Going off to college is daunting for the average young adult. You’re learning how to live on your own, manage your own finances, your own meals, your own laundry, and navigating a myriad of relationships like roommates, professional interactions with professors, and navigating dating without the watchful eye of parents. There are so many things going on, it can be overwhelming. When you add to that learning to navigate a Celiac diagnosis on your own for the first time (or any other reason to strictly avoid gluten)… well, it’s huge. You’re young and desperately want to claim your independence and just be “normal”.
I’m going to let you in on a secret: normal is a setting on the dishwasher. It doesn’t apply to humans. We all have different things that make us unique, in so many beautiful and astounding ways. The person down the hall in your dorm has lupus, the person who sits behind you in class is transgendered, your lab partner is questioning their sexuality, and the person beside you on the bus is struggling with their mental health. While these challenges are all very different, I use them as examples because of the way they impact the way the person living in that situation sees the world. Each of these things comes with challenges and with unique gifts, so learning to identify the challenges and gifts in your own situation can be immensely helpful. Understand that your challenges are a piece of you, not the only thing that defines who you are, and know that you belong to a marvelous troupe of weirdos! Find your people and be good to one another. Making even one close friend who can relate to the things you are going through (such as another student with Celiac disease), offers a special level of support and belonging. You can help each other on hard days, and celebrate the victories (large and small) together. It really does make all the difference!
Housing and Gluten Safety
I wasn’t yet diagnosed with Celiac disease when I was in college/university, and student housing where I went to school was quite different from the dorms and mandatory cafeteria meal plans that many North American students will encounter. Mine was more like a townhouse with a shared kitchen, living room, and bathrooms. There is no denying that it is safest for the management of Celiac disease (or any other condition that needs to be treated with the same care) to live on your own with access to a kitchen you can set up to be safe. Sharing with a partner, best friend, or willing roommate(s) who are on board with supporting you and keeping the kitchen and home safe could also work. I cannot imagine how one would live in campus dorms and eat in the cafeteria, unless it were a school that is especially equipped and educated to prepare food for Celiacs. I have seen some posts around social media suggesting that this need is getting more attention, and some campuses are adapting, but I think there is still a long way to go yet. So with that in mind, I’m going to make some suggestions for how you might set up a dorm room with minimal cooking equipment/space if you are in a situation where you are permitted to have a mini fridge and electric cooking devices (such as a wok, hot plate, electric frying pan, etc). I’ll also suggest that finding an apartment near campus with a full kitchen may be the better option. In that case, you’ll want to refer to the resources in my e-book about setting up a gluten safe kitchen.
In some cases, it may be most ideal to hire a personal chef, or to have your meals delivered by a service that specializes in work with Celiacs. These will vary by city, but a simple search for “personal chef” in the city where you will be attending school should find some options. You may also find them through terms like “therapeutic” or “medical” meals as these service providers will be more accustomed to meeting the needs of those with restrictive diets and the importance of preventing cross contamination. It is important to ask about the facility they will be preparing the food in, and risks for cross contamination in that space.
If you need to buy yourself some time while you figure things out, you may find it helpful to order from Paleo on the Go or Wild Zora. Paleo on the Go delivers Paleo and AIP (autoimmune paleo) frozen meals to your door, throughout the United States. Depending on the dish, you can then warm them on the stove, with a toaster oven, or in a HotLogic. Wild Zora offers dehydrated meat and vegetable bars that would be great to have on hand for times you get stranded between classes without a proper, safe meal available, and they have dehydrated meals that are ideal for your emergency kit or camping trips. They also carry both Paleo and AIP options. Both services can be a bit pricey, but they are incredibly helpful for short term needs, and would be great for travel during school breaks too.
Setting up a dorm kitchen
For argument’s sake, let’s say you are in a dorm room that has a sink, a mini fridge, and electric options like a wok, an Instant Pot, a HotLogic, toaster oven, or an electric frying pan. Mini fridges can be tricky to get the right temperature. If they’re too cold, you ruin your lettuce. Too warm and the frozen foods thaw. You may have to choose which end of the spectrum is more important to you, or have a separate mini freezer. It’s worth giving some thought to how often you want to grocery shop, how difficult it is to get to a store with the ingredients you’ll need, and how much time you’ll have available to cook. If there’s not a lot of time for either, learning to “batch cook” or make and freeze portions of a larger dish can be helpful. Things like chili, soup, or shepherd’s pie work well, as do many of the recipes on my blog. Between that and quick prep dishes like salad with a piece of meat, it should be relatively easy to create nutritious and satisfying meals. Grocery delivery services like Thrive Market can also help you save money and time picking up dry goods. You’ll notice that most of the foods I suggest are completely grain and dairy free. I do this because they are the most likely to be problematic for Celiacs and co, and the foods made with gluten and dairy tend to be really easy to make/really common so you don’t really need me to think of them.
