Gluten-Free College Students Living Off Campus

While many college students live in dorms and other on-campus housing, others opt to move into their first apartments. For gluten-free college students living off campus, there may be excitement about having a larger variety of foods available than they may have had in campus cafeterias, dining halls and other eateries. However, an apartment living situation presents its own set of challenges, such as sharing a kitchen with roommates, cooking balanced and easy meals, and dealing with social events such as late-night pizza or fast food. Living on their own teaches life lessons that can help gluten-free college students make a successful transition to being gluten-free adults.

Getting a Good Start

A student who has managed celiac for many years will likely face different challenges than one diagnosed more recently. “A lot of how a student handles living on their own for the first time depends on where they are in their journey with celiac disease,” notes Beckee Moreland, Director of GREAT Kitchens for Beyond Celiac (see sidebar, below). “Many students aren’t diagnosed with celiac disease until they arrive on campus. What I’ve found is that those diagnosed in college often don’t get the education on the diet that they need. Many times, they may just be taking information off the internet.” Moreland strongly encourages newly diagnosed students to work with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) on campus. “Without that solid education on the [celiac] disease diet, it’s not going to start off well.”

GREAT Kitchens descriptionFor Tracie Steinke, RD, LD, CDE, apartment life seems like an advantage for those on the gluten-free diet. “I was diagnosed right after college, but I think living in an apartment would be much easier than dealing with food service,” she notes. “When cooking for yourself, you have more control and variety than what you find in the dining halls.”

For Steinke, achieving an organized and proper setup was a key to her success. “I had already accumulated some kitchen items, but when I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I had to buy safe, new cooking utensils, cutting boards, colanders and more,” she recalls. “It was a good and necessary investment, but at the time it felt overwhelming.”

Learning to manage time to shop and cook is an important skill for any student, but it’s particularly essential for someone on the gluten-free diet. In many cases, this may be the first time the student has prepared his or her meals, which can be daunting. “I love to cook,” says Steinke, “but I imagine that many students feel overwhelmed by having to shop, cook and prepare healthy meals, and doing so while on a college-student budget!”

Sharing a Kitchen

Most students have experienced living with roommates while on campus, but moving into an apartment with other people brings the challenge of a shared kitchen space. Preventing cross-contamination with gluten requires a lot of communication and planning. “Moving into an apartment is often the first time that students have to communicate their needs and educate their roommates,” says Rachel Begun, MS, RDN, nutrition advocate and special diets expert. “Carefully explain the health implications of coming into contact with even the smallest amount of gluten. Once people understand the severity, they are more likely to play an active role in helping you to avoid it.”

Moreland agrees that communication is key. “Be as open as possible about the importance of safety and your concern,” she says. “Acknowledge that even though taking care of your health is your responsibility, let your roommates know that you need their help.” Moreland recommends preparing a meal together, which can help a roommate get an idea of where those cross-contamination hot spots are most likely to occur. “Sometimes just getting into the kitchen together is a good first step. Learning hands-on, roommates can see what it is that you have to do to keep yourself safe.”

While a few items may be shared safely, others should remain separate. “I had a very understanding roommate who was thankfully very conscious of celiac disease, but we decided that it was probably safest to purchase our own food, rather than sharing items, to avoid cross-contamination from things like butter, peanut butter, jelly and more,” says Steinke.

Having a separate area in the kitchen to prepare food, if possible, can also help. “If there is room in the kitchen, create a gluten-free station,” advises Moreland. “This could look a lot of different ways, but the best scenario would be a section of the kitchen that has a counter top, drawer and cabinets above and below.” Storing many separate items, however, can make an already-cramped kitchen feel even smaller, so sometimes it’s necessary to get creative. “If it’s not possible to have that much individual space, try to keep a section of the counter top as a safe zone.” If a reserved counter top isn’t possible, Moreland recommends purchasing a color-coded cutting board that can immediately cover a shared counter space, or consider utilizing other physical barriers, such as foil or parchment paper.

