The Ultimate Gluten-Free College Survival Guide: 10 Tips to a Successful College Experience
by Max Librach
So, you have to follow a gluten free diet. Sounds challenging, right?
Now imagine following that same gluten free diet, but you move to a new city and you don’t know where any of the gluten free restaurants are.
You don’t know which grocery stores have good gluten free selections, or even where their gluten free sections are.
For the first time in your life you lose access to your mother’s cooking. In fact, you will lose your kitchen altogether and you’ll be lucky to have a locker-sized refrigerator.
You’ve also adopted a new sleep schedule where you’re consistently awake up to 6 hours after restaurants and grocery stores close.
Sounds tough, right? Well, welcome to the life of a college freshman on a gluten free diet.
Going away to college can be one of the biggest challenges for someone with celiac disease. The good news? It can be done, and it can be done successfully and seamlessly.
I was diagnosed when I was 16 so I only had a couple of years to get the gluten free stuff down before heading off to school. I was forced to learn and learn quickly. Below, I’ll share 10 secrets that I picked up during my college experience that I hope will help you with yours.
- Do your research before you go. There’s no reason why you should wait until you show up to school to begin making the transition. As you and your parents are prospecting different schools, make sure you get in touch with the school’s dining services to find out what gluten free options they offer. Some schools like Georgetown University or the University of Connecticut are leap years ahead of other schools in the options they offer their gluten free students.
- Talk to the school’s Registered Dietitian. There were not many dining options for me when I first got to school, but my last two years were entirely different. What made the difference? They hired a new registered dietitian (RD) to manage certain aspects of their dining hall. This particular RD was very protective of her gluten free students. She made sure that the dining hall had a gluten free panini press, toaster and refrigerator filled with all kinds of gluten free food. We could request almost any gluten free item from her and she would order it. She also trained the staff on cross contamination and ordered gluten free soy sauce for the stir-fry station. The lesson here? Your school’s RD has a LOT of power and you need to talk with them and lean on them to exercise that power to your benefit if they aren’t doing it already.
- Research your local late night delivery spots. It won’t be long before you find yourself awake (very) late at night. The inevitable will happen, and you and your friends will get hungry. The natural thing to do in these situations is to call one of the late-night delivery spots to bring you some food. Naturally, it will be tough for you to find something you can eat from one of these places, but there are often at least a couple of options. Don’t wait until you’re put on the spot and need to find something to eat before your friends finish ordering their large pizza with everything on it. Research the local late night delivery spots beforehand, learn their menus and even call them to find out what’s gluten free so you can be prepared for this situation.
- Find the places that sell gluten free beer and cider. While you may not be legally able to drink when you first arrive at school, chances are that you’ll turn 21 while you’re there. Gluten free drinking is becoming easier and easier – which is good for you because sometimes college students like to have a drink to unwind. The problem for you? Usually the only gluten free alcohol on hand will be hard liquor. While cocktails are fine from time to time, you do not want to drink hard liquor every time you want to have a drink. Make sure you always have some gluten free beer or hard cider in your fridge (and make sure your friends keep their hands off!).
- Join your local support group. Whether you already belong to your local support group or not, joining the support group in the city where you’re going to school should be one of the first things you do. There is a good chance that your local group will have all kinds of information on grocery shopping, dining out and other critical resources that will make your transition easier. Check here for a list of local groups, or just perform a simple Google search. If your city doesn’t have one, try starting one!
- Don’t neglect your nutrition. Your eating habits will most likely become less healthy during these memorable years. Between all of the snacking, late night eating and 15-hour study sessions before a test, your nutrition may take a dip. Try to remain cognizant of the extra nutritional needs of somebody with celiac disease.
- Keep lots of easy-to-make gluten free food in your dorm. You’ll see plenty of your fellow students eating their Easy Mac and Ramen Noodles. Both are obviously off limits to you. These “meals” are essential in college for when you don’t want to go all the way to the dining hall and you don’t want to pay to eat out. One of the best options out there (in my opinion) are GoPicnic’s gluten free meals. Additionally, Thai Kitchen’s rice noodle soup bowls are delicious and easy to store. All flavors are gluten free except for ‘Hot and Sour’ and ‘Mushroom’.
- Explore your new city’s gluten free restaurants. Most likely, your trip to college will take you to another city – maybe even to another country. Instead of looking at this as a challenge, consider this a huge opportunity. One of my favorite parts about going to new cities is visiting that city’s famed gluten free establishments. Finding them is easy. Simply put the city name into Gluten Free Travel Site’s search function and read the reviews on that city’s gluten free dining options. Triumph Dining also sells a Gluten Free Restaurant Guide that is updated annually and provides gluten free restaurant listings by city.
- Never leave home without a snack bar. A lot of your time in college will be spent in classrooms, in libraries, on friend’s couches and other places where gluten free food isn’t readily accessible. Worst thing about this is that when there is the small occasion for food (e.g. at the library’s coffee shop) the gluten free options will almost certainly be limited. Don’t let this affect you. Carry around some extra gluten free snack bars in your backpack. My favorite are Larabars, but other great options include Bakery on Main, NOW Energy Bar, ThinkThin, Nogii, Boomi Bar and PureFit.
- Don’t be afraid to study abroad. I saved the most important for last. Whatever happens, do not let your gluten free diet scare you out of a study abroad experience. Studying abroad is one of the most important things you get to do when you’re in college. With a little bit of research, you can travel to virtually any city on the planet and your gluten free diet won’t hold you down one bit. I had the opportunity to study abroad on three separate occasions in college, and they were some of the best experiences of my life!
Don’t Let Your Gluten Free Diet Hold You Back from Anything
A gluten free diet can be difficult, but it’s certainly not as big of a deal as it used to be. College is the time to have fun, learn as much as you can and spread your wings. Don’t let your gluten free diet hold you back from this amazing experience.