Let’s say you buy an electric wok, an Instant Pot, a HotLogic, a toaster oven, and/or an electric frying pan (any of these would make a good Christmas, Birthday, or graduation present in the year(s) leading up to school starting). You’ll also likely want a kettle, a large cutting board, a larger chef’s knife and a small paring knife, a vegetable peeler, a can opener, and a few cooking tools like a flipper and tongs. If you’ve found a recipe that works for you to make pancakes or waffles, you might also want a mixing bowl, measuring spoons/cups, a liquid measuring cup, a rubber spatula, and a whisk. Pancakes and waffles can be frozen with a layer of parchment paper between them (so they don’t stick) and warmed in the toaster oven or frying pan. Tea towels, dish cloths, dish soap, and a drying rack or mat would also be essential. As would a few plates, bowls, cutlery, drinking glasses, and mugs. Oven mitts and a trivet to set hot things on would be wise too. If you love smoothies, you may want to prioritize getting a blender, an immersion blender with a smoothie cup, or a magic bullet sort of thing. This can be a great option for breakfasts, or if you have only a short break between classes and need to refuel. A leak proof travel mug can be amazing for holding smoothies, or warm tea in cooler weather. Reusable food storage containers are also important. If you want to use a HotLogic, the rectangular glass pyrex storage containers are ideal. Otherwise I recommend a combination of 250mL and 500mL straight sided mason jars (they’re just so cost effective!).
All of the above are items that should be purchased new and never come into contact with gluten to be safe for you to use. As I look at this list and picture the average dorm room in my mind, I’m going to go ahead and suggest that you’ll need an extra set of shelves or a pantry cupboard of sorts to stash all of this and your ingredients in. You might find one on a used buy and sell website/app, just remember to decontaminate it and any other kitchen surfaces according to the instructions in the e-book before putting away any of your kitchen supplies and groceries, the basic idea being that you need to clean these surfaces once for debris/dust/crumbs, once with hydrogen peroxide to destroy the gluten proteins, and once with a regular cleaning spray (gluten free… I like Seventh Generation) to be sure it is all safe and ready for you to use.
Stocking your home with supplies
As you move in and set up, there are some kitchen staples you’ll need:
- Salt and a salt shaker
- Pepper (and a pepper mill or shaker)
- Oil – I would suggest avocado for cooking and baking, extra virgin olive oil for salad dressing
- Vinegar – one you like for salad dressing, apple cider vinegar if your pancakes call for “buttermilk”
- Dried herbs that you like and a way to store them
- Tea – soothing, calming ones, and maybe one with caffeine
- An “incase of cold or flu” kit with whatever tools would have been used if you were at home
- Molasses (if you’re like me and struggle to get enough iron)
- Coconut milk
- Snacks – nuts, dried fruit, larabars, your favourite chips, seasnax, chocolate chips, etc
- The gluten free flour and other ingredients that go into your pancake/waffle recipe – you might want to have refillable storage jars for these ingredients as their packaging tends to rip and then things get very messy and hard to use.
- Gluten exposure rescue kit: L-Glutamine, collagen, activated charcoal, bone broth, and soothing herbal teas and Pao d’Arco TeaThere are a few household things you’ll want to pick up on that trip too:
- Medication for headaches/nausea (mind the non-medicinal ingredients – these may need to be compounded, especially if you struggle with dairy and corn in addition to gluten)
- Ice pack
- Personal care products (shampoo, toothpaste, face cream, etc)
If you’re in a building with shared dorm bathrooms, a shower basket (possibly with suction cups to stick to the wall), shower flip flops, a robe, a towel, washcloths, loofa, etc.
- Nail clippers and file
- Tweezers (at the very least, they’re good to have around for getting out splinters)
- Heating pad or hot water bottle for a sore belly
- Lap desk – if you want to work on your laptop from bed or a couch
- Laundry basket
- Laundry soap (possibly also change for coin operated machines)
- Menstrual products (if you’re a female bodied human)
- Condoms and lube (if you’re planning to have sex… I’ve confirmed that the SKYN condoms are free of gluten, corn, and soy, as is Sliquid H2O lube).
