Lessons from a College Freshman with Celiac

Like most college freshmen, I stepped foot on campus totally lost. What would my classes be like? The people? My bed? Unlike most freshman, though, I was dragging more than clothes to my dorm room: celiac disease also hitched a ride.

Now that I'm almost an official sophomore in college (gasp!) I look back at my freshman naivety with a rueful smile. So what have I learned?

1. First, gluten free doesn't mean "celiac friendly" when it comes to most college cafeterias. When I first learned that Point Loma Nazarene University had a "Simple Servings" section free of the top 8 food allergens, Mom and I did a victory dance in our living room. By the end of my first two weeks at school, though, I was ready to do a moon-walk back to the safety of my kitchen at home. Sure, those three serving trays were gluten free. Sure, hypothetically, I could survive off of Simple Servings and the salad bar

The Fridge portion of Simple Servings

But life isn't hypothetical. Cross contamination was rampant throughout my cafeteria, pasta and croutons playing footsie with lettuce and spinach. Even worse, it seems like everyone preferred plain chicken breast, rice and peas to the cafeteria's gluten-filled alternatives. And that left zero allergen-free food for me - one of the only students who actually needed it.

Every college is different. Yours might succeed in the generic gluten free plan that mine failed at. If you do end up in my situation, though, transferring isn't imminent. I'm still loving (and stuffing my face) at PLNU, this time on a personalized diet plan where my food is specially ordered and made by the cafeteria chefs. Check out my instagram to see what goodies I chow down on every day! 

2. Next, your stuff/food ratio should be 1:2. That means for every cute crop t-shirt and pound of paper and books, bring twice as much food. It's a pain in the butt. I feel like a weirdo carting bags of Larabars, fresh fruit, rice cakes and homemade muffins and pancakes to be stuffed and frozen in my mini fridge with the determination of a killer hiding the evidence (and I do murder those goodies, let me tell you). 

My food haul returning from Spring Break...

Once my dorm shelves are stocked and closets full, though, I couldn't be happier. Because, like it or not, food is to the celiac like extra shoes and sweaters are to the fashionista. My first weeks at PLNU were hungry ones, mainly because I valued my stuff over my snacks. Now, the priorities and quantities have shifted and my stomach couldn't be happier. Fact is, with celiac, you aren't just a college freshman. You're a foodie, too. 

3. Thirdly, the cafeteria chefs aren't feeders - they're friends. It didn't start out this way. The PLNU chefs scared me with their professional attire and chaotic working environment. I worried about burdening them with overcomplicated meals orders and increasing their stress by changing the time I needed to eat. Now, we work with each other because that's what friends do.

The chefs at my school are…just right.

Because the chefs don't just give me safe food. They don't just relieve me of worries about whether I'll eat tonight or be glutened. They ask me about my school work and my plans for the upcoming weekend. They've watched me gain a energy in my step, a little weight on my body and a smile on my face. And they never stop asking what they can improve. On the phone one night, I jokingly told my mom, "I need a husband who'll treat my health and food as well as these campus chefs."

But I wasn't really kidding

4. Next, on the topic of friendship, no matter how big or small the college, it's unlikely that someone with food allergies will be the only one. My school is small. Like five-kids-in-a-majors-class-small. So I had no idea if I would be the only medically gluten free gal or guy on campus. Boy was I surprised! Not only do two of my best friends have severe food intolerances, but a week hardly goes by when people see my "Celiac Awareness" water bottle and share their own story of being gluten intolerant/gluten sensitive or allergic to XY or Z. 

This baby is the ultimate wingman...

It's a sad fact, but food allergies and intolerance only seem to be increasing in number. And while that stinks on an individual basis, I love that it has caused me to never be alone in my struggle with food. And I don't think I'll ever be alone, even next semester when I'll lose my allergen friends to graduation and studying-abroad. More kids are coming - an entire freshman class. And there will probably be at least one with dietary needs in search of a culinary mentor. I hope that someone will be me.

5. Because the final lesson freshman year had taught me is that kicking academic and social butt as a gluten free freshman is totally possible! It's almost a year since my celiac disease diagnosis and almost eleven months since I first stepped foot on my college campus. And despite the detours, the wrong turns and the red lights, I'm happy with my destination. And even happier to share my road map for others traveling in the same direction.

Finally finding my balance!

Are you in college with celiac/allergies/intolerance? What are your tips for the college freshman, food or otherwise? Comment below!


  1. You are a rockstar writer! Loved this posting. :-)

  2. As always, I LOVE reading your posts Casey :) I personally can relate to the stuff/food ratio, I never leave my apartment without an arsenal of snacks/foods. Today, I went out with my girlfriends and legit brought my own cooler to the restaraunt because I knew I could only eat salad there, and well I am not a rabbit! KEEP UP THE AMAZING JOB, YOU'RE NOT SURVIVING, YOU'RE THRIVING and almost done with your first year :D Congrats!
    ANYWAY - I nominated you for a Liebster Award :) see here! http://www.eatsandexercisebyamber.com/1/post/2014/04/liebster-award.html

    1. Thank you so much! Yep, I definitely feel like people with food allergies have a common bond of carrying around a lot of stuff! ;) Correlation of celiacs and back aches, maybe? I've done the cooler too - so handy!

      Wow! I am super honored by your nomination! Thank YOU for always reminding me to be positive! You help me be determined to thrive! :)

  3. love this! I totally agree with about everything you said in this post!! I always pack way more food bags than clothes bags. You should see my bookshelf in my dorm room, it is no longer a bookshelf, but a pantry for all my food haha! I have definitely noticed that the salad bar at my cafeteria can be a source of cross contamination. I have been off/on sick lately so I try to avoid it at all costs and have the awesome chefs cook me a meal. They are so awesome, like you said! Good luck with the end of your freshman year, Casey!! :)

    1. Thank you so much for the praise and the comment! Haha yep I should take a picture of my bookshelf - all food!! Yuck - I hope that you figure the cross contamination out. It's definitely a pain in the booty! Have an awesome end of your year, too! When does your school year end? :)

  4. thanks, Casey! yeah cross contamination sucks, it is occurring way too often so I need to be more careful…and I am done with classes May 9th and my last final is a month from today, May 14th. :)


Post a Comment

Popular Posts