Preparing for college is an exciting time, but for many incoming students, this is the first time they are spending a significant amount of time away from home. Students with celiac disease can find this new adventure intimidating since they are having to navigate their disease, food choices, options and preparation on their own, for the first time, without the support of parents, friends and family.

Although this may seem overwhelming, you want to make sure your child is prepared and able to follow a gluten-free diet while still enjoying campus living.

Tips for ensuring your child can stick to a gluten-free diet

To ensure your child can stick to a gluten-free diet while living away from your home, make sure:

  1. They have a good understanding of the gluten-free diet and foods that are allowed and not allowed on the diet.
  2. They can read and identify gluten-containing ingredients on a food label.
  3. They understand the risk of cross contamination and possible places where this can occur.
  4. They are familiar with medications that are gluten-free and safe to take.
  5. They can prepare a few gluten-free meals or snacks.
  6. They can safely order a gluten-free meal when eating at a dining hall, restaurant or café.

If your child is struggling to understand the gluten-free diet, what foods are allowed or not allowed, how to read a food label or where cross contamination can occur, make an appointment with your child’s provider or dietitian to review the ins and outs of the gluten-free diet.

Teach your child how to advocate for themselves

Since this is the first time that many of them will be “on their own,” your child should feel comfortable advocating for themselves and their disease without the support of family members. This includes asking staff the appropriate questions about certain food items and how they are prepared when eating at a dining hall, restaurant or cafe both on and off campus. They should feel comfortable asking staff to change their gloves or use separate utensils when preparing their food items. You can also research the surrounding area (off-campus) prior to starting school to find off-campus options that offer a gluten-free menu or gluten-free foods.

Learn about the on-campus options

Before heading to campus, it would be a beneficial for you and your child to reach out to the head of food service (or some campuses have dietitians that work with the food service department) to discuss dietary restrictions and the gluten-free diet. This will provide you with a better understanding of available options on campus that are safe for those with celiac disease. Be sure to ask about the preparation and handling of gluten-free meals/foods. Ask questions about ingredient information and if that information is readily available either online or at the commons. It is also a good idea to connect with the student health department on campus as a resource for your child while on campus should they have any medical concerns related to their disease or if they need help navigating the gluten-free diet.

Many college experiences come with living with roommates or suite mates that your child may not know ahead of time. It is a good idea to reach out to them prior to move in and let them know about celiac disease and your child’s need to follow a gluten-free diet. You want to make sure they are aware of cross contamination risks when using a shared kitchen.

Lastly, you and your child will want to discuss their eating patterns and meal plan desires. Meal plans can differ from campus to campus and you’ll want to have a good understanding of what meal plans are available and if they will work for you child. This becomes important because if your child is only going to eat one meal per day in the dining commons — the other two meals per day will need to be obtained or prepared elsewhere, which could be an opportunity for cross contamination or noncompliance.

If your child is beginning to think about college and you want more information about planning for college with celiac disease, check out the Children’s National Hospital Celiac Program webcast.


Hannah Nicolais Hannah Nicolais, MS, RDN, CNSC, is a pediatric dietitian at the Pediatric Specialists of Virginia.
Pediatric Specialists of Virginia is a medical group created by Children's National Hospital and Inova Health System to be focused exclusively on caring for children. Our specialists are recognized as “Top Docs” by Washingtonian and Northern Virginia Magazine and have appeared in U.S. News & World Report as leading experts in their fields.

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