Even with the best planning, things can quickly go awry if one has a less-than-understanding roommate. This can require sometimes difficult conversations. “If at all possible, try to have these discussions before you move in,” advises Moreland. “Select a roommate very carefully. I find it’s best to try and find ones that have family members or friends who also have food allergies or celiac disease.” Moreland also recommends continued communication throughout the year. “Food and kitchen space aren’t the only issues between roommates, so try and schedule weekly or monthly roommate chats to discuss the best way to manage the apartment and to live together.” Steinke encourages roommates to be patient with each other. “There is a huge learning curve for people who are unfamiliar with the idea and seriousness of cross-contact, so teach as much as you can and remind them often.”

Let’s Get Cooking!

For some college students, an apartment presents their first opportunity to cook their meals. What they cook, however, varies significantly based on their level of comfort in the kitchen. If a student is new to cooking, start simple, advises Moreland. “Find recipes with less than five ingredients and less than five steps. Learn to roast a chicken—it can be the basis of so many meals.”

Steinke cooks with her budget in mind, by focusing on naturally gluten-free foods. “A dinner might include roasted fresh vegetables or a frozen bag that I can quickly steam in the microwave, a grain such as rice, potatoes or quinoa, and a protein such as meat, tofu or eggs.” (See below for quick and easy gluten-free meal ideas.) Moreland suggests baked potatoes with toppings and Greek yogurt in place of sour cream and using eggs frequently because of their nutritional content, affordability and versatility in many dishes.

Processed gluten-free foods, like macaroni and cheese or frozen pizza, may be a staple for some students. Make these choices a little healthier with some ingredient substitutions and additions. Begun recommends balancing all meals with fruits and vegetables. “Serve a side salad with the gluten-free mac and cheese or pizza, or a piece of fruit with the gluten-free frozen waffle.” Other easy ingredient switches include Greek yogurt for sour cream or dips, adding veggies to gluten-free pizza and reducing the amount of butter in mac and cheese.

gluten-free college student food tips

Equip Yourself for Success

Of course, healthy gluten-free meal preparation begins with having the right equipment available. Even with limited space, there are some kitchen “must haves” that can make safe meal preparation much easier. A dedicated toaster or toaster oven, colander, cutting board, cooking utensils such as mixing spoons, a whisk and slotted spoons are all items that can be difficult to clean and should be kept separate. The dishwasher is adequate for cleaning dishes, silverware, pots and pans. Dish towels should also be kept separate, or use paper towels.

For the more adventurous cook, other equipment may come in handy. “I’m a big fan of the Instapot,” says Moreland. “It’s kind of pricey but is a good Christmas or graduation gift. It can sauté and double as a rice cooker and pressure cooker.”

Late-night Noshing

While beer and pizza nights or midnight fast-food runs are traditions for most college students, they can be problematic for those on a special diet. “This is so hard because they are almost always spontaneous,” says Moreland. “I recommend having a plan and then a backup plan. Look for places you can go to and suggest them.” Socializing while on the gluten-free diet is a challenge for someone of any age, but particularly in college. “When I was first diagnosed, I just avoided these situations,” recalls Steinke. “It’s tough to be in settings that revolve around food and not be able to participate.”

While such situations can be difficult to deal with in the moment, it’s helpful to look at the big picture. “Rather than missing out, I decided it was worth it to go with a positive attitude and just enjoy the company of friends,” says Steinke. “I always try to eat beforehand, so I’m not starving watching other people eat, and I always carry a snack in my purse just in case.”

These situations can be educational for roommates and friends as well, says Moreland. “If your friends value your friendship and see you’re not included, maybe next time they’ll go to a place where you can eat safely.” Steinke echoes the sentiment. “While I don’t expect people to accommodate or cater to me, my friends are very understanding. If there is a restaurant where I can get at least one safe item, everyone is more than willing to go there instead.”

Moving into a first apartment is a learning experience in many ways. Success depends on planning, from the selection of roommates and preparation of a safe kitchen space to budget shopping and dealing with unexpected social events. All these experiences will prepare young adults to manage being grown up gluten free.

Amy Keller is a registered dietitian and celiac support group leader in Ohio. She is the chair of the Dietitians in Gluten Intolerance Diseases practice group for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She also serves on the dietetic advisory board of Gluten-Free Living.

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