Heading off to college as a Coeliac and Gluten Free Student may feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be… In this post, I share all my tips for living your best Gluten Free University life without missing out.
(This is part of the series ‘Gluten Free Kids – A Practical Guide to Parenting a Coeliac Child’. To access the Introduction and subsequent ‘chapters’, please click on the drop-down menu ‘Coeliac Kids’ on the menu bar)
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Heading off to University as a Gluten Free Student
Heading off to university is a massive life leap for any young person. But it can feel extra daunting when you’re Coeliac and about to become a Gluten Free Student. The anxiety about meeting new people, moving away from home, managing your finances and getting your head around independent study is coupled with the fundamentals of food… What will be safe for me to eat? Where can I store my gluten free food so that it isn’t cross-contaminated (or stolen)? Will my future friends understand and support me? How will I afford gluten free food when it’s so expensive? What if I get sick?
And let’s be honest… food is a BIG deal. If you can’t eat healthily and stay well, you won’t get the best from learning or the amazing social life that everyone talks about.
But being Coeliac at university doesn’t need to stop you from doing anything! With a little planning ahead and a willingness to embrace adventure, being a gluten free student is more straightforward than you think.
These are my top tips to help you survive student life…
Register with a GP
As a Coeliac student, it’s extra important that you register with a GP as soon as you can. If the information on how to do this isn’t obviously available when you first arrive for Fresher’s Week, then ask. The last thing you need is to get sick (for any reason) and then find you can’t get hold of a doctor easily.
Once registered : Depending on where you are, you MIGHT be entitled to some help with gluten free food on prescription. Okay… this isn’t a given (it’s a bit of a postcode lottery) and as an adult, prescriptions (in the majority of cases) still have to be paid for. But if you are eligible, a Coeliac food prescription may help to reduce costs. The list of possible prescribed gluten free food may include anything from pasta and bread, to crackers, flour mixes, cereals etc. Although the availability will usually be specific (IF available) to the area’s NHS trust.
Never eat gluten to ‘fit in’
Meeting new people and trying to ‘fit in’ can be a struggle (however confident you are). And in the midst of making new friends, it might be tempting to eat the (gluten-filled) pizza to avoid making a ‘fuss’ and to be a part of the socials. Don’t! It’s not worth the risk. It will make you sick and will set a precedent that may be hard to reverse.
The best route is honesty! Tell the people you’re with that you are gluten free and why. Most people are really interested to know more about Coeliac Disease and what it is and will be supportive in helping you to eat safely. You’ll soon find that fitting in has nothing to do with the food you eat. Your health comes first and if your ‘friends’ don’t get it, or pressure you to eat something you shouldn’t, they’re probably not your friends!
Talk to the University about being a Gluten Free Student
When you know which university you’re going to, contact the student support team and check how the facilities work. If you’re living in halls, ask about arrangements to cook and store food. If meals are provided as part of the accommodation package, ask how the kitchen ensures gluten free food is cooked safely. And find out who you need to talk to if you have any questions and for reassurance.
You can be pretty sure you aren’t the first gluten free student and that the university has plans in place to support you. But checking ahead gives time to work out a Plan B for safe food storage and cooking if need be….
Check with the university (and your housemates) whether it’s possible to have a designated food cupboard area in the halls or house kitchen. If this isn’t an option, take a storage box to keep ambient food separately (in your room if necessary).
Clarify fridge arrangements for storing food that needs to be chilled as well. Given the risk of cross-contamination, having your own shelf (preferably at the top) would be a bonus. But in reality, it may come down to labelling food clearly and using a separate airtight food box that fits in the fridge with your stuff in it. It’s probably safer that way.
Once people get to know you and understand the importance of your dietary needs, most will be supportive and helpful in making sure you get what you need.
Stuff you might need as a Gluten Free Student to avoid cross-contamination
In addition to cupboard and fridge space, any Coeliac needs to be aware of the more general risks of cross-contamination with gluten. Indeed Cross-contamination is probably the biggest risk you’ll face! If you’re not feeling particularly confident about where cross-contamination might happen, my page on Coeliac Disease + Food is a helpful read.
Either way, when heading off to university as a gluten free student, there are a few essential items to take with you and a few extras you may want to consider once you’ve settled in.
These are mainly specific utensils that are harder to ‘de-gluten’. But also may be things that help to protect your stuff!
- Toaster Bags are essential if using communal toasters. But given how much toast many students consume, you may wish to take your own Toaster with you instead. If you do, remember to label it as yours and keep it IN YOUR ROOM when not using it, so it stays ‘pure’ and gluten free!
