Food allergies and sensitivities seem to becoming more and more common. Peanut allergies are up. I had never heard of celiac before college, yet 3 out of 31 students on my study abroad trip had it. And, as you know, I discovered a sensitivity to nightshades and beans over the summer. With that discovery, I joined a growing number of college students who now have to navigate the cafeteria with a food sensitivity.
Let me tell you, eating on a college campus is hard with a food sensitivity. While talking to a friend, he told me he would suspect that it is even harder for someone with an obscure sensitivity, like nightshades, than someone who can’t have gluten, as gluten sensitivities are more common, so our school always has options available and clearly posted signs. In contrast, since tomatoes are so healthy and peppers are such a common spice, they are in everything. Seriously. Everything. On the other hand, I’m also not as concerned about cross-contamination.
I mean, either way, food sensitivities still suck and majorly limit options.
Talk to your kitchen
One of the best things a student can do when they have a food sensitivity is to talk to whomever is in charge of the cafeteria. They can give you a tour of the cafeteria, food court, or whatever your school has for food options. Hopefully they will be able to give you resources to help determine where the food you are sensitive to is present, and what foods are safe to eat. If you are lucky, they may offer to prepare meals special for you on request. I personally prefer to be as low maintenance as possible and stick to what is available.
Have a routine, but don’t get in a rut
Strike a balance. Know what foods are always available to eat. For me, that’s the salad bar, sandwiches, chicken and burgers, and rice or pasta with alfredo sauce or pesto, fruit and vegetables, and almost anything served at breakfast. There’s also cereal and desserts, but I don’t eat those too much. Being aware of these foods that are always available will help you remember that, no, you are not deprived. There is food you can eat. You are blessed to have as many options as you do (just have to keep telling myself that).
But like the heading says, don’t get into a rut. If you have a cafeteria that rotates its menu with a lot of variety, always look to see if there is something available that you can it. Yes, it’s depressing as heck when your former favorite meal comes up and you can’t have it. On the other hand, it is very exciting when something comes up that you can have and it’s not a PB&J or a salad. If you don’t have a cafeteria with a rotating menu, continue to explore options around campus. You never know what you will find!
I have found that the key to dealing with my food sensitivity in a cafeteria is to always have something to eat and always search for variety. It keeps me from getting bored, while always knowing there will be something available for me.
Cook for yourself
The feasibility of this one will depend on where you live. Do you live in a house or apartment (in which case, cook as much as you can afford!), or do you live in a dorm, with limited access to a kitchen and strict rules about what is allowed in the rooms? At my college, most students live on campus all four years and we are not allowed to have microwaves in the rooms, only hot pots and coffee makers (things that will turn themselves off once they are done). As a result, my ability to cook for myself is severely limited. I still keep a drawer and fridge full of food, however, such as oatmeal, nuts, fruit, and string cheese. This could be particularly helpful if you are gluten or dairy free: you would be able to stock and make up compliant versions of your favorite snacks.
Over the next few months, I will be focusing on this category of college living. With just a fridge and a hot pot, it seems like I can’t do anything in my dorm room. It doesn’t help that all of the resources I find for dorm room cooking involve microwaves and large amounts of ingredients (I know I certainly don’t keep the 10+ ingredients needed to make mug cakes or meatloaf). I will focus on recipes with few ingredients that can be made with little more than a container, a hot pot, and a dorm fridge (note that if you do have a microwave but no hot pot, the hot pot is just boiling water, which can easily be done in a microwave).
For now, however, think about what ingredients and tools are available to you. Also, make sure that you consider how long any food you make or buy will last. The last thing you need is wasted, rotten food in a dorm room.