How to Eat Gluten Free (and Healthy!) in College Dining Halls

Written by Emily Wagener. Emily is an Udi’s Campus Ambassador at Clemson University. She is currently a senior studying food science with an emphasis in product development and has been an avid fan of Udi’s products for years.

Gluten Free Dining In CollegeTransitioning from a seemingly tranquil and straightforward high school cafeteria to a full-sized college dining hall is an unforgettable experience. Suddenly, your choices expand from only one or two dishes per lunch to over ten at nearly all times of the day! Finding both healthy and gluten free dishes can be a challenge for students, especially those new to the lifestyle. Here are a few helpful hints to take control and get your eating habits on track:

1. Go to the top—Contact your University’s dietician or dining hall manager
Whether you are a newly diagnosed student or heading to college for the first time this fall, one of the first things you should do is  schedule a meeting with your school’s dietician or dining hall manager. Talk to them about your dietary needs/restrictions, it is their job to ensure that all students can eat safely, so they should be willing to assist you in finding gluten free options.

2. Get friendly with the dining hall front line staff
Although alerting upper management to your situation is important, the people who really matter are those serving your food on a daily basis. Make an effort to be a face they’ll recognize by getting to know them. You’ll find that asking for your veggie stir-fry to be prepared in a clean pan will be less painful that way.

3. Focus on the veggies
Although surviving on Udi’s Double Chocolate muffins sounds like a fantastic dream, the reality is that your body needs balanced nutrition in order to keep up with the intensity of a college schedule. Every dining hall should have a well-stocked salad bar—find yours! Not only does eating fresh veggies provide plenty of nutrients and fiber for your body, but doing so on a regular basis will stave off the freshman fifteen!

4. Get vocal, get connected
Many campuses have allergen-free clubs or organizations where you can meet people just like yourself.  Connecting with groups like these build a louder voice when menu changes are needed to accommodate students with dietary restrictions and can help simplify the transition to college life.  Udi’s Gluten Free Foods  brand ambassadors, such as myself,  lead allergen clubs on campuses throughout America. Search your school’s channels for yours, or contact Katie at collegeambassadors@udisglutenfree.com to start your own!

5. Moderation
As with all things, the key to maintaining a balanced diet is moderation. You may be lucky enough to convince your school to supply endless gluten free baked macaroni or yummy desserts, but keep in mind that just because you CAN eat unlimited amounts of these things, doesn’t mean you should!

What is your experience eating gluten free and healthy in college dining halls? Do you receive a lot of support or have you helped guide changes in the way your university handles students with special dietary needs such as those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease?

9 Responses to “How to Eat Gluten Free (and Healthy!) in College Dining Halls”

  1. Kate says:

    When I was in college these last 4 years, I worked in a university dining hall to make sure I knew what I was eating. Cross-contamination is a huge huge HUGE problem. Most students working there were not aware of how serious celiac conditions are (or even what gluten is!!).

    The dining services might say there is a separate cutting board and knife for gluten-free sandwiches, however, wheat breadcrumbs fall into all the sandwich meats and toppings. Students with celiac need to instruct the server to wash his/her hands, change gloves, get fresh meat and veggies for their sandwich from the refrigerator, and then use the separate cutting board and knife. I would avoid getting the sandwich toasted unless you know that the dining hall has a separate gluten-free toaster oven.

    There is usually some sort of self-serve salad bar. This normally has croutons spilled over it a few times each meal shift, and dressing drippings mix together with all the other dressings. But, you can usually ask an employee to make you a fresh salad from uncontaminated veggies in the back refrigerator. If anyone gives you a hard time about it, I’d take a picture of the contaminated salad bar and complain (or just flat out complain..).

    Also, ask if there are any other gluten-free things available to eat. We had frozen gluten-free blueberry muffins and waffles available upon request.

    Communication is key to make sure you don’t get sick often. There are usually a few safe things to eat, especially if you ask for uncontaminated food from the refrigerators and heated storage passes. You just need to really emphasize your condition, and nicely walk the server through any safe food handling procedure you need–and the employees will usually try their best to accommodate you.

    But, after working and eating at a university dining hall, I think it’s best to avoid eating in those places as much as possible. The meals are overly expensive, and since there is an extremely narrow meal selection, the food gets old very, very quickly….

  2. Becky says:

    If you’re having trouble getting the dining services to appropriately accommodate you, or waive your meal plan, you might try contacting your school’s disability services office. Celiac meets the definition of a disability (a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, the life activity being digestion). Federal law prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of disability and may require them to make reasonable modifications to policies.

  3. Sheila says:

    Ugh… You all don’t give me much hope. My son is a junior in high school now and I have started some conversations with the universities that he is most interested. One of them gave me a great answer and another not so much. I wonder if you need to take the route of going through the school to discuss them being able to accommodate you as a Celiac (ADA). I did this with the high school and finally got them to pull through and this year has been great for him to be able to buy lunches again like a normal kid. Sometimes the food is just so-so but Way better than having to pack everyday! I wish you all well. It is so frustrating!

