In case you didn't know, I have Celiac Disease and just completed my first year away from home at university. And I came back alive, still Celiac Strong! The stress of moving away to a foreign world of academia, new people, new city, total independence, and an autoimmune disease and restricted diet, can and will be scary for anyone. (Yes, even me!). So much sensory overload and changes will make any freshman shiver as they hug their parents one last time and step into the unknown world of college. When you have Celiac Disease or some other food allergy, the world of college is a bit more scary. You don't know exactly how to manage everything from the get-go or whether gluten is lurking right around the corner or under your nose! (The HORROR!)
But I can tell you right here and right now, that it will be OKAY! Really, after the first few weeks, being gluten-free in college was the least of my worries (even being at a school with one o the worst dining plans/set-ups). You can make your necessary diet work where ever you go and you can thrive, have fun, and be healthy. To put it bluntly, you just can't be a stereo-typical "stupid" college student. You need to be vigilant, mature, and take on more responsibly for your health and safety than the average kid. If you don't, then yea, you are at risk for becoming very ill and putting your college experience in jeopardy. But by following these 6 steps and being smart about your disease (or allergies) you'll be just fine!
Once you've decided on "the" school you'll be attending, you can finally start creating your plan of action:
Step 1: Contact Disability ~ Before you even apply for housing, make sure you apply with disability services. This should be done as quickly as possible. I made the mistake of waiting and thus, wasn't able to get certain accommodations. But if done quickly, they may be able to place you in a proper/safe housing situation and all your medical needs will be on file for other reasons like if you do get sick and need to miss class, etc.
Step 2: Contact Dining/Catering Services ~ Once you're all set up with disability services, then it's time to get to know your dining options and the staff. I contacted dining services before I got down to school to get my feelers out for what would be available to me and then I set up a meeting in the specific dining hall I would be using with the manager and staff the day I moved in. I was introduced to the cooks and staff, I got the phone numbers off everyone plus the email with the manager. We planned that I would email out the meals I would need special ordered at the beginning of ever week to the manager. This was a bit annoying at times and was messed up many, but I always ended up with safe food. Think things like plain chicken, salmon, tilapia, steamed veggies. It was a great dinner option for me that still allowed me to cook other components to complete the meal.
Step 3: Take a Tour Of The Dining Hall/Kitchen & Near By Establishments ~If you can, during your meeting, see if you can tour the kitchen for some piece of mind and have the staff show you where your food will be prepared. Cross contamination is a concern, so make sure that won't happen. Also get to know the other safe option available in your dining hall. Take a look at drinks, fruit cups, salad bar, etc. See how those are set up and if they may be safe. You will also want to create a list of nearby restaurants you can be safe eating at as well as places to pick up needed groceries. I had a Safeway and Whole Foods I could go to and get my weekly staples.
Step 4: Talk To Your Roommates & Establish Boundaries ~ One of the most important things is to establish a good open relationship with your roommate(s). Because I went through disability services, I was able to transfer out of my 6-person-no-kitchen dorm and move into a dorm that had a FULL kitchen (per floor) and dorm rooms that accommodated 4 people with a shared bathroom, and common room which had a full fridge and freezer, small counter and cabinets, and microwave. We each then had our own separate little "bedroom". I was able to keep most of my food right in my own private room which meant no cross-contamination or "accidental sharing". Only own of my other roommates really used the fridge/freezer, so there was plenty of space for my needed essentials. Before I prepared anything on the counter, I would clean it off (bring tons of sanitizing wipes), and I had my plates/boards to cut on. Right off the bat, I told my roommates what I couldn't eat and even though I'm not sure they fully understood, we never had any problems (since there really was never any food contact). But making sure your roommate(s) are aware of your restrictions clearly is essential. If you have a life threatening food allergy (like no peanuts), you should speak to way before hand or try to get real special dorm accommodations.
Step 5: Organize & Keep Track of Essential Foods/Kitchen Tools ~With that shared kitchen on my floor, I had access to an oven and stove top. There were also a bunch of appliances kids brought with them and let down there to "share". Obviously, that sharing option is a big no-no for a celiac or one with allergies. What I brought down to college with me (and kept in my dorm room) was: pots, non-stick pan, baking sheet, cutting board, waffle maker, mini food processor, knifes, utensils, plates, bowls, cups, storage containers, etc. Depending on your school, rice cookers, toasters, or a small oven may be okay. Each school is different though, so make sure you check and ask. I also had rolls of parchment, foil, plastic, etc. Then of course all the non-perishable foods. Think canned beans, fish, soup, tomatoes, bars, tons of snacks, cereal, grains, lentils, protein powder, potatoes (they last awhile), tons of spices/herbs, nut butters, nuts, vinegars, condiments, etc. Obviously, I brought down more than the usual kid, not only for my restrictions, but also for cooking/food blogger purposes. Then my weekly grocery haul would include nut milks, hummus, bread/tortillas (freezer), tons of veggies/fruit, frozen veggies/fruit, (and always more potatoes <--- life savor!). I made sure I would check everything I had before I bought anything new, and froze things I knew I wouldn't finish. You don't want to blow all your money on food if you don't need it, so plan accordingly and remember that the freezer is your friend!
Step 6: Learn How To Clean, Communicate, & Check ~Like I mentioned in step ⅘, you need to make sure every surface is clean before any of your food comes close to it. Just like at home, you don't want to get sick from a silly "crumb-contamination mishap". If I had to cook something down in the kitchen I would even lay out a bunch of paper towels before I even put a plate down (there would be random pasta all over everything in there!). But learning to clean, not only cooking areas, but handles, and switches, is essential for cross-contamination prevention. Communication comes in not only with your roommates (let them know your needs and if you ever feel uncomfortable! People want you to feel safe and want help...really!), but also with the dining staff. I had to have some angry emails sent, as there is going to be miscommunication at times, but I always stated my concerns and everyone was helpful. Not just the dining staff, but the staff in my whole building knew me by name within the first few months. You can create some great relationships with them and they really do want to see you succeed, be safe, healthy, and happy. Finally, checking. Every food you buy, every place you decide to eat ate, every thing, must be checked. You should already be a pro at label-reading for you celiac or food allergy, but it becomes so much more when the world gets even bigger and more and more things will be presented to you. The best thing you can do to keep yourself safe is to learn to be skeptical and check everything. (For example, don't take "candy" from a stranger) 😉
Bonus: Have Fun & Don't Stress! ~ You may be a bit bummed when you can't eat the free pizza or cookie being offered at some party or event (but you should be used to declining!), but it will be okay and life will go on. Once you get into a new routine, figure out how everything will work, learn the 3 "C's", and settle, you won't have to stress. Have fun! This place will be your new home for months at a time and you deserve to feel safe while enjoying the college experience as much as you can. If you worry about food and what you can't have 24/7, you will miss out on a lot and you don't need the added stress! Just know that you are a gluten-free warrior and being safe, healthy, aware, and open to communication will all stay and become second nature once you settle in, create your plan of action, and embrace everything. Of course it won't be easy and there will be mishaps, but as you find your way, navigating college as a Celiac or with any food allergy, you will get stronger, it will get easier, and you'll grow and learn so much along the way. Not only will you be growing your independence like any typical college student, but you'll also be growing so much through the additional hurdles you will face! Bravo!
So tell me:
+ Did you have to navigate Celiac Disease or food allergies while you were in college?
+ What do you think you #1 stresser was your first year of college? I always felt like I never had enough time. But I did, I had tons of time.
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