time. Explain the consequences of ingesting gluten. 

  1. Talk to the housing department if needed 

Contact housing to discuss dorm placement if needed. Some schools only serve gluten-free meals in one dining hall. They may be able to help you apply to get in a dorm near that dining hall. You should also find out if refrigerators come with the room or if you have to rent them/bring your own (don’t forget to ask if it has a freezer section on the refrigerator). Also ask if there are any limitations or special requests needed for microwaves or fridges. You may also be able to get a waiver to have your own fridge or microwave in a room so you don’t have to share and risk cross-contact.

Arriving on Campus
  1. Partner with the head of dining and the food service staff on campus

You should have already talked with the head of dining or someone in their office before arriving but if not, that’s okay! Either way, go introduce yourself. Establishing a good gluten-free environment for yourself on campus will require communication and ongoing diligence.  

It is important to get to know the daily managers and the staff/servers in the dining hall as well. They will get to know you and will help keep you safe and solve any problems that may arise, they will be your first point of contact daily. Regular feedback and communication will help develop a consistent safe environment for gluten-free eating.  Always remember the dining hall administrators are there to help as well if you feel you need further assistance.

  1. Communication

Once you’ve created these relationships keep up the communication. Let them know if something is working great! Alternatively, let them know if there are any problems so you can solve it together. If you are not sure if an item is gluten free, ASK! If you are not sure about cross-contact, ASK! Be nice and explain why you need to be sure something is 100% gluten free. If you think you’ve been exposed to gluten, let them know immediately. If you are getting the same meal over and over, talk to them about possible additional options.

Let professors and program leaders know sooner than later about your situation in case you get exposed to gluten. Don’t wait until you are too sick to attend class or finish an assignment. Often you can have one standard email or letter ready to send to each one at the beginning of each semester. Let them know you have celiac disease and generally what concerns you have in case you have a reaction. Include how it will affect your class attendance, assignments, testing, how long your recovery time usually is, etc. Ask their preferred way to communicate if you do get sick. Keep it short and to the point, they don’t need to know everything, just how it relates to class expectations.

  1. Documentation

Document your experiences in a journal. If you were exposed to gluten, record what you ate, the day, meal and location. How long were you sick? Did it affect class attendance or assignments, or other activities? 

This information can help the dining hall figure out and fix any problems. Remember you are paying the same for your meals as everyone else! You deserve the same, healthy, well-rounded diet that others are receiving. 

  1. Explain it to new friends

Although celiac disease and eating gluten free are both becoming more well known, there are still many people who are not aware of it and don’t understand it.  Unfortunately, there are also many people who think of gluten free as a fad. Have a brief description you are comfortable sharing, ready in your head. You can always give more information later on if they ask or as relationships develop. It is okay to say it is an allergy if that will help people realize the seriousness of it. It is important to share so they know you need to take certain precautions to remain healthy. 

Your meals may take longer to get at the dining hall, or you may have to eat at a specific dining hall. You will also need to research restaurants if going out. Good friends will be happy to support you and, many times, will try to help by researching more about it themselves. 

It is especially important to tell your roommate(s) about this as you will likely be sharing a room that can be very small. It will be important they know about keeping snacks separate and that they understand cross-contact.

Life On Campus
  1. Find others

Most students discover they are not alone, there are others with celiac disease or gluten intolerances facing the same issues. Check the organized groups available at the school to see if there is already one for people who have celiac disease. Reach out to others utilizing the gluten-free areas. Ask around or post a message on a community board.  You may be able to get a group together to discuss your experiences at school or in the community.

  1. Be prepared

It is expected that, at times, you may miss dining hall hours due to academics, social or sports activities. Keep a small supply of gluten-free food in your dorm room – snacks, microwavable meals, frozen meals if you have a freezer, etc.  Get to know which stores on campus or nearby carry gluten-free snacks or meals. 

Know what you need if you do get exposed to gluten. Everyone reacts differently and you know yourself best. Keep supplies you may need on hand; food and drink that you prefer while recovering, a hot water bottle, etc. Know where health services are and how you would get there if needed. Know how to contact your doctor; keep portal information, emails and phone numbers in a place you can access if you are sick. 

