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Ten Tips for Going to College Gluten-Free

Many colleges and universities provide great gluten-free choices for students. You should find some level of accommodation made for students on special diets, including the gluten-free diet. However, it’s hard to maintain the proper diet when you have little or no control over what a cafeteria staff prepares for you (and how they prepare the food) is even tougher! But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Here are some strategic tips for making it easier to stay gluten-free in college.

Tour colleges

You probably don’t want to choose your college based on the school’s gluten-free policies because that’s ever-changing — fortunately, for the better in most cases. But you should show up to your chosen institutions with a plan in hand. Before you visit, envision your ideal situation and know what you’re not willing to live with.

Peruse policies

Search online for gluten-free friendly schools and explore the quality of life for gluten-free students living on campus. Check out the university website to find school policies related to living and eating on campus.

To really understand school policies and offerings, ask about them during your campus tour. Here’s a list of questions to ask:

  • Does the school have a dietitian who works with students on special diets?

  • Does the school require the purchase of a meal plan? Are exemptions available?

  • Is there a gluten-free menu online with specific gluten-free meals?

  • Is an allowance offered for extra gluten-free food you may need to buy?

  • Is gluten-free food sold in the campus stores or other eating establishments on campus? Can those purchases be used toward the meal plan?

  • Which small appliances does the school allow in the dorms?

  • How long does the school require students to live on campus? Are exceptions made for people who don’t want to live in dorms for dietary reasons?

Canvass the cafeteria

During your visit to various colleges, be sure to drop by the dining halls. And as you stroll through the cafeterias, here are some things to look for:

  • Do signs list the ingredients in each dish and salad dressing that the cafeteria serves?

  • Are allergens, including gluten, listed on each dish?

  • Do cafeteria staff members know what gluten is? Can they explain how food is prepared? Ideally, anyone who is cooking or serving food will have basic knowledge of gluten-free options.

  • Is there a gluten-free section with things such as gluten-free bread and a gluten-free toaster and waffle iron?

  • Are specific gluten-free choices such as pizza, hamburger buns, cookies, and cereal available?

  • Does the cafeteria offer stations where you can get custom-made food, such as an omelet or stir-fry?

Watch for gluten-free serving no-no’s like this one: One university lines the bottom of the bacon pan with bread to soak up extra grease, thereby nullifying the bacon’s gluten-free status! Also keep an eye out for things like utensils that go from a dish containing gluten into the gluten-free items. Steer clear if you see these cross-contamination mistakes, and look instead for pre-wrapped options that the servers don’t handle.

Address administrators

Ask the important questions, but don’t put too much stock in the guy sitting in the office who doesn’t eat in the cafeteria and tells you the school is handling gluten-free issues expertly.

Be sure to connect with these four groups either during a campus visit or during your first week of school:

  • Student Disability Services

  • Residence Life

  • Health Services

  • Dining Services (director)

Connect with other gluten-free students

You’ll likely be teaching your school how to best serve gluten-free students like yourself, and that will benefit those who come after you. Consider banding together with other gluten-free students to share information and resources. Find out whether your school has a gluten-free club. If not, consider starting one to gain a stronger voice with the school administrators — or at least to cook a gluten-free meal together now and then.

Gather groceries

Map out the grocery stores and specialty health stores near the schools you’re interested in attending (or have already chosen to attend). When you’re in town, visit each store and ask at the customer service desk for a list of gluten-free items that the store sells. Most stores have these lists available.

If you’re not used to buying your own gluten-free groceries, try to get a copy of Cecelia’s Marketplace Gluten-Free Grocery Shopping Guide. It lists almost 50,000 gluten-free products that you can find at almost any grocery store. Having this information on hand can be a huge time-saver — not to mention a lifesaver.

Research restaurants

Search online to find restaurants near your school that consider themselves gluten-free friendly. Most places have menus available online, but if not, visit the restaurants that most interest you early on. If nothing else, definitely find out where to get a good gluten-free pizza before the first round of exams begins. Check vegetarian restaurants as well; they often have a nice variety of gluten-free choices.

Order online

You can order many foods online if you happen to be in the middle of nowhere and can’t get find good gluten-free snacks, ingredients, or breads. If you have favorites that are missing from your local area, you can order those as well.

Amazon and many gluten-free shopping sites have hundreds of gluten-free options that come with free shipping if you order enough or have a membership.

Call or write home

If you’re lucky, you take frequent trips to the campus mailroom to get gluten-free care packages. Call, text, or e-mail the people back home to put in early requests for your favorite cookies, goodies, and ingredients. Even if you have a full kitchen that’s well-stocked with your staples for gluten-free cooking, a care package with your favorites from home always feels pretty nice.

Move out

As soon as possible, move out of the dorm and into a place with your own kitchen. You’ll be surprised how drastically your life can improve when you’re in control of your own food.

Some schools don’t require you to live on campus at all; some allow you to skip or modify the required meal plan; and some allow students to live off campus earlier than the official policy states. It’s a nice idea, in theory, to experience dorm living, but if you’re on a restricted diet, the more control you have over your food and living situation, the better.

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