5 Tips to Dining on Campus with Food Allergies

Hello UARK! I think everyone can agree change pretty much sums up the theme of college. Food choices and eating habits are certainly no exception. For many students, college is a time where you begin stepping outside of your comfort zone, especially your eating comfort zone. Because, from my personal experience, you can’t survive on frozen waffles alone!

Y’all, embracing change is hard. Especially when you have a food allergy or a medical condition, such as Celiac Disease, that requires a modified diet. A lot is happening when you start adapting to college life: making new friends, moving to a new city or even state, taking on the responsibility of feeding yourself, and so on! For some students, add figuring out how to eat on campus with a food allergy to that list.

What is a food allergy?

For readers who may not be familiar with what a food allergy is, it is a medical condition in which exposure to a food triggers a harmful immune response. This immune response is called an allergic reaction, in which the immune system attacks certain proteins in food. Now, for individuals without a food allergy, those proteins are harmless! Symptoms of food allergies can range from mild to severe. So, think itchy mouth or hives to difficulty breathing or throat tightening. Scary enough, some food allergies can cause anaphylaxis, a severe, potentially life-threatening reaction. Over 170 foods have been reported to cause allergic reactions, but the most common food allergens are milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for food allergies. Those allergic to certain foods must avoid them at all times to prevent an allergic reaction.

My personal experience

I remember the overwhelming nature of transitioning from living at home to moving onto a college campus. It seemed like in such a short span of time everything that I’d known had changed. As a student with a food allergy, this new environment I was living in was a little scary. I had no idea how to eat on campus worry-free, and I definitely didn’t know who to talk to about it. Eating on campus is a social experience, and for a lot of freshman this is how they make some of their closest friends. Whether you’re eating lunch in Brough or at Slim’s for meal trade, you shouldn’t feel like you have to miss out on those moments because of your food restrictions! So, I’m here to give you a few tips on how to eat on campus, with a food allergy, worry free. Some of these I learned my freshman year, and others I am just now figuring out (and I’m a senior!).

Step 1: Meet with the Campus Dietitian. 

The most effective way to create a plan for eating on campus with a food allergy is being prepared. Come see our campus Registered Dietitian, Ashley Meek, with your specific questions! She is available through email and scheduled appointments to help you create a personalized plan for safe dining. When discussing your needs with Ashley, it is important to address any concerns you have regarding dining on campus. She can help you identify places where you can eat safely, how to effectively use the Dine On Campus website, and how to receive specialized meals. Ashley can also provide you with a tour of the dining halls and introduce you to the dining hall supervisors. On campus, we are fortunate to have The Green Table in the Brough and Fulbright Dining Halls, as well as made-to-order options in Pomfret Residence Hall. These three locations help ensure that across campus we are providing options for students with food allergies. You can contact Registered Dietitian, Ashley Meek via email at diet@uark.edu.

  • Green Table at Brough Dining Hall

    The Green Table removes food containing gluten, shellfish, tree nuts, and peanuts from the station entirely. All food is prepped, cooked, and served within the station, which helps to reduce the risk of cross contamination. Cookware and equipment is dedicated to the station, and is not shared with other areas of the dining hall. Meals are plated vs. the self-serve setup you find in at other stations in the dining hall. All made-to-order meals are prepped at this station also! While we take steps to reduce cross-contamination, because we receive foods that contain all allergens, we cannot call ourselves an allergen-free facility.

Step 2: Explore the Resources!  

DOCWhether you have a food allergy or not, Dine On Campus is your best friend when eating on campus. This tool, which is now available in the app store and google play, provides students with dining resources, menus, nutrition facts and more! I love using Dine On Campus to help me navigate around my pepper allergy. This is not a common food allergy, but on the app I can see the ingredients used in each food so I can make the right choice for myself! After exploring the Dine On Campus app or website you may still find yourself with some lingering questions or concerns. Continue reading for actions you can take to help eliminate those!

Step 3: Communicate with Us. 

The dining staff is genuinely here for you. They want to make sure that you not only enjoy dining on campus, but that you can do so worry-free. Each food allergy is unique, so it is important that you communicate with our staff and help them understand your individual food needs. The more specific you are about your condition, the easier it will be for our staff to find the perfect solution for you. Most importantly, our employees want to help you have a great experience, but until you tell them about your needs they cannot cater to your food allergy or condition! Also, the dining staff and managers love your feedback. Sharing your experiences (good or bad) helps us improve our processes and food offerings. I encourage you to set up a meeting with the dietitian, chef, and dining hall manager. Need some guidance as to what discuss? Keep reading!

  • Your allergies and diet restrictions
  • Ask about food handling processes (where food is stored, preparation methods, food safety protocols, etc.)
  • Ask for ingredient labels of some of your favorite foods
  • Share any questions or concerns
  • Keep in touch after the meeting. If you have a problem, the staff most likely will not know unless you tell them!

Step 4: Consider Different Meal Plan Options. 

If you are really enjoying eating at our retail locations, or if you find their menus are perfect for your diet modifications, check out our different meal plan options! Chartwells offers several different meal swipe and dining dollar combinations. So, if you frequently find yourself wanting an Au Bon Pain sandwich for lunch because it fits your needs, maybe look into a meal plan that has fewer meal swipes and more dining dollars! Our most popular meal plan is the 15 plus which includes 15 meal swipes per week, as well as $175 dining dollars! While Chartwells will definitely be able to accommodate you in the dining halls, this can give you more options for when you crave something in particular, or if you just want to mix it up!

Step 5: Relax and enjoy! 

Moving to campus is a huge life change so don’t stress out too much if there are a few curve balls. It’ll all take some figuring out, and while your diet modifications are your responsibility, we are here to help you with this transition! Don’t forget that your food should be enjoyable! You may feel overwhelmed planning your meals now, but remember to enjoy the food and the social aspects of dining on campus. If you’re interested in learning more about keeping a balanced and healthy relationship with food, check out Mindful Eating: A Balanced Approach on our blog!