Celiac in College: Navigating the Dining Hall

For those who recall the introduction of my piece Celiac in College: The Silent Struggles, you know that the college dining hall can quickly turn into a nightmare for celiac students. Cross contamination abounds, and unclear ingredient labeling adds to the hassle of mealtime.

Thanks to a new arrangement with my dining manager, my meals have transformed from risky endeavors to stress-free social time. Starting this spring semester, I email my meal orders in advance to have a chef safely prepare my plate in the back of the kitchen, free from the horrors of cross contamination. I highly recommend that students attending schools without dedicated gluten-free serving areas try to coordinate an accommodation similar to mine.

If this is not feasible, however, hope is not lost. My first semester I used the food lines as a normal student, and I picked up a few tips along the way. Here are some of my best tips and strategies on how to effectively tackle the college dining hall with celiac disease.

The salad bar is your friend

The fresh vegetables and hearty add-ons of the salad bar foster the ideal environment to dodge both gluten exposure and the “freshman fifteen.” The salad bar served as a dependable option that always promised variety. Broccoli, beans, grilled chicken, baby carrots and hummus became staples in my diet. Also, the salad bar lies far away from the hot food line, which hosts the majority of cross-contamination culprits. While the salad bar served as a safe haven for me, this tip only holds true if the croutons are isolated from the rest of the ingredients (which was the case at my school).

We love fruit!

Most dining halls serve plenty of desserts, including cakes, cookies and soft serve ice cream. While the baked goods are not gluten free, the soft serve ice cream machine might not be the best option either. I have witnessed far too many students obliviously brushing their cones against the spout of the machine, ruining the possibility of soft serve for celiac students.

Luckily, whole fruit serves as an excellent option for those who are looking for dessert substitutes or something sweet to add to their meal. My favorite dining hall fruits are pears, plums and grapefruits, but most schools also offer the timeless favorites of apples, oranges and bananas. I make it a habit to grab one or two pieces of fruit as a snack for later on in the day. If I have to pay for a meal plan, I might as well maximize its utility.

Keep it simple and accessorize with condiments

My dining hall always has a station with plain brown rice, which proved to be an excellent filler food for days that lacked other gluten-free options. Brown rice, grilled chicken and the aforementioned salad bar staples form a balanced, satisfying meal. However, this can begin to taste bland after awhile.

While it may be tempting to try some of the more exciting entrees and sides, the over-processed nature of dining hall foods means that there’s likely plenty of gluten hiding in the prepared dishes. I found that it was safest for me to load up on simpler foods and then turn to the spice rack to experiment with different seasonings and sauces. I really love spicy food, so hot sauce became my best friend last semester. I learned that if you add enough hot sauce to subpar food, you can only taste hot sauce!  

Inspect your plates & silverware

My school’s notoriously subpar dishwashing system often leaves remnants of food from the previous meal on silverware and dishes. I quickly developed the habit of checking my plates and forks to ensure the absence of food residue, and I encourage you to do the same. Everybody could benefit from this habit, gluten free or not.


Originally from Salado, Texas, Kayla Manning is a first-year student at Harvard. Following her diagnosis with celiac disease in 2013, she maintained a strict gluten-free diet with relative ease through her junior high and high school years. However, college life posed unfamiliar challenges and she struggled to adjust to her new dining situation. She hopes that sharing her experiences can help others with their transition to gluten-free dining in college.

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