Living Gluten-Free in the College World

Posted in Advice

Guest blogger, Zara Young, used her first hand experience to respond to the points I made in my earlier post, Dorms, Tailgating & Cafeterias: Gluten-Free College Advice. Zara continues to make the most of her college experience, and does not let celiac get in the way of enjoying University of Vermont.  I am amazed by her positive attitude and the proactive way she embraces her gluten-free life.  From leading the UVM celiac group to running marathons, Zara doesn’t let anything stop her.

ZaraBe Prepared: I always keep a simple and easy snack like rice cakes and peanut butter in my room.  They are easy and tasty!  I bring rice cakes with peanut butter to class with me when I do not have time to sit down for lunch on campus.  I also like to mix it up and top this snack with raisins, chocolate chips, banana slices, etc.  Cereal is also a necessity to have on hand in the dorm room.  My favorite cereal combination is Nature’s Path Whole O’s mixed with Nature’s Path Mesa Sunrise.  I also enjoy the GF Cinnamon Chex when I have a sweet tooth. I keep milk in my mini-fridge for when I want a full bowl of cereal, but also take dry cereal with me sometimes as a snack.  My roommate and I also have two “food baskets” in our room- one gluten free and one for her gluten-filled snacks.

Late Night Snacks: This is one of the harder parts of being gluten free at college.  Watching friends devour late night snacks like pizza definitely requires self-control!  My all time favorite “late night snack” to have on hand in my dorm room, is the Thai Kitchen instant soup.  It is essentially the gluten free version of Ramen.  There is a microwave in the common room on my hall that I use to make the Thai Kitchen easily in just minutes.  There is also a pizza place in downtown Burlington called Mr. Harley’s that is open late night.  Mr. Harley’s serves all sorts of sports-pub food and appetizers along with their pizza, including the tastiest sweet potato french fries.  I have been there during slower hours to discover that they fry their potatoes and their battered foods in separate oils at a decent distance from each other in order to keep the french fries gluten free!

Make Friends With The People Who Make Your Food: This is one part of having Celiac that I am good at doing!  It may be hard at first, but being confident about what you want to (and, more importantly, what you can) eat is very important.  The good news is most people now know a good bit about Celiac Disease or have at least heard of it.  Whenever I come across someone who doesn’t know too much about it, I take the opportunity to teach him or her about celiac in a way that makes them eager to help me out. I briefly describe gluten intolerances, explain in detail what exactly gluten is, and I add a couple examples of foods that unexpectedly contain gluten, such as soy sauce.  When I was a freshman at boarding school, I even printed out some info about Celiac for the cooks in the dining hall to post.  After establishing a good friendship with the people who cooked my food, they wanted to feed me exactly what I was comfortable eating.

The University of Vermont does an amazing job supporting a gluten-free diet.  Each dining hall has a gluten free section.  There is gluten free cereal, bread, frozen waffles, bagels, and cookies.  There are also separate jelly bins and a separate toaster reserved to be 100% gluten free.  The other dining services at UVM serve special gluten-free foods like falafels, soup, sandwiches, and corn tortilla quesadillas and tacos.  The people in the deli line are required to change their gloves and have a clean surface to prepare the gluten-free meals.  I also made friends with the man who makes sautéed vegetable wraps at one of my favorite places to eat.  He knows me now, and understands the importance of replacing the wrap with rice or quinoa then serve it all piled together on a plate.

If dining services at other colleges or boarding schools do not have these options, I suggest speaking directly to the chefs during slow hours, not at mealtime.  In high school, the chefs let me keep my own gluten-free bread and cereal in the dining hall.  The most important part to me about making friends with the people who cook your food is to get them excited about making gluten-free options available.  After exploring different places to eat on campus, you will find steady gluten-free options that you trust.  You should have the same opportunities to eat on campuses that other students do!

Tailgating:  To be honest, UVM does not have tailgating.  (In fact, it is the only Division I state university without a football team.)  However, I do like tailgating when visiting friends at other schools.  My mom also knows I enjoy events like this.  For example, at the Apple Blossom Festival parades in my hometown of Winchester, VA, all of the parade route yard parties have all sorts of delicious, open container snacks and hors d’oeuvres.  At Apple Blossom in 2004 (just one month after being diagnosed), my mom brought a bag of Lundberg gluten free rice chips with an attractive serving dish to some of the places we were invited.  The bowl of chips was set aside where no one else would contaminate them.  At first I was embarrassed to have a bowl set aside for my “special” snacks.  I quickly got over that, though, and was thankful not to have to carry my own snack or just not eat anything at all.   Keeping snacks off to the side or in my own bag is a discrete way of going about having gluten free treats at an event with lots of grab-and-go foods without having to ask or worry about cross contamination from foods I assumed would be gluten free.

Weekend Activities:  Whenever my friends and I take weekend trips to go skiing, hiking, etc., I always get a little apprehensive about meal times.  It is definitely necessary to bring my own breakfast.  It is easy to pack a box of cereal, and usually fruit and milk during a grocery store trip can be communal and remain uncontaminated during the weekend.  If we will not be cooking or if the group is too big to cook an entirely gluten free meal, I bring my own instant gluten free dinners.  Although they are not the tastiest, frozen Amy’s entrees and instant Thai Kitchen soups do the trick.  Of course for outdoor activities, fruit and nut bars are the perfect travel size snack packed with lots of energy.

I came along another bump in the road regarding easy, gluten free energy bars when I ran my first marathon in October 2009.  I definitely needed a little something to raise my blood sugar level during the race.  I do not prefer the small packs of energy “goo,” and of course could not have someone handing me bite size pieces of a peanut butter sandwich that would not crumble in a quick hand off.  The best option I came up with was having my sister pass me bite-size pieces of the gluten free bar made by Clif Bar called Clif Nectar. (I prefer the Lemon Vanilla Cashew flavor.)  It is much easier to chew (less crunchy) than the normal gluten free fruit and nut bars, but is still packed with lots of nutrients and energy!

Adjusting to the gluten free college life definitely takes time, and doesn’t happen instantly.  Initially, I was very anxious and hesitant about eating food that I did not prepare or that was not clearly labeled “gluten free.”  I started off just eating simple, low ingredient foods like salad until I fell into the groove of my schedule to figure out when and where I needed to eat.  As increasingly more people discover gluten intolerances, more and more gluten free options become available.  Living gluten-free only gets easier each day, even for college students!

4 responses to “Living Gluten-Free in the College World”

  1. Antionette Adesso says:

    Wonderful post! I entirely agree with you.

  2. Zandile Gamache says:

    Wow Zara! you are truly an inspiration!

  3. Betsy says:

    Hi Amy. I’m so glad this article was helpful to you. Let me know how the college transition goes!

  4. Amy Hagenston says:

    What a great article! I’m 17 and gluten intolerant. I leave for college next fall and after my college visit, I started to get worried about what i’d eat and where i’d get it. Thank you!