How to Find the Right College Food Fit

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As I walked down the scenic campus avenue to begin the tour, the first thing on my mind was not their scary admission statistics, or how to “frame” my extracurriculars, it was how soon we’d be touring the dining hall so I could try out their make-your-own waffle station. Equipped with berries, whipped cream, and maple syrup, this waffle station had it all, except for what made it unique: there would be no tree nuts, specifically walnuts, offered as a topping.  

After traveling to many college cafeterias only to be let down by the frequent opportunities for cross-contact, this was a bonus I could not wait to take advantage of. While a waffle station may seem like a small feat, it was representative of the college’s broader commitment to support those with food allergies and dietary restrictions. They had a separate salad bar area dedicated to nut toppings and a similar set-up for cereal options. Each dish had a sign above it listing exactly what ingredients were present, as well as any possible allergen the food had likely come in contact with. Featuring a gluten-free bread section any school would be proud of, I knew this college really understood the challenges that those with allergies and dietary restrictions face.  

As with most seniors in high school, my college priorities are generally focused on academics and sports, not the meal options. However, since I have food allergies, whether I’ll be able to eat the college’s food is something I need to consider.

Based on experience, here are a few things I look for when deciding whether or not the food situation is going to be a good fit for me, or anyone else living with life-threatening food allergies.  

Keep an eye out for cross-contact risk

The potential for cross-contact is one of the scariest possibilities someone with food allergies can encounter. The uncertainty makes any dining situation inherently risky.

One thing that can make this decision significantly easier is an informed kitchen staff. For example, at one university, after ordering a turkey, apple, and cheddar sandwich and explaining my restrictions, the chef pulled me aside to explain that the bread was kept in the same area as some of the pastries that contained nuts. I assured him that simply being in the general vicinity was alright for me, but for others, the proximity might be problematic. At another campus, they had popsicle sticks labeled “allergy” to alert the kitchen staff to take extra care preparing the meal—something that was very comforting to my mom and me.

While these were positive experiences, not every school is this careful. In fact, at one school’s dining hall, there was barely anything that looked safe because the food had minimal labeling and the staff was unaware of the ingredients when asked. Not every school has to be a model of perfection, but it’s relatively easy to tell which kitchens have prioritized allergy training for their staff. Besides the knowledge of the cooks, here are other important factors to look for in a campus cafeteria:

-       First, look at the exposed surfaces. Note the cleanliness of the salad bar, or the areas where you can make sandwiches. If you notice a lot of crumbs, there is a higher chance of cross-contact with foods that could’ve been otherwise guaranteed allergen-free.

-       Watch for shared utensils. With cereal, if spoons/scoopers can easily be exchanged from cereal to cereal, some of the nut-based granola could end up in your Lucky Charms.

-       Lastly, look at where the foods are in relation to each other. If you want dumplings but they happen to be next to a vat of cashew chicken, you might want to think twice. Though the choice is ultimately yours whether you want to take the chance, the more precautions a kitchen takes, the safer you will likely be. 

Check for a variety of options  

While college students can boast about being able to eat pizza for every meal, it is very difficult to do that in real life 😊.

During campus visits, it can be easy to get wrapped up in finding one or two foods that are safe. But before getting whisked off in a blissful food coma, it’s important to consider whether there are truly enough options to last a year.

Some universities are also big enough to have two or three dining halls, which likely increases the number of options to choose from. If the college has multiple dining options, you may want to consider how that could affect your everyday schedule—especially if the dining hall where you feel safe is significantly out of the way. 

Additionally, even if a school has a healthier dining hall or fresh food take-out market, not every school has designated nut-free or peanut-free options. If you have a nut allergy, check to see if they have healthy packaged foods that are safe. If all you have is pizza and burgers to sustain yourself for four years, that could undermine your efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It’s good to have a variety of options that you are confident in, but healthy options as well!

Evaluate off-campus dining opportunities

Not every school places the same emphasis on campus dining. For schools in centralized and densely populated cities, there might be enough off-campus options that only one or two dining halls are needed. If so, during your visit, reserve a chunk of the day to go explore surrounding restaurants. Popular college-town restaurants include Chipotle, B.Good, Bertucci's, Panera Bread, and Shake Shack, all with varying degrees of sensitivity to allergies. According to AllergyEats, Chipotle and Bertucci's both rank on the list of top ten safest chain restaurants for food allergies!   

Look into in-room kitchens

One thing I wish I had done on campus visits is talk to either disability services or a member of the administration to see if they make any accommodations for students with severe food allergies. Those coveted suite-style dorms may be a rare commodity, but a student who needs to cook a large portion of their own meals could potentially get preference for a room with a kitchen. While you may not be looking to become America’s next Master Chef, a kitchen provides a lot of flexibility in case you cannot find something safe to eat!

Key takeaways

If you leave with one thing from the blog post, just remember that the most phenomenal dining halls could still present risks, so it’s important to always stay alert. No matter how many warnings or allergen alerts are present, you are still your best advocate and can best judge what may or may not be safe.

Being in a new place can be daunting, especially when you have a life-threatening allergy. As I see it, these precautionary steps could make the difference between a difficult transition and one that feels like coming home. 

Alexa Gilbert is a high school senior from Massachusetts with a history of life-threatening food allergies. She is an avid baker and especially enjoys trying new gluten-free recipes for her brother. She is passionate about biotechnology, debate, and her two cats.

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