Celiac 101: Speaking with Your University’s Dining Services

1015771_605381149482415_163624369_oYour university’s Dining Services is one of the most crucial tools in helping you adhere to the gluten-free diet throughout college.  The efficiency and helpfulness of each school’s dining program varies and is unique; while I’ve had a fantastic experience at Rice University, I have also heard stories from other schools that chronicle less positive experiences.  Whatever the case may be, I wanted to devote a blog post in my Celiac 101 series to a topic that deals with approaching and interacting with your school’s dining services.  I recognize that every student will have a different experience, but I’m hoping this general outline can help you navigate through any problems that may arise!

Upon accepting an offer to a school

The best thing to do upon accepting an offer of admission to your school is to contact Dining Services and inquire about the possibility of gluten-free accommodation.  I recommend sending an email to the head of Dining Services, or someone in a head position who has dealt with students who have allergies and intolerances before.  Since most universities have a number of different dining halls (depending on your class schedule, you might eat at more than one dining hall), you want to speak with someone well acquainted with dining operations on a whole. In your email, you should explain why you require a gluten-free diet; it’s helpful to perhaps explain the severity of celiac disease, as well as the symptoms you experience if you consume gluten.  Inquire as to how the university accommodates its gluten-free students; are there specific dining halls at the university that are better for celiacs?  Based on the response you receive, you can begin to plan how you will manage your gluten-free diet in college. If Dining Services is unwilling to work with you, you can prepare by cooking your own food in an on or off-campus apartment with a kitchen, or by seeing if you can take legal action to protect yourself (see Section II). If your school is eager to help accommodate your diet, you can relax and prepare for academics, move-in and extra curricular activities.  

Do you need Section 504 of the Americans With Disabilities Act?

I’ve touched upon the American with Disabilities Act in my previous post, Celiac Disease in the News: Discrimination Based on Our Diet, and as I mentioned, would advocate for classification. Though private universities that do not receive federal financial assistance are not subject to Section 504, they are, however, subject to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by institutions like universities. Having the classification would allow for legal protection were your school unwilling to accommodate your diet.

Upon arriving

Hopefully, by the time you’ve arrived to your university, you have at least spoken to someone within your school’s dining department about your allergy or intolerance; during the time prior to your arrival, your point of contact has probably been someone on the administrative side of things. My recommendation for those arriving to campus is to immediately introduce yourself to the chefs and other staff members who work in the kitchen and establish a relationship with those who are preparing your food. Let the chefs see the face behind the allergy or intolerance! I like to ask the chefs about the food allergy training they’ve had at culinary school, conferences, or simply through prior experience.

Most importantly, thank your chefs and staff for the work they do to accommodate your diet and keep you safe; I am eternally grateful for the tremendous amount of work the chefs and dining staff does at Rice University to prepare meals that are free from gluten, as well as delicious. It is clear that the chefs put a time and thought into the meals they prepare, and I’m frequently treated to some desserts that are made by our pastry chefs specifically for students with celiac disease. As an intern with Rice’s Housing and Dining department, I frequent the kitchens, and it is not uncommon to see a chef preparing a special dinner or dessert for a student who is unable to eat the foods that are on the menu for that night.  

If There is Accidental Contamination

If your school’s kitchen prepares a meal that is supposed to be gluten-free, but you end up getting sick, it’s important to open up dialogue with your school’s dining services and chefs as soon as possible. Though it might seem less stressful to not say anything when this occurs, having a conversation with your school’s dining services not only benefits you and the university but potentially keeps future students from having to go through a similar experience that ends up detrimental to their health. It’s important that in situations such as these, to take on a forgiving, rather than accusatory tone when speaking with the person who oversees the kitchen. My advice is to explain the specifics of the situation; was something labeled incorrectly, or was this an issue of cross-contamination? You should work with dining services to figure out where the problem occurred, and work on ways to prevent the mistake from occurring again!  
How have you approached your school’s dining services? Share you experiences and recommendations with me below!

Celiac 101: “Gluten-Proofing” Your Dorm Room

Posing for a picture in my dorm room on my first day of freshman year at Rice University!

Posing for a picture in my dorm room on my first day of freshman year at Rice University!