- Plenty of Kitchen Foil for using ovens and grills. Students are notoriously messy around food… And with all the crumbs and food residue left behind on cooking surfaces, it’s definitely better to cook your stuff on clean foil to avoid inadvertent cross-contamination.
- Airtight Food Containers
- Stickers and Labels to mark your food, equipment and containers, preferably not just with your name, but also as ‘gluten free’.
- Basic eating utensils (plates, bowls, cups, cutlery, trays, wooden spoon) that are for your use only.
- A Chopping Board or two – Chopping boards are particularly difficult to de-gluten completely. Best take your own.
- A couple of Saucepans (and if you are a baker, definitely cake pans, a whisk and mixing spoon, etc)
- Antibacterial wipes (biodegradable) and/or Spray and a supply of Kitchen Sponges to wipe surfaces down.
- A couple of Tea Towels to dry your utensils. Heaven only knows what you’ll find on the communal ones!
And honestly… If in halls or with housemates that don’t respect your need for safe eating and food preparation, then keep everything that’s yours in your room!
The long game… Recommended equipment for gluten free students who cook
Once settled (and particularly for students in self-catering accommodation) you’ll get more of an idea of your cooking style and (hopefully) get more into the swing of making your own meals. At this point, consider investing in one (or both) of the following:
- An Air Fryer (there are many to choose from, with different functions and to suit every budget)
- A Slow Cooker (a small Crockpot serving 1 to 2 people is under £20).
Talk to your housemates and other students living with you
Regardless of personal equipment, one of the best things you can do to help prevent getting accidentally glutened, is to talk to your housemates and friends about what Coeliac is, the health risks it poses and what you can and cannot eat. If they understand how sick you could get from a glutenous crumb, they’ll be more able to understand the need to keep stuff extra clean and why you have your own ‘gluten free’ equipment. They’ll also (hopefully) be more supportive in helping maintain a little order around the kitchen.
Have a stock of gluten free student staples (pasta and rice)
For decades, staple student food (gluten free or not) has included mountains of pasta and rice… usually concocted into something that looks questionably edible, but is (mostly) delicious! These two staples are so versatile they can be combined with almost anything to make a meal. They’re quick to cook and sustainably filling. I hesitate to say ‘cheap’ when it comes to pasta, because for the gluten free student, even the basics add up. But… either way, as a Coeliac in university, you should definitely maintain a stock of both at all times. And maybe consider buying them at the start of term when finances look a bit happier!
Embrace cooking… It doesn’t have to be complicated!
Going to university means fending for yourself… And while you may already be a dab hand in the kitchen, for most students, cooking is a new skill to learn. My advice? Embrace it! You’ll probably eat better and will certainly spend less than if you live on ready meals.
If the prospect of cooking is daunting, you’re definitely not alone. But making tasty gluten free meals doesn’t have to be complicated. Look for easy recipes or make it up as you go… It’s the quickest way to learn. And before you know it, you’ll be creating great gluten free food that everyone will want a plate of.
And actually… from chilli and spag bol., to soup, traybakes, casseroles, curry, rice mash-ups and pasta extravaganzas… what you’ll quickly find is that gluten free student food is really no different to anyone else’s!
When you’re a student, time can feel short… With lectures, essay deadlines, a busy social life and (probably) having a job or two on the side to make ends meet, there are weeks when cooking nutritious food is hard to fit in.
The solution? If you can store it, batch cook!
When you do have the time to make a meal, make two or three times as much and store the rest for another day. If there’s a freezer available, portion-up the leftovers in a couple of airtight containers, ready to defrost and reheat when you need them. Or keep them in the fridge and reheat in the oven or microwave after tomorrow’s lectures. You’ll have a meal in minutes!
Eat cheap options for the gluten free student
As a student you need to survive on a pretty tight budget. Being a Coeliac or gluten free student, this is already a tougher prospect because specialist gluten free food is WAY more expensive than standard wheat equivalents. So what’s the best way to keep costs down? Here are my top tips for budget-friendly meals…
Savvy student tips for supermarkets…
- When buying from the free from aisle (or indeed any other aisle), look for reduced items reaching their sell-by date… ie Yellow Stickers! This can save a small fortune. And as long as you eat them quickly or freeze them, they’ll be as good as ‘fresh’.
- Work out the best time of day for grabbing fresh food (veg, fruit, meat, fish, dairy etc) that is reduced… This is often towards the end of the day (around 6 or 7), but varies according to store.
