Ah the college dining hall. Home of “pizza for every meal”. Masters of the Mystery Meat. Cause of the freshman 15. You probably have lots of assumptions about what to expect at a college dining hall. A lot of these things may be true. Every college treats food allergies a little bit differently. Size does not necessarily coordinate with the number of options. So here are some things to consider at college dining halls (as you previewed in my blog from two weeks ago), followed by the way that I manage my allergies now.
While I was in the touring colleges phase, my parents and I decided that the most important thing that I could do on each college campus was eat a meal in the dining hall. This taught me a lot about the school and helped me narrow down my options once I got accepted to some schools. A lot of the time, college tours didn’t have a “eat in our dining hall” time or a place on their registration form for me to list my allergies, so I had to go in blind and hope or the best each time. I came up with a procedure for each dining hall. When I entered and handed the person at the desk my payment for the meal, I would ask for the allergy policy or for the name of the head chef. Sometimes the front desk person would lead me to the chef, and other times, I was told to ask someone at the food stations. Generally, I would have a nice meeting with the chef and they would tell me what I could eat on that day as well as the college’s procedures if I were to be a student. I would either eat something from the buffet/stations where they made food in front of you, or occasionally, they would have to get me something from the back.
My success in dining on tours ranged from a hamburger patty and an apple to a full meal with dessert. At the scariest dining hall, I approached one of the stations asking for a manager only to learn that each station had its own manager, and that they had no allergy protocol. Confused and running out of time, I asked to read the ingredients at “the grill” and ended up eating a single hamburger patty and an apple. I was much more successful at the other institutions. Some would direct me to a station that only made food free from the top 8 allergens. Others would tell me the ingredients that each dish had and guided me to what I could eat. The most impressive places took my order and then made me wait as they specially prepared my food. At one college, I learned that as part of their allergy procedure, the college would purchase you a bin of safe food with your name on it as part of your meal plan money and you could access it whenever you wanted.
At the University of Delaware, allergies are taken very seriously. I emailed the dietician all of my medical forms over the summer and she sent me lots of paperwork in return. In the large dining hall, Caesar Rodney, there are several stations designated to be free from particular allergens. For example, there is a vegan section which is safe for egg and milk allergies, a gluten-free station that is safe for wheat, tree nut, and peanut allergies, and the Kosher station that is free from peanuts and tree nuts, and when they use the Kosher Meat kitchen, it is also dairy free. But for people with multiple food allergies or who want more variety and have doctor’s notes, we can order our meals ahead of time.
Every evening, I go through the menu for Russell, the small dining hall by my dorm, and I send in my “special diet preorder” form. My orders allow my food to be made safely, whether it’s a special pan for my pancakes or baking chicken nuggets so that I don’t have to worry about the shared fryer. Using information about the allergy food that’s always available (grilled chicken and vegetables of the day) and the ingredients lists on the Campus Dish app, I am always able to find something safe. Sure, it can be annoying to have to figure out what time I want to eat each of my meals and know what I want 12 hours before my first meal of the day, but it’s safe, and I’m forced to think about what I’m eating- which is probably bettering my chances on combatting the freshman 15.