by Nicole Patience MS, RD, LDN, CDE, CEDRD
College dining halls can serve as a major source of connecting with friends at school. Dining halls may serve to extend conversations started in class, celebrate birthdays and milestones, and aid procrastination from the mountain of work that awaits. However, for someone with a special diet need or disordered eating, this picture of connection and joy from the dining hall is far less rosy.
While dining halls may eventually feel like a kitchen away from home, until this comfort level is reached it can be a source of stress and feel much less welcoming. At home families with special diet needs often create an environment that is safe – meaning only stocking foods that everyone can eat. For someone with celiac, for example, who cannot tolerate gluten, the dining hall may feel like a hostile enviroment with so many foods that are off limits or unsafe.
Where to start
Carve out a food prep space where you can assemble your meal. This could be a clean tray, or if the dining hall is tray-less, a clean dining table in an area of the eatery that is comfortable to work at. If having trouble with this, remember that the dining hall manager is trained to work with special diet needs. Many colleges also have dietitians available to support students as they adjust to campus. Dietitians can be found at Student Health Services or Dining Services.
Continuing with our example of Celiac, or a food allergy, there may be lots of safe and familiar foods hidden among other options that need avoiding. Someone who enters into this scene meal after meal can feel overwhelmed and discourged and not included. If looking for a place to start or a way to feel grounded, consider brainstorming 5-10 safe basic meal options. This can be a good opportunity to creatively put together meals that are both appetizing and satisfying. By having a basic plan prior to entering into the dining hall, one can adapt based on what foods have rotated their way onto the salad or deli bar that day and what personal cravings arise. Think of everything in the dining hall as an ingredient to potentially mix and match with other foods. Perhaps the chicken strips and kidney beans from the salad bar could be added to the vegetable soup to make it more hearty and filling. What about adding the seasoned sweet potatoes to a mixed green salad? Good tasting meals can be the reward received by creatively combining warm and cold food options.
Once you are confident that you will find safe, satisfying options, you can take better advantage when the opportunity presents itself in the dining hall.
Embrace the positives, reach out for support, think out of the box, and enjoy the meal.