Eating in a dining hall on a college campus can sometimes be a risk for college students with celiac disease. For the first time, neither you nor your family is in complete control of preparing the gluten-free foods you eat.  Even if a school has incredible gluten-free accommodations, there is always the potential for accidental gluten ingestion (this can occur, for example, if you eat something that you assume to be gluten-free because you prepare it without gluten at home). While I HOPE that accidents like that are rare for most gluten-free college students, the risk is still there and, as a result, requires extra vigilance. Thankfully, for a college student with celiac disease, your dorm room is an incredibly safe space; because it’s where you live, you have complete control in ensuring that your dorm room remains ‘gluten-free’. For this post in my Celiac 101 Series, I wanted to focus on ways to ‘gluten-proof’ your dorm room, and provide a list of tips for keeping your dorm room safe. From stocking your drawers with the best gluten-free snacks, to letting your new roommate know about your dietary accommodations, I hope this post helps you create the ultimate safe space!!

1. Gadgets that will help with the Gluten-Free Diet

There a few kitchen appliances that should definitely travel with you to college this semester; certain items are crucial in your to prep your dorm room and create a gluten-free haven. I highly recommend bringing a refrigerator in order to keep extra gluten-free food.  This will be important for any cravings you have during late night studying, and is also valuable for keeping healthier options like your favorite fruits and vegetables (should they be unavailable in your dorm room). Your own refrigerator, rather than the communal fridge on your floor, keeps your food safe, and minimizes the chance that someone will take your food. Personally, I think it’s a good idea to keep the refrigerator in your room specifically gluten-free in order to prevent cross-contamination and mix-ups with other students.

If your school allows it, I also recommend a microwave and refrigerator combo! It’s always a good idea to keep a microwave in your room; in the event that there aren’t viable gluten-free options in your cafeteria one night, you can quickly microwave a frozen meal from companies such as Amy’s Kitchen , Ian’s or Glutenfreeda!  You’ll also want the ability  to microwave a gluten-free pizza if you get an occasional late-night craving for a college staple! As a student with celiac disease, its crucial to have a quick and accessible gluten-free options.  You don’t want to be stuck in a situation where you’re hungry and surrounded only by gluten-containing foods.

It’s also a good idea to bring your own sponges. If there’s a kitchen in your dorm with sponges, you DON’T want to use these; these can contaminate your utensils and dishes if they were once used to wash a plate that had gluten.

My dorm room junior year My single was 100% gluten-free!

My dorm room junior year My single was 100% gluten-free!

 2. Keeping Your Utensils Safe!

Cross-contamination can easily occur if utensils and plates are not cleaned properly, and have previously been used to serve something that contains gluten. As I mentioned before, it’s important to use your own sponge when cleaning your plates and utensils.   There are also several other steps you can take to ensure that you keep your dishware safe from gluten. Keep your utensils and plates tucked away in a drawer, or on a shelf in your own room so that no one mistakenly uses them. Label your cutlery, dishes and any containers you store these items in with the word “Gluten-Free” and your name. You can also order these amazing gluten-free stickers from Gluten Libre! If you have friends who regularly visit your room, explain that these items are for your own use, and offer to keep a set of plastic cutlery in your room for their use!

 3. Opening Gluten-Free Dialogue with Your Roommate

I think one of the most challenging things for a college student with celiac disease is approaching a roommate about his or her disease; I know I would have rather spent time talking about my hobbies rather than my necessary dietary accommodations. However, it’s much easier for a roommate to respect your gluten-free lifestyle if they understand the severity of the disease and the necessity of maintaining the gluten-free diet. When you receive the contact information, don’t feel pressured to talk about your gluten-free diet right away. Talk about interests, and hobbies, via Facebook message or email, and get to know them first. As the semester approaches, explain that you have celiac disease and are required to maintain a gluten-free diet. Explain why you require a gluten-free diet, and explain what happens to you body if you do ingest gluten. Most importantly, talk about cross-contamination, which occurs when gluten-containing food (or something that has touched gluten) comes into contact with a gluten-free food. Explain that because of cross contamination, you like to play it safe; tell them you will be bringing a fridge specifically for gluten-free food, (but don’t forget to offer to share your gluten-free goodies!) and that you need a special set of utensils and plates so that there’s no threat of cross contamination. Let your roommate know that it’s okay for them to have gluten in the dorm room, as long as it stays on their side of the room, or in their own fridge. Thank your roommate for their ability to be so accommodating, and offer to tell them more about the disease over a gluten-free meal once school starts! With increasing awareness of celiac disease throughout the country, there’s a good chance your roommate might have heard of celiac disease before!

4. The Perfect Dorm Snacks!

It’s important to keep your dorm room stocked with various gluten-free products! Several times throughout the semester, depending on your class schedule and extracurricular activities, you may find yourself lacking the time to eat in your dining hall. There’s also a chance that, occasionally, you may not be in the mood for the gluten-free food they are serving in your cafeteria. It’s best to keep a variety of options in your dorm room so you don’t get bored with the food you’re eating, and fall into a routine of eating something that you don’t find appetizing. Check out my recommendations below!

