Tips for Navigating Food Allergies as a College Student
From dorm rooms and dining halls to the campus and town beyond, college sophomore Amanda Young offers insights to help new university students manage their food allergies.
Guest post by Teen Advisory Group (TAG) member Amanda Young
My name is Amanda Young, and I am a member of FARE’s Teen Advisory Group (TAG). I’m allergic to milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts except almonds, fish, and shellfish. I am getting ready to begin my sophomore year at Washington University in St. Louis. During my first year, I learned a lot about managing my food allergies as a college student. From dorm room essentials to eating in campus dining halls, here are some tips and tricks that I picked up. I hope you find them helpful!
Things to have in your dorm:
- Microwave: A microwave is a must-have for most college students, but it’s especially useful to have if you have food allergies. I used mine to cook oatmeal and popcorn, steam vegetables, and even prepare basic meals like lentils with rice using instant microwavable packets.
- Refrigerator: Just like a microwave, a refrigerator is an essential dorm appliance. If possible, I recommend getting a mini refrigerator that has a separate freezer component so you can store bigger items like dairy-free ice cream and frozen fruit.
- Toaster oven or waffle maker: If your college lets you have a toaster oven or waffle maker, I definitely recommend it! I used my toaster oven/air fryer to make toast, bake cookies (with pre-cut allergy-friendly cookie dough), roast vegetables, and heat up frozen veggie burgers.
- Drawer or container with snacks: I was really surprised to find how little food some of my friends kept in their dorm rooms! My snack drawer was full of protein bars, allergy-friendly cookies, dried fruit, almond butter pretzels, cereal, and other favorites. You never know when you’ll be hungry after a late-night study session, and as people with food allergies know, it’s always good to have snacks on hand.
- Drawer or container with pantry items: In addition to snacks, I had pantry staples like rolled oats, sunflower seed butter, spices (cinnamon, salt, Everything but the Bagel seasoning, etc.), maple syrup, pancake mix, shelf-stable dairy-free milk, and other shelf-stable goods like microwavable rice and lentils, instant noodles, and canned beans. There were some days when I didn’t feel like going to the dining hall—maybe it was the weekend and I wouldn’t be passing by it, or it was snowy and cold outside—so I whipped up simple meals in my dorm room instead. There are a lot of microwavable packet meals and several just-add-water pancake/waffle mixes that are super convenient. I also made overnight oats all the time with oats, chia seeds, dairy-free milk, maple syrup, and fruit—I just mixed everything together in a jar and put it in the refrigerator overnight. This saved me a morning trip to the dining hall and let me start my day off with a meal I always knew would be safe for me!
- Cutlery, bowls, plates, cups, pot/pan, and more: I recommend having your own set of anything you’ll use to cook and eat with. It makes it easier when you don’t have to worry about cross-contact.
- Dish wand and dish soap: I used my own dish wand whenever I needed to wash my dishes. Again, it made me feel safer as I didn’t have to worry about what others might have eaten before they washed their own dishes!
Meet with your campus dietitian as soon as you can, preferably before you arrive on campus! They are usually the person most knowledgeable about food allergies and can help you start to understand the dining scene before you even move in. It’s a good idea to have a relationship with the dietitians early so they can help you if/when you need it. I was hesitant to reach out to my campus dietitians at first because it is safe for me to eat foods that may be subject to cross-contact, so I thought I wouldn’t need help navigating the dining hall. But, I am really glad that I did—it would have been a bit more overwhelming to figure out my different options on my own.
Most colleges and universities label dishes with allergy icons. Generally, these were really helpful—but there were a few times that I found they were inconsistent, which admittedly made me anxious. My school has a Top 8 Friendly station where none of the dishes contain any of the top eight allergens and the food is prepared in a separate area, so I usually stick to this station. If I wanted to branch out, I chose dishes that were well-labeled and had no chance of containing my allergens. (For example, if I was getting Asian food, I would chose the rice instead of dumplings as the wrappers sometimes contain eggs).
Above all, always communicate—don’t be afraid to ask or talk to the chefs! You know yourself best, and the mantra of those with food allergies is that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
One thing you’ll notice is that many campus events entice people with free food. College students love it! It might be donuts from a local bakery, catered food from a nearby restaurant, or mini bags of snacks and candy. In general, I ate before I went or brought my own food with me. The exception was when I knew the event organizer so I could ask them about the food or find out where they had ordered from to call the restaurant myself. On that note, if you become a club leader or are in charge of coordinating events, make sure you have allergy-friendly options for yourself—and it never hurts to have them on hand for others who may be going through the same thing!
I definitely recommend having snacks in your bag at all times. You might end up staying out later than anticipated or have a meeting come up at the last minute, so it’s good to have food on hand in case you can’t get to the campus spots that serve allergy-friendly options. Depending on where your school is located, you might not be able to find all your favorite allergy-friendly brands (or you might not have time to grocery shop consistently). You can use Amazon and online grocery stores like Thrive Market (which has a free membership for college students!), Basquet, and Hive to purchase snacks and have them delivered to you.
Finally, try to find restaurants nearby that are safe for you! It’s always nice to be able to celebrate a special event with friends off campus. When my friends find out I have food allergies, they sometimes tell me to pick the restaurant—so I like to have a few options that I know are okay for me that I can send their way, too. If you’re in a new city or state, it’s fun to be able to try out new cuisines, restaurants, and local foods.