  1. Manage anxiety and stress

Remember that both anxiety and stress negatively affect the digestive system. Learn ways that best help you and set up a schedule to include those activities while adjusting to life away from home. Utilize apps for breathing techniques, yoga or meditation. Get outside to walk, run or do other activities. Look for exercise classes or other options on campus that help lower stress. Utilize mental health services and reach out if you are getting overwhelmed. Whatever works best for you, just remember to incorporate it in your new busy life! 

  1. Have fun

College is an exciting time that allows you to grow personally, socially, and academically! Although you need to be more aware of food than your peers, remember it is not all about the differences. You will make friends and these new friends will become your support system. Look at it as a time to practice your advocacy, social, organizational and negotiation skills. Building these skills will allow you to be your own best advocate.

Additional Information

Weekend Trips

Many times you will want to explore your new college town and/or travel with friends.  It is easy for most people to hop in a car, on a train or plane without much thought, knowing they can buy food anywhere. However, for someone who needs safe gluten-free options, you need to do some pre-planning or quick thinking. 

  • Have some travel food on hand for quick day trips. Keep a supply of grab-and-go food such as protein bars, cheese sticks, canned/boxed soup, microwave meals, peanut butter packs with crackers, hummus and carrot sticks. Know what you can grab quickly from the dining hall such as fruit, yogurt or pre-packaged meals.
  • Have a small cooler or lunch box that you can fill with stuff from your refrigerator – have one that will fit in your beach bag, backpack or other travel bag of choice.  
  • If it is a weekend trip, find out where you will be staying. Volunteer to be in charge of or help with food shopping for the trip.  Research restaurants to suggest ones where you can eat at the destination. 
  • Know your area at school; is there a market for a quick stop on the way out of town for you to grab food and snacks you know you can eat?  
  • If you’re staying at an Airbnb, bring a roll of aluminum foil to use on the grill or oven to prevent cross contact. 

This can be one of the more challenging scenarios at school so you just have to plan ahead. We often hear that students were afraid they wouldn’t be invited on a trip if they spoke up about what they needed.

Don’t let that be you! It’s more important to speak up than to get exposed to gluten and be sick the entire trip, and you deserve to have a great time too! In the end, you will likely find your true friends who will hopefully be more supportive than you can ever imagine. 

How to Talk to your Roommate

Most schools arrange for you to be in touch with your roommate prior to arrival. Take advantage of this to have a quick call, facetime or even text, whichever you are most comfortable with. Utilize this opportunity to let them know you have celiac disease and need to be able to keep food separate in the room.

Have a short explanation ready that you have thought about ahead of time that you can easily share when you talk with new people. If they don’t seem to know or understand celiac disease, tell them it is an allergy that can make you really sick. You can always explain more later.  

Figure out how this is going to work: 

  • Do you each need to order a refrigerator (getting approval through the disabilities office) or are you both okay with sharing and keeping food in containers as needed to prevent cross contact? 
  • Talk about storage of food/snacks and that you should each have your own way of storing food. You may need to explain cross-contact more than once. For example, they may need to know it will be important to keep food off your desk and bed. 
  • Find out if they have any food allergies. You might have more in common than you think! 

Remember to let both your roommate(s) and the RA (Resident Advisor) know about your situation and needs. Based on your comfort level, share with them what happens when you get exposed to gluten. It is better to let them know ahead of time if you get really sick so they don’t get taken by surprise, especially if you are sick for several days. Then, if it does happen they are not overly surprised or concerned and can be supportive, if needed. 

*Seek medical attention if you are experiencing severe symptoms. Check out our Ask the Expert about what to do if you get exposed to gluten here

Alcohol

When you get to the legal age of 21 and want to try alcoholic beverages, you may want to purchase your own drinks when attending parties or going away with friends. It is important to remember that gluten is in many alcoholic beverages, for example, beer, wine coolers, various flavored drinks and some seltzers. 

Check out more information here if you are interested.

College Reviews

This website has more information about colleges, including surveys from college students about their personal experiences.

The Law is on Your Side

If you are having difficulty getting safe, gluten-free options after trying all appropriate channels at the school, remember the law is on your side! Contact the decision-makers at the school if needed such as the Dean of Students or the President. The Department of Justice ruled in 2012 that colleges must provide gluten-free and allergen-free food options. It is not just their job to serve you, but their legal requirement to provide safe meal options. 

Check out these links, which outline the legal settlements and Q&As of your rights as a college student. 

US Department of Justice Agreement with Lesley University

ADA Q&A about Lesley University settlement

US Department of Justice Agreement with Rider University