Monday, May 18, 2015

College Confidential: Gluten-Free in College Dos and Don'ts

The view from my university's dining hall
College Confidential is my month-long look at college life with dietary restrictions. From dorm cooking to navigating the dining hall, this all access pass will give tips, tricks, and other tactics for handling a gluten and dairy-free diet in college.

Being gluten-free in college is no easy feat. After all, one's college years are "supposed" to be full of glutenous encounters with cheap Chinese food, late-night delivery pizza, and all-you-can eat indulgence at the dining halls. With the limitations of being gluten-free (or having any dietary restriction), it's inevitable that maintaining a strict observance of one's diet is isolating and often an inconvenient endeavor. 

Following in the footsteps of my latest post covering the first steps for establishing a gluten-free friendly foundation with your college and their dining services, this post is a quick primer with do's and don'ts that I've learned that will help you navigate the college scene easier.

Do: Let Your Roommate Know

Due to a variety of reasons, I did not have a roommate my freshman year, but if you will be going in with another person in a shared living space, it's a good idea to address the elephant in the room sooner than later. Learning to live around a gluten-free person requires an education, so start early by letting your future dorm mate know what your condition and special diet is. You do not have to disclose every fine detail, but a simple awareness that you cannot share utensils, plates, and other cooking necessities will help he or she plan for buying separate items if need be (color coding "safe" and "unsafe" supplies could help). Discuss what's on and off limits with sharing food, and be patient as they adapt to your dietary needs. 

Don't: Be Afraid to Speak Up in the Dining Hall

In my first few attempts at navigating the dining hall, I was so sheepish that I avoided confronting the dining hall workers and stuck with the salad bar for the first few weeks. However, I realized that it was pretty silly to avoid the dining hall workers when I often advocate for myself with chefs, wait staff, and managers when dining out. Starting with a pretty safe station- omelets- I was able to let the line workers there know my gluten and dairy-free needs and they quickly learned to adapt to my requests whenever I'd come in. Changing gloves? Check. Using newly washed utensils? Check. Becoming a "regular" helped immensely as the staff and I quickly established rapport. 

Do: Know Where You Can Get Provisions

If I've learned anything over the past year it's that life happens. Sometimes you're snowed in and the dining halls close. Sometimes you need late-night study fuel, sometimes you're simply too lazy to trek across campus for cafeteria fare. One of my first tasks to complete on my freshman to-do list was to scout out local grocery stores that I could stock up at. With no Whole Foods nearby, I relied on Trader Joe's and The Fresh Market as well as a local independent grocer. The beauty of having several options was that I could create my grocery list around what I wanted from each store. Related to that, being a gluten-free college kid definitely necessitates good freezer packing skills as it's a true art form to squeeze items into a tiny microfridge! If a grocery run is not doable, source out local options for food delivery as an occasional splurge. In Baltimore, I love Order Up, which allows me to order from both independent and big chain restaurants. Some services even offer grocery delivery to make shopping even easier! Need dry goods? Amazon and other online marketplaces are a good place to search out gluten-free products in bulk.

The art of packing a dorm freezer

Don't: Cheat

This tip goes both for academics and dining, but since I'm covering the dining aspect, I'll stick with the latter. When hanging out with friends, dorm mates, and student groups, it's easy to find oneself in a situation where everyone's enjoying delicious smelling pizza, desserts, or even glutenous drinks such as beer. As tempting as it is, the tiniest traces of gluten could have a snowball effect of negativity. As your body struggles against the damage done by gluten, you're not at your best to study, socialize, and enjoy all that college life has to offer. It doesn't take a college degree to realize that no food or drink is worth sacrificing your health. A good way to combat glutenous temptation is to always have something on hand when entering a potentially alluring situation. Bring a tray of gluten-free brownies to a party for you to enjoy as well as share (and with luck, educate). Stash a KIND bar in your backpack when the 4pm hunger monster strikes. Eat a loaded Chipotle burrito bowl before your dorm's pizza party to prevent an empty stomach from taking control.

Do: Be Positive

College is a whole new world of possibilities and opportunities. Take advantage of every moment and jump outside your comfort zone. Take the opportunity to take the reigns of your dietary restrictions and learn how to advocate for yourself "in the real world." After all, it's up to you and only you to take full responsibility for your health. While it can be isolating, frustration, and an all around pain in the you-know-what, being gluten-free in college can bring some unexpected pleasures such as finding gluten-free friends or discovering a cool local restaurant or bakery. Don't let your dietary limitations limit you.

Dorm kitchen pancakes! Who needs cheap gluten-filled pizza when you can make these?

As I said in the first College Confidential post, please note that my experience is unique to me, and will be far different than anyone else's. However, I hope my experience can be a springboard of sorts, providing a helping hand on getting started with navigating the complexities of collegiate dining. Questions, comments, concerns? Do not hesitate to email me for more information and I'll do my best to answer your inquiry. Reach me at:

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