  4. Liz E says:

    I have the luck to be at a school that really cares about their diet restricted students. Communication really is key! Just yesterday I was enjoying a gluten-free pizza and they gave me the entire thing which left a LOT of waste. I told them simply to try individual sized portions or cutting the dough in half before baking. Not only am I encouraged to talk to the staff, they know me by name or by face and make it a priority to help me if there is a problem. I know most of them by name and they always keep me ahead on what’s new to the gluten-free area. One of the managers even told me to call her Mom because she is determined to help me just as if I was her daughter. We have an entire fridge full of breads, muffins, bagels, and other items. We also have cereal, pasta, and our own condiments set aside for us. We also have our own toaster and a small hot entree area that is specifically gluten-free. Also they are very careful about cross contamination. No one touches my food without washed hands, fresh gloves and a clean plate from the bottom of the pile so they can’t get me sick. The best thing really is to email the people at the top. I emailed and the next day they called and asked me for suggestions. Keep trying and things CAN change!

  5. Carol says:

    The comments above reflect isues that the consumer can observe. After working in food service, I am even more concerned about the kitchen. Cookie sheets, collanders and pots that have a crust from previous uses that nobody cared if it was perfectly clean as long as it was sterilized in the dish washer… work surfaces that were used for one kind of prep, then another with cleaning that would be fine for non gluten free people, but those people just see “bread crumbs are breadcrumbs.” I am very careful about where I eat out. I am more likely to go to a restaurant that is small and family owned where there is more personalized attention.

  6. Susan Granquist says:

    Awareness doesn’t always solve the problem. I’ve given up on buying the gluten-free products from my college dining service. When I first started school there was some serious effort to provide gluten-free options along with the endless supply of pizza, pastries and hamburgers. Cross-contact was a problem, I watched a young woman pick up my muffin with the gloves she used to pick up the pastry for the person ahead of me. I pointed out the problem with doing that and she got me another one. The gluten-free was being combined with vegan and when I pointed out that gluten intolerance was not a life style or dietary choice and that eggs provided nutritional ingredients I got the reply, “But it’s more popular that way.”
    But at least there was some serious effort, this year there was some kind of “reduction in staff” and the gluten-free items are few and far between and I’ve gotten sick every time I have eaten them. Cross-contamination is the major problem still.

  7. Shelbe Dancause says:

    I have had some terrible experiences with the food service company at the college I attend. The first week of school I decided to advocate for myself and talk with the head chef, unfortunately that started the downward spiral. I have been served bread that is hardly edible that you can barely but into, bread that was covered in bugs and mold, the food company mislabeled food, or doesn’t label things at all leaving me sick for three to four hours on end, and staff that believe I can live on a diet of chicken nuggets, French toast, sandwich meat, and salad! I am so glad to almost be done with school. The food company at my college is extremely unknowledgable about gluten free foods and how it is for someone to have a sensitivity towards food

  8. Hanna Hayden says:

    Eating gluten free at the University of Denver is nearly impossible. While each of the dishes served includes allergen information so I can generally be sure of what I am (or am not) eating, getting friendly with the kitchen staff included them telling me that many of those cards are not up to date. There are very limited options for eating gluten free in our cafeterias. They have gluten free pasta (if you give them a day’s heads up) and they have gluten free pasta (if you want a sandwich). Every day…it’s either pasta, a sandwich or a salad. There is no variety. I did speak with staff higher up, including the head of our dining services. He said that there was not enough demand for gluten free products at DU so they aren’t willing to make the switch. Something as simple as purchasing wheat-free soy sauce would allow GF students to eat so many more dishes (as most of the sauces are soy-based).

  9. Gabrielle Miller says:

    My university requires all freshmen and sophomores to have a meal plan, unless there are severe dietary restrictions. I tried to get exempt from mine because I have celiac disease, and there weren’t very many options available in my opinion. I was not able to get the exemption because they claimed there were many gluten free foods available. It’s true that for less sensitive people, there are quite a few options available. All the sandwich lines provide a gluten free option, there are plenty of salad bars, and many of the chips offered are gluten free. However, I have observed and experienced a lack of training for handling gluten free food safely. In the breakfast line, the same tongs are used to serve the french toast, eggs, and bacon. At the sub lines, after changing gloves upon my request, the server wiped crumbs from other bread off the serving area and used that same hand to handle my food. It’s also very hard to control cross-contamination at salad bars where students can use the same utensils to serve themselves croutons, and often get crumbs everywhere across the bar. I’ve tried to get exempt from the meal plan, claiming lack of safe gluten free options, twice, meeting with the school dietician, and contacting the dining hall manager. Both are quite confident in the safety of their food, but I’m not.

Leave a Reply


seven − 3 =