Navigating college with food allergies can be an overwhelming prospect – for our kids and for us! For most soon-to-be college students, it’s the first time they are living away from home and eating on their own.
For those new to the college search process, you probably have a lot of questions. How do you find a school that accommodates food allergies? Where does a student go for support? Does the dining hall offer nut-free meal options? Does the dorm Resident Advisor know how to help administer rescue medications, such as an auto-injector or an inhaler?
So no matter if you’re just starting the search process or your student received an admissions offer, these 5 tips will help your school-bound kid successfully navigate college with food allergies.
Vanderbilt Campus Dining Earns Allergen-Free Certification
Vanderbilt University has become the first U.S. university where commercial on-campus kitchens are “Certified Free From” tree nuts and peanuts.
Tips for Navigating College with Food Allergies
Keep in mind that as a parent, you won’t be able to expect a college to keep you in the loop.
Schools do not give out any medical information, citing privacy concerns, since your student is now considered an adult.
The very first thing you and your college-bound teen should do is to contact the disability services office and share all food and peanut allergies with school officials. Bring your medical documents so they have a copy on file in case you get ill or miss class and need assistance.
1. Learn About a College’s Food Allergy Practices
Start off by making a wish list of the things that are important to have on a university campus. Write out your questions and prepare how you and your college-bound student will answer their questions.
- What are the school’s food allergy-friendly policies?
- How well-trained are staff about nut-free diets and avoiding cross-contamination?
- Is ingredient information available in the dining hall?
- Are there special allergen practices in the kitchen?
- Are customized meals available?
⭐️Tip: Visit these four offices to ensure you cover your bases: disability services, housing, dining hall and health clinic. Ask questions, meet the people and be ready to answer their questions.
2. Meet the Campus Dietitian and/or Food Services Director
Log on to the dining sections of the university’s website. Sometimes there will be a page that talks about food allergies and provides contact information for the food services director. This will give you an idea of the kinds of foods the campus serves and help you develop questions for the director and staff.
When you visit a potential school, arrange to meet with the campus dietitian and/or food services director. Establish good rapport with them so it’s easy to follow up and communicate specific food allergy needs once the semester starts. If possible, ask to have a meal during this visit so you can observe allergy practices in action.
Finally, check for the dining hall menus. Some universities post them in full online, including ingredient information. Find out of your chosen school has this option, and if not, ask if you can get a list of foods served.
⭐️Tip: Ask about cross contamination issues and If you’re not comfortable with how food allergens are handled or if the dining hall is unable to meet your specific needs, find out if opting out of the school’s meal plan is possible.
3. Join – or Start – a Support Group
Find out if there is a food allergy club or nut-free support group on campus to join. If one doesn’t exist, encourage your college-bound student to consider forming one. It’s a great way for them to meet people in the same situation who truly understand their unique challenges and specific lifestyle.
While some colleges have support groups that provide members with a space to feel safe and understood, some also do quite a bit of advocacy work.
⭐️Tip: Suggest your teen ask about meeting other food allergy students. People love sharing their experiences – both the good and bad! Tell your young adult to ask how others would rate the attention given to their dietary and health needs across the campus.
4. How to be a Food Allergy Advocate in College
This is where the real test of our parenthood comes full circle and we learn once and for all just how well we prepared our food allergy kids to be proactive and advocate for themselves.
It’s essential that our food and peanut allergy kids speak up – whether it’s to ask a resident advisor about ingredients at a social gathering or ask if a dining staff member can use a dedicated utensil to serve food.
⭐️Tip: Keep a stash of favorite allergy-friendly snacks in a container free from cross-contamination and non-perishable snacks on hand for when hunger strikes.
5. Housing and Dorm Accommodations
Find out if single rooms are available and whether there are rooms where your food allergy student can have access to a full kitchen. Can your student have a microwave and mini-fridge in the dorm?
College students with food and peanut allergies need to talk to their roommates and establish boundaries right away so there’s no cross contamination or “accidental sharing.” Make sure to contact your university right away once you decide where you want to enroll.
Many times, by contacting the school early enough, they can sometimes accommodate students with food allergies by placing them in dorms with fewer students, more privacy and greater control over their food environment. For instance, you don’t want your peanut allergy student living and eating in a dorm space where allergens are present.
You will also want to know if dorm Resident Advisors (RA) are trained to recognize anaphylaxis and if the college equips RAs with the knowledge and confidence to help administer rescue medications, such as an auto-injector or an inhaler?
⭐️Tip: If single rooms are not an option at the school your family has chosen, find out if your college-bound teen can be paired with a roommate who also has food allergies.
Navigating College with Food Allergies
Students should find out which departments on campus are involved in food allergy accommodations. Every college is different and the process to request modifications may vary.
It’s important to continually check in with our students to make sure the campus accommodations are working for them. If there are potential risks, encourage your student to discuss their concerns with the school dietitian or food services director as well as the dorm RA.
Your student needs to remain vigilant at all times and carry their auto-injectors everywhere they go. Tell your college student to inform their roommates, friends and/or resident advisor of their allergies and their needs.
Finally – when in doubt – don’t do it! If your student is uncertain about how a meal was prepared or whether it was handled safely, tell them to avoid contact and to ask questions.
I would love to hear about your favorite college tour tips for food and peanut allergy families. Feel free to comment below or connect with me on my Facebook page.