- Head for the cheaper supermarkets. The pasta and other specialist gluten free basics in Asda, Aldi, Lidl and Morrisons are as good as the alternatives elsewhere… And if your nearest supermarket is Tesco, Sainsbury’s or one of the others, look for items that are ‘price matched’ to the cheaper shops.
- Learn to read labels! Many ‘normal’ foods are unexpectedly gluten free.
- Grab yourself a supermarket loyalty card (most have them)… These not only give you access to lower prices on some items, but pay you back with loyalty points and treats as well!
- When adding veg and fruit to cooked dishes, buy it frozen or tinned. It will (mostly) have the same nutritional value, but is much cheaper.
Savvy student tips for cooks…
- Cook from scratch as much as you can using basic fresh produce. Vegetables, meat, fish, cheese, rice, buckwheat, potatoes, beans, tofu, quinoa, etc are ALL naturally gluten free and form the basis of most healthy and nutritious meals.
- Plan to make gluten free meals that are cheaper and go further… Soup for example, is easy to make and is nutritious and versatile. Then there’s chilli, jacket potato, Bolognese, casserole, stew, pasta bake, gnocchi bake, mac n cheese, cassoulet, kedgeree, curry, stir fry, dhal, frittata, risotto, traybakes, hash, cottage pie, etc… The list goes on!
- Buy cheaper cuts of meat and ‘tenderise’ them by cooking low and slow as a casserole or in a slow cooker.
- Switch meat for beans and pulses… They’re cheaper but still packed with protein and nutrients.
- As mentioned above, batch cook several portions at once and freeze for another day. It will save you time and money!
- For hundreds of gluten free recipes (savoury and sweet) check out our Gluten Free Recipe Index.
Hunger on the go… Always have gluten free snacks at the ready
Although campus cafeterias and on-site student stores vary, grabbing a gluten free snack ‘on the go’ may not always be possible. With this in mind, make sure you have a snack box in your room and remember to keep a couple in your bag at all times to stave off hunger pangs.
Look for offers on breakfast bars, nuts, biscuits and cookies, etc when in the supermarket to keep the costs down.
Eating out – Do some gluten free research
However much you need to budget, going out is a big part of university life, even for the gluten free student. But finding venues that are safe for Coeliacs may take a little research. These days, gluten free options are much more varied and most venues have a better understanding of cross-contamination issues.
Do your research early so you have a list of possible options for different types of food to throw into discussion when planning meals out with friends. Be proactive on this one! Your friends will want you to have a good meal too… So if you know a venue isn’t safe or you know a restaurant or café that will work better, make sure you speak up.
If you’re new to the town or city, there are lots of recommendations on-line. Use Instagram hashtags such as #glutenfreextown and #xtownglutenfree. These will usually bring up helpful suggestions. It’s also worth googling gluten free blog posts for a specific area and using Facebook groups which are focussed on gluten free eating out.
Until you know a venue however, make sure you call up in advance to understand how they prepare food and manage cross-contamination risk. It might be helpful to read my page on Living with Coeliac Disease : Eating Out. This takes you through what to look out for and the questions to ask.
Take care at parties
Students love a party and there’s no reason why you should miss out. Just remember that standard beer (of any type) is NOT gluten free… Either take your own gluten free beer (available in most supermarkets in the free from section) or stick to wine, cider or spirits… assuming you’re over 18!
With parties come snacks. But many of those aren’t gluten free either. So unless you have checked labels yourself and can be certain they have not been cross-contaminated, it’s best to avoid them. And be aware that after a drink or three, your judgement may be reduced and mistakes are more likely to happen.
Best strategy? Take your own snacks and hang on to them so they don’t get snaffled!
Seek out other Coeliac and Gluten Free Students
Coeliac Disease is surprisingly common and the chances are you will come across other gluten free students facing the same challenges. Seek them out! This will connect you for a bit of moral support and maybe to share a meal.
It’s possible that the university has a Coeliac Society which you can join, so ask when you arrive. Alternatively, you can reach out through social media… Instagram is a good place to explore through hashtags, and University Facebook groups are always a good starting point to connect.
Coeliac UK has membership support on offer… Check out their website for advice and to find local groups, etc.
If you or someone you know is a member of Coeliac UK, you/they can request a Moving On Pack. It comes with lots of helpful information and advice to support you in adjusting to Gluten Free Student Life and when travelling. And it includes some handy stickers for your stuff and some toaster bags.
Gluten Free Student life… a final word
I hope my tips for surviving as a gluten free student are helpful. If there are any new ones I should add, please let me know through a comment at the bottom, an email or by messaging me on social media (Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest).
But most of all, wherever you are, good luck with your studies and have the BEST time at university. You’ve got this!