  • KIND Bars
  • Gluten-Free Microwavable Noodles (you can find a variety of brands that are MUCH healthier than your peers’ Ramen!)
  • Gluten-Free Frozen French Bread Pizza from Ian’s (As tempting as it may be, NEVER purchase the gluten-free option from Dominoes; the company states that due to cross-contamination issues, it is unsafe for those with celiac disease).
  • Single-serving Gluten-Free Oatmeal Packets from Bakery on Main
  • Granola and other Gluten-Free Cereals (like Chex)
  • Gluten-Free Bread and Deli Meats
  • Gluten-Free Condiments such as mustard and mayonnaise
    • If you plan on putting condiments on your sandwiches, I recommend purchasing your own containers and storing them in your room. Oftentimes, cross contamination can occur from a knife that has spread a condiment on a slice of wheat bread is repeatedly dipped into the condiment’s container.

How do you keep your dorm room gluten-free? Comment below and let me know!

Hanging out on the 5th Floor of my dorm-it’s also a sun deck overlooking Houston!



Celiac 101: Picking the Right School


Welcome to Rice University, my home for the last three years!

Every high school senior, as well as every college student, is aware of the difficulty in choosing a college or university to attend.  A student must take into account factors like academic rigor, opportunities for extracurricular activities, quality of life, and, most importantly, overall ‘fit’.  For college-bound celiacs, however, there are many more factors that influence this decision.  More important questions must be answered; can the university’s dining services safely accommodate a student’s gluten free needs? Will a student be able to find support and resources on or around campus? I had many questions similar to these when I entered Rice University three years ago.  At the time, however, I did not have access to either resources or an internet community where I could consult with others who had been through similar experiences.

To help students who are getting ready for college, those who are currently college students, and the parents of college students with celiac disease, I created a monthlong series of posts titled Celiac 101: Maintaining the Gluten-Free Diet.  My first official post in the Celiac 101 series includes a list of factors that I think are important to take into consideration when choosing a university to attend.  Check this list out below, and let me know what you think!

1. An Accommodating & Accessible Dining Services

Why is this important: An accessible and accommodating dining services is crucial to a celiac’s success in maintaining the gluten-free diet throughout college.  You want to find a school who’s Dining Services leaders are accessible, easy to talk to, and well aware of the importance of maintaining a gluten-free diet.  Because dining hall chefs are usually busy, an accessible Dining Services liaison is critical in the event that a mistake is made in the kitchen, or you need some aspect of your gluten-free meal altered.  You want you school’s Dining Services to be able to handle any situation quickly and carefully.  Furthermore, you want your Dining Services to be exited to work with you! As soon as I committed to Rice University, I emailed the Executive Chef at my school, Johnny Curet, about my gluten-free situation.  His response was fantastic; right away, I was told that the chefs would be able to cater to my dietary needs, and emphasized that the chefs were always willing to talk to students with dietary restrictions.  For the last two summers, I’ve even worked as an intern for Rice Housing & Dining.


2. A Certified Dietitian on Staff at Your University

Why is this important: The opportunity to work with a certified dietitian on staff at your university definitely a factor that can significantly improve your gluten-free experience.  Many dietitians on campus are not only familiar with, but aware of the strict adherence necessary for a student with celiac disease. Furthermore, dietitians can help facilitate meetings with dining services.  An on-campus dietitian also introduces an element of support; it’s relieving to know that there a person to talk to if a student is struggling with the gluten-free diet. Previously, I had worked with Rice’s dietitian on several occasions. Though I had little trouble speaking with the chefs, I worked with my school’s dietitian to help increase awareness of celiac disease across campus, through helping to modify the student-held position of ‘food representative’ to include helping those with food allergies and intolerances.


3. Educated Chefs, Who are Aware of Cross-Contamination Issues

Why is this important: A successful gluten-free dining experience at college is very dependent on the chefs and kitchen staff at your school.  Your campus chefs should not only be well versed in the gluten-free diet, but also aware of cross-contamination issues, which occur when something that is gluten-free comes into contact with something that contain, or has previously touched gluten (for example, using the same spoon to stir both gluten-free and regular pasta).  As soon as you begin your studies at your university, take time to meet with the chefs who will be preparing your food!  If you make the effort to get to know them, as well as explain to them why you require the gluten-free diet (as well as the implications of contaminated food), there’s a good chance the chefs will be more willing to work with you and your diet!  I’m incredibly grateful for several of the chefs at Rice University; Chef Ed, Chef Telly, and Chef Roger were incredibly accommodating and worked hard to make sure that there was always a delicious gluten-free option in my dining hall (Chef Roger once made an entire gluten-free cake for me, from scratch, and Chef Telly made me delicious gluten-free M&M cookies as a surprise one day!)!


