Navigating Food Allergies as a College Student

Going to college can be scary, and for most students, it’s their first opportunity to live independently. This fear is often amplified for those of us with food allergies because it means uprooting from our base of home cooking, immediate family support, and restaurants we know and love. 

As a junior at UW-Madison (go Badgers!) and someone who has lived with lifelong anaphylactic allergies to dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and legumes, I want to share with you helpful tips and strategies that made the transition to college easier for me. 

Arriving on Campus With a Plan

My mom and I started preparing for college before I even knew which school I would attend. For each of my college visits, we scheduled meetings with food service management to understand their approach to helping students with food allergies. Once I arrived at each campus, I toured the dining halls and met the food service staff I would interact with daily.  

Having now done this for a couple of years as an official college student, I can say it’s been really fun to get to know the frontline staff! The more we get to know each other, the better they can watch out for me with safe meals. 

From time to time you’ll Inevitably encounter issues, but maintaining a relationship with the staff has made it easier to navigate the dining halls and ensure I’m eating safe foods.  

Preparing For Campus Activities

It’s important to have a plan in place for dining outside of university food services—at restaurants, friends’ houses, and events around campus. 

At restaurants, it’s crucial to be confident when communicating your allergies to the servers and managers. Not all establishments are going to be familiar with food allergy best practices, so you need to know how to explain your situation. One solution I use is to carry a chef card with a list of my allergies for waitstaff. This helps reduce the stress of ordering in unfamiliar situations. Plus, the card can also be shared with the kitchen staff when appropriate.   

When eating at a friend’s house, it’s important to let them know what food allergies you have and share with them what to do if you have an allergic reaction. Your roommates and friends will be your family away from home, and you may need to rely on them if you ever have a problem.

Lots of events around campus, like club meetings and parties, include food and catered meals to attract people (because who doesn’t love free food?!). Rather than trying to figure out what I can eat in advance, I’ve found it easier to bring my own meal or snacks I know I CAN eat. My go-to has always been a Jimmy John’s sandwich that I can throw in my ‘drawstring’ with my medicine bag. 

I also like to carry what I call a “pocket pack”: essentially two Auvi-Q’s and two Benadryl tablets held together with a rubber band. This has been a game-changer because I can slip it into my pocket before walking into dining halls, restaurants, or friends’ houses.  

The Process is Manageable and Worth It

This may seem like a lot of work, and a little overwhelming, but with the right strategies and advanced planning, it’s actually quite manageable and comforting. Food allergies don’t have to be a constant worry if you prepare and take the time to set yourself up for success!  

With that, I want to share my top 10 tips for managing food allergies in college.  

10 Tips and Strategies For College Students

  1. Meet with a university dietitian and someone from food service during your campus tours (before you select a school), so you know how they manage food allergies.

  2. When you arrive on campus, create relationships with the dining hall staff. They can be your biggest cheerleaders.

  3. Teach your friends and roommates about your allergies and how to help if you have a reaction. 

  4. Have “medicine bags” for every occasion: in your backpack or purse, your athletic or drawstring bag, etc. Also, have a “pocket pack” at the ready, and very soon, an Amulet!

  5. Bring backup meals and snacks to events and parties.  

  6. Stock up on your favorite allergy-friendly snacks online. Amazon and other online grocers are very helpful for this life stage—you may not find your favorite safe snacks at the local grocery store.

  7. Learn to cook some of your favorite meals.

  8. Check out new restaurants and continue to try new foods BUT do your homework to make sure it’s a safe choice!

  9. Create a chef card listing all of your allergies. Chefs and servers will thank you!

  10. Be confident when communicating your allergies. No one knows them better than you. 

Benjamin Gordon is a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Consumer Behavior & Marketplace Studies with certificates in Entrepreneurship and Business. He’s had allergies to dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and legumes since he was less than a year old, and is a strong advocate for food allergy safety and awareness on campus. When he’s not figuring out what to eat, he loves to rock climb, play board games, and host barbecues. 

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