Top 10 Gluten Free College Tips

If you don't have the time to scan all the posts I've written so far about how to thrive gluten free in college, here's a summarized survival guide I wrote for's Gluten Free Buyer's Guide. It will be released in January (with this article inside) and can be ordered for free right here! Enjoy! 

In high school, I pictured college as a world full of midnight burrito runs, late night snacking and study sessions based on heaps of junk food. Classes and social activities also make up college, but teenage life revolves around food by nature. And then came my diagnosis: celiac disease with a side order of a gluten free diet. What's a girl to do? What, in fact, is any gluten-free college student to do to survive - and thrive - in a gluten-filled university? From what I've learned so far, plenty!

1. First, every gluten free college student should become a research expert. Just like you (hopefully) researched your college before applying, check out all the nearby eating options ahead of time. What grocery stores have GF snacks in stock? What student-favorite restaurants offer gluten free? Thanks to the Internet, I know that while my college’s beloved cafĂ© is gluten free heaven, the burrito joint should be avoided at all costs. And if, even after you research, your options are limited, order GF snacks and microwaveable dinners online and in bulk. Tons of online stores, including my personal fave,, offer GF products that won't break the bank or your stomach. For gluten free college kids, the Internet is priceless

2. Second, make friends with the gluten free food providers at your college: the chefs, cafeteria workers, and restaurant managers. The more these people like you, the less likely that gluten will tiptoe into your meal. When I first hit up the head chef of PLNU's main cafeteria, I was nervous, awkward, and worried. Would I sound too needy? What if he didn’t know anything about cooking for a celiac? Several calls (and one face-to-face handshake) later, he knows my name and my dietary needs while I know he is competent in GF cooking and cares about my health. Considering I still forget his name, we’re far from friends, but by graduation I'm determined to be - as every GF college kid should - one of his favorite eaters. 

3. With acrobatic class schedules, though, you won't always have time for cafeteria food. That's where gluten free snacks come in. I know my backpack will hold more snacks than books, but you can stick a protein bar in your favorite knee-high socks if that's what it takes. By always having a protein bar or rice cake on hand, you won't have to risk cross contamination by buying at a random store or go hungry while your friends munch down on packaged chips and popcorn. Don't forget to throw some naturally gluten free snacks, like fruits or vegetables, into your pack either. Healthy, cheap, and easy to find! The Boy and Girl Scout mottos revolve around always being prepared: eating gluten free in college requires the same dedication (and GF cookies).

4. Being prepared requires more than snacks, though. You need boxes with labels and air-tight storage containers to preserve your gluten free food. For containers, I suggest several different sized plastic boxes, your own washable dishes and utensils. I'm even dragging my small cooler to hold my GF munchies during off-campus trips. As for labeling, there’s nothing worse than trudging up to your dorm room to find your microwaveable dinner of gluten free enchiladas has already been devoured. A label won't necessarily prevent this, but hopefully it will help keep your stash untouched. Personally, I plan on covering all of my food containers with: Casey's food. Gluten free cardboard. Don't eat! The more explicitly you explain your food’s gluten free nature, hopefully the less temptation others will have to eat it.

5. The tip of being prepared also comes in handy with another aspect of college: partying! Since I'm not yet of drinking age, I'll focus on the piles of party food instead. The problem is, even if the snack itself is gluten free, cross contamination is rampant. And when the lights are dimmed, it's hard to tell if your hand is full of safe chocolate M&M's or its pretzel infused cousin. My tip? Eat before any social event where the gluten free eating options are questionable. By packing it in before (even with just a light snack), your appetite will be dimmed enough to cut down temptation. I did this before attending my first birthday party since my diagnosis, and the gluten free brownie in my belly yelled a big, "Forget you!" at the gluten-filled cake. No hunger, no problem

6. Whether it's by writing labels or gorging on snacks, always put your health first. It sounds simple, but between the college food temptations and awkward social situations, it can be a challenge. For me, the hardest part living with celiac disease in college so far is the dorm life, where splitting a fridge and a microwave is the norm. Being my typical self, first I agreed to share appliances. Gluten on one side, gluten free on the other right? Well, when I learned about this little thing called cross contamination, I had the humiliating duty of "outing" myself as a celiac and asking for separate fridges via text. I hated writing it, hated sending it, but the fact is my health comes first (even before roommate etiquette) and so should yours.

7. I mentioned the difficulty in "coming out" as a celiac above, but educating others - roomies, friends, even teachers - about your special diet is for the best. Of course, you don't need to walk around campus with a "Gluten = Satan" t-shirt, but if the topic comes up, be honest about your condition. In this way, you not only increase public awareness, but also make your life easier. When I told my friends about my celiac diagnosis, for a few months they still accidentally offered me gluten food, but now they are nearly as vigilant as I am. Also, your professors may be more inclined to extend deadlines and work with any gluten-caused absences if they know about your condition ahead of time. Despite the initial awkwardness, educating others about eating gluten free is a win-win situation. 

8. Beyond educating others, though, to get the most out of college, try to OWN your condition. Don't feel bad about needing extra attention or spending fifteen minutes ordering dinner because of your diet. For most of us, gluten free wasn't a choice, and just like I can't help needing a stepstool to reach items on the top shelf, most gluten free college students can't help needing a special diet. Also, I've found that the less attention I pay to the differences in food between my friends and I, the less attention others pay as well. After all, if you don't point out the elephant in the room, most others sure as heck won't either! 

9. Still, as hard as we try to maintain a gluten free diet in college, realize that slip-ups will happen. You will suffer medical setbacks, get glutened by a romantic, but contaminated, midnight kiss, and spend class clutching your stomach in bed. Don't let these bumps in the roads lower your determination to remain gluten free and don't view a glutening as a failure. So far, I've been glutened once ordering popcorn (with gluten filled toppings, I later learned) trying to have a normal date at the movies. In the painful hours afterwards, I blamed myself plenty. In the end, though, time cured my symptoms better than any amount of regret. In the words of the phenomenally wise Hannah Montana, "Everyone makes mistakes." So (when needed) cry it out, suck it up, and move along. 

10. My most important tip: don't let your gluten free diet limit your enjoyment of college. It is a part of your identity, but not all of it. So go to parties, make gluten-eating friends, and explore all of the other facets of your personality that form you. At the same time, though, instead of viewing your diet as a restriction, try to approach it as an opportunity. Meet kids munching on the same GF cardboard and form a club out of it (the Gut Busters, perhaps?). Take control of your diet and health. Recognize your limits and smash past them, transforming yourself from an unsure freshman to a strong, confident college graduate. 

Even while eating gluten free, you can still enjoy college without losing any of the nourishment or flavor - just order your gluten on the side.


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