The chefs at Rice are always surprising me with freshly baked gluten-free cookies!

The chefs at Rice are always surprising me with freshly baked gluten-free cookies!

4. Healthy Gluten-Free Food

Why is this important: While there are delicious gluten-free options in stores and online, many of these gluten-free breads, cookies, and snacks can be high in calories and fat.  It is not uncommon for the typical freshman to experience the Freshman 15, and if a gluten-free student is limited to certain, unhealthy foods, this “Freshman 15” can easily escalate into much more.  A school can make gluten-free accommodations, but it’s important that they choose healthy, and nutritious alternatives to keep you energized and ready for classes and extracurricular activities. A school shouldn’t prepare only gluten-free chicken tenders or pizza; instead, they should seek to incorporate grains like brown rice and quinoa, healthy sources of protein, and vegetables that are free from cross contamination!  The ability of your university to provide these foods is essential to your health.  Since celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, there exists a propensity to develop another autoimmune disorder.  Since many autoimmune disorders can be triggered or worsened by an unhealthy diet, its important to make sure you are nourishing your body with wholesome and healthy gluten-free foods!  Don’t forget the occasional gluten-free treat though!

5. Variety of options

Why is this important: I think one of the biggest reasons why I’ve been able to maintain the gluten-free diet for so long is the variety of options available at my school.  Over the last two years, the chef in my dining hall has labeled which options on the meal line contain certain allergens (including gluten).  Since approximately 90% of food in the Rice University dining hall are prepared from scratch, the chefs have a lot of freedom in how they choose to prepare the meals.  As a result, many chefs have begun to experiment; for example, some have started using ingredients from our school’s weekly farmers market.  As a result, I have a variety of gluten-free foods to choose from each day.  I’m not restricted to eating the same, bland foods each day, which has benefitted both my health and mental state.  I don’t feel restricted, and as a result, stay healthier, happier and gluten-free.  Most recently, the chef at my dining hall has started using gluten-free soy sauce, rice noodles and rice flour; as a result, I’m able to eat the Asian meals he occasionally prepares, such as fried rice, orange chicken, and stir-fried vegetables.

Did you take any of these factors into account when selecting your college to attend? If you’re a prospective college student, will you take these into an account as you look at schools?  Let me know what YOU look for in a school by commenting below! 

Preparing for Orientation week as an advisor!  I'm always happy to meet incoming gluten-free students!

Preparing for Orientation week as an advisor! I’m always happy to meet incoming gluten-free students!


Celiac 101 Series: Maintaining the Gluten-Free Diet in College

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Hanging out in my dorm’s quad after classes at Rice University!

The end of July marks a serious time of transition for college students throughout the country.  As July comes to a close, college students begin to realize that the end of summer is near; within the next month, we’ll be heading back to our dorm rooms and apartments, where we’ll begin our studies and continue our extracurricular activities and responsibilities.  For college students with celiac disease, however, there is an even greater challenge.  For the first time, we’re on our own, and, if we live on campus, also lose control over what we eat and how our food is prepared.  In a college environment, the chances of accidentally ingesting gluten increase.  College students also face social isolation, as they have to explain to their friends why they cannot drink a beer, or grab a slice of late-night pizza. When I entered Rice University three years ago, I felt isolated and alone.  It took a while before I found other people at my school and in the Houston area who were gluten-free.

With the school year approaching, I wanted to announce my monthlong series of posts, titled “Celiac 101: Maintaining the Gluten-Free Diet in College.”  Throughout August, I plan on releasing one post each week that is relevant to celiac disease and the college experience.  Just like an introductory or 101 college course, Celiac 101 is going to provide you with the basics and information needed to prepare you or your child for their college experience! My goal is to make sure no student, whether a freshman or a senior, has to navigate the gluten-free diet in college alone. I want to provide support and empowerment for those who feel isolated.

What type of content do I plan on posting?  My aim is to provide a series of tips and tricks about surviving college gluten-free, with the hope that every college student can embrace celiac disease.  Each post will provide advice about a different topic, and I plan on covering a range of topics, such “gluten-proofing” your dorm room, and speaking to your school’s dining services about your dietary needs!

Let’s prep for a successful gluten-free year as a celiac in college together!  Stay tuned for more posts! Check out all of my Celiac 101 posts here!


Cheering for the Rice Football team during sophomore year!


Ready to go back to Rice University!