Over 3 million Americans have celiac disease, making it a difficult disease to ignore. Fortunately, restaurants and grocery stores have increased the number of gluten-free menu options that they offer, making it easier to meet the needs of customers with celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten. In addition, college cafeterias have begun to adjust their menus to reflect the number of gluten-free diners, but it can still be difficult for students to navigate their way through a cafeteria without the guidance of a knowledgeable dietitian, especially if gluten-free options are few and far between.
“School cafeterias have begun to adapt to a variety of medically necessary dietary restrictions, such as a gluten-free diet for people with celiac disease.” explains Dr. Keith Laskin, medical director of the Celiac Center at Paoli Hospital. “For students with celiac disease, finding safe food to eat can present a major challenge.”
Still, although progress has been made, not all cafeterias offer gluten-free options and, if they do, they may not offer a large variety of options. Here, see how you can help your son or daughter navigate their way through the cafeteria on a gluten-free diet.
“The first and most important step you can take is to learn as much as you can about the gluten-free lifestyle. Once you are comfortable with that, the best thing to do is to talk to those in charge of the dining services,” says Dr. Laskin.
Talk to the school’s dining hall manager about the availability of gluten-free foods, and make it an important consideration in choosing what school you choose, as your college-aged student is probably going to rely on the cafeteria for most of their meals.
In addition to knowing the cafeteria options, discuss living in the dorms as well. If there is a kitchen in your dormitory, typically in a common area, you probably won’t want to cook there for fear of cross-contamination. Instead, see if you are able to get a dorm room that has a personal kitchen. If not, bring a small personal refrigerator or microwave with you for basic cooking and storage.
Off-campus resources for gluten-free living are also important. In researching colleges, look into local restaurants and whether or not their menus pass the gluten-free test.
“During college, part of the fun is going out to eat with friends or ordering a late-night meal. Just because you’re eating a gluten-free diet doesn’t mean you can’t do those things,” says Dr. Laskin. “But know what your options are and explain to your friends why one restaurant might be okay for you to go to, but not another.”
Also, make sure there is a grocery store with gluten-free ingredients and foods available, especially if there are limited cafeteria options. Naturally gluten-free foods are often the best option, but these may not always be practical for college living.
Celiac disease doesn’t have to get in the way of your student’s life away at college. Help them prepare by following these tips and encourage them to connect with other students at similar or nearby schools who have the same condition.
To learn more about celiac disease and how to adjust your diet, visit the Paoli Hospital Celiac Center or make an appointment with one of our gastroenterologists.