Top Five College Dietary Challenges (& Their Awesome Solutions)

For the purpose of earning your trust, I’ll be totally honest; it has been over five years since I graduated from my alma mater.

Le sigh.

And while a few things have changed over this brief bit of time – mainly that wearing a jungle costume on a Wednesday night is no longer considered “acceptable” – I know one thing remains the same: being in college with an eating restriction can be a daunting task.

A month before I started my freshman year, I was told that I was allergic to gluten – this was long before “Gluten-Free” was a popular concept or an aisle in the grocery store. To eat and eat well, I had to teach myself where gluten hid and how to avoid it. And after educating my friends, family, and even the campus kitchen staff about what I could eat and how to cook it, I was thrown another curve ball. Apparently, I wasn’t allergic to gluten at all. I had lupus, an autoimmune disease that initially irritated my stomach, was now attacking my kidneys, and eventually (during my junior year) caused them to fail. To live a full, healthy life, I had to dump the gluten-free thing and take on a new, salt-free, low sodium diet. But I was twenty-one, entering my senior year, and determined to still eat and drink up all that college had to offer me.

Over time, I learned how to keep my dietary restrictions without ever having to miss out on the spontaneity of life – whether it was a last minute road trip, a Sunday potluck, or a really romantic dinner date. And even though my flip cup skills are a bit rusty, I still remember the challeneges of being on a campus, without my own kitchen, navigating a strict diet. I understand that food – especially in college – is about much more than just sustenance. It is about being social, gathering with friends, making memories, and not feeling different. And after successfully living low sodium as an undergrad and beyond, I can promise you that, with a few simple tips, you can take on your food limitations without ever feeling limited.

**Tips and Tricks**

The Dining Hall. The cafeteria’s daily offerings most likely do not meet your food needs; but it isn’t difficult to make adjustments. Talk to the Disability Resource Center and find out who runs the campus kitchen. Ask if you can store perishables in a corner of their refrigerators and see if you can use their stoves and ovens to make your own food. Better yet, provide the staff with recipes, ideas, and a list of what you can and cannot have, and see if they can make special dishes for you at every meal. And, I’d bet there are more people than just you on campus who share in your need. So take it one step further and start an eating club online or a Facebook group. Band together with your fellow special eaters and make your meals a social and educational experience, rather than just different.

Restaurants. The gang is gathering at the local Tex-Mex restaurant for So-and-So’s birthday fiesta and you’d love to order more than a margarita. If you know where the party is going down, then give the restaurant a call a few hours or even a day before the reservation. Provide the staff with a list of your dietary rewuirements and offer suggestions of which dishes from the menu you think would be easiest to adjust. Chances are, there is something they can whip up and with enough notice, they’ll most likely be happy to set aside ingredients and give your diet a good old college try.

Road Trips and Travel. Eating on-the-go is one of the toughest challenges for those with dietary needs – options are limited and often highly processed, which means lots of stuff you can’t eat. So this spring break, pack yourself a snack pack. As you cross state lines, you might find food that is safe and filling, but it never hurts to be prepared. And you’ll be surprised at what you can fit in your purse and suitcase. Just don’t let jealous friends steal too many of your tasty supplies.

Snack Attacks and Late Night Cravings. They are unavoidable and especially strong during deadlines and finals when you have limited time to get to a store. And since your taste buds often desire something hearty, full of carbs, and let’s face it, sweet, keep your dorm room stocked with quick cooking and microwavable grains (oatmeal, instant rice, couscous, and quinoa) and tasty accoutrements (jam, dried fruit, nuts, honey, and peanut butter), depending on what you can have. This will make refueling easy, fast, and satisfying.

Dating. While most people think only about what jeans they’ll wear on that first meet up, you worry about ordering a meal without breaking into hives. But it is really easy to eat well and eat safely on a date. There’s only one thing you need to do: be honest. I know, it’s scary. But remember, relationships are built on honesty. So are good meals. And when you tell someone up front about your needs, you are not only guaranteed a safe dining experience, but you also have a quick way of weeding the studs from the duds. If your date understands and takes on your diet and health obstacles with enthusiasm, then you know you’ve found a winner. And if not, on to the next one.

Jess Goldman is a late twenty-something who writes a blog on living a low sodium life – something she had to take on as a result of lupus-related kidney failure during her junior year of college. Check out Sodium Girl here!

Originally posted on Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

4 Responses to “Top Five College Dietary Challenges (& Their Awesome Solutions)”

  1. Kelsey Brown

    May 13th, 2011

    This is a great article!

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