While we’re at it, let’s talk school supplies. I found that I preferred to use one large binder per semester with binder dividers. I took a clipboard with a flip cover to class, filling it with loose leaf lined paper, and carrying the course outlines there in case I needed to check something about the readings or due dates. I would file the new notes into the master binder at the end of the day, ensuring that I didn’t lose any important information. I would also carry a few pens, a pencil, and highlighters, but there may be other things you need depending on the class. You may also prefer to take notes on a laptop, in which case you would carry that and a charging cable instead. If it’s the sort of class where you’re going over a text together in the classroom, you’ll want that with you too. A backpack is ideal for keeping the weight evenly distributed and reducing strain on your body. Remember to bring your water bottle too; hydration is so important! I kept emergency snacks in my bag too (like an extra larabar or Wild Zora bar or two) in case I got stuck in a situation without other safe food options.
Gathering Gluten Safety Allies and Educating Friends
If you were diagnosed with Celiac (or a related issue) while you were living at home, you may not be used to teaching new humans in your life how to help you stay safe. This is of greatest concern with people you want to share your home and life with, or people who make decisions about the environment you spend your time in. In the context of college/university life, this will most likely focus on roommates, friends, romantic partners, building managers, and course instructors. A significant amount of the Guide to Life without Gluten e-book is dedicated to ways you can talk about your diagnosis, accomodations you may need, and how to garner support from the humans in your life. I’ve also included a whole bunch of insights about navigating all sorts of social settings, designed to help you feel more comfortable, at ease, and clear on how to keep yourself safe in any situation. This blog post holds some helpful insights too.
Dating, Kissing, and Sex
While I don’t like the idea that everyone assumes that you’re dating and having sex just because you’re in college, there are some gluten safety things worth knowing about in that department, so I’ll share the information and trust you to use it if/when you feel ready for it. You never have to do anything that you don’t want to do, or don’t feel ready for. That said, it is honestly really important to talk to anyone you want to kiss about gluten safety. There is a bunch of information about this, and how to talk to people about gluten safety in the e-book, but I’ll share a short version here.
Anyone you want to kiss needs to wash their face, floss, and brush their teeth with gluten free toothpaste before they kiss you. Face lotions, makeup, lip balm, shaving cream, mints, gum, etc can also have gluten in them, so be sure to bring them into the conversation, and consider the safe options I’ve written about on the blog (like Carina Organics, Gabriel Cosmetics, and Red Apple). I’m extra sensitive and have found that I got sick if my partner drank grain based alcohol and kissed me, even if they brushed their teeth. I think it’s because it stays on their breath, but I don’t have any scientific evidence to go with that. I also noticed that I felt unwell after kissing a partner’s neck (that had been washed with body wash containing gluten), and ingesting semen/pre-cum from someone who regularly ate gluten. There hasn’t been a ton of research done about these things, but there is some evidence that gluten (and other allergens) can be passed in seminal fluid, so you may want to be cautious with how you navigate oral sex (bear in mind that it is an option to use a condom during oral sex). Taking a shower (alone or together) with your safe gluten free body wash can at least help minimize issues with residue on skin.
This brings me to the topic of condoms and lube. Some may contain gluten, corn, and soy. These could result in an uncomfortable skin reaction, or be dangerous if they get into your mouth (latex can also cause a burning skin reaction if you’re allergic to it). So I did some research, and discovered that the Skyn brand of condoms are for sure gluten/grain, corn, dairy, and soy free, and they’re also latex free so they should be safe for most humans. Sliquid H2O lube is also gluten, grain, corn, dairy, and soy free. Lube is a wonderful thing. Trust me, if you’re having sex (or masterbating), you want some around. Some folks may suggest using coconut oil or olive oil or something, and while that’s theoretically a nice texture, the oils can break down the condoms and cause them to break, leaving you unprotected from the risk of STDs and pregnancy. Use the lube. Also, just because we’re talking about it, and there is so much information that I wish I had had access to earlier, I’m just going to slip in a recommendation for the Shameless Sex podcast here. They talk about all sorts of sex, between all sorts of bodies, from an empowered, consent culture savvy perspective. It’s awesome!
Just before I move on from this topic, I’ll slip in a reminder that there can be gluten, corn, or dairy in many medications, including oral contraceptives (“the pill”) or the morning after pill. If that’s something you’re wanting to consider using, be sure to discuss it with your doctor and pharmacist to find a version, or another option, that will be safe for you. If you take other prescription medications, be sure to get that set up for easy refills at a pharmacy near campus, or that will deliver to your dorm.
Ok, so we’ve talked about housing, kitchens, and sex… let’s talk about alcohol. Many young people find themselves at a party or at a bar, wanting to have a drink, or feeling pressured to drink, at some point during college. First, I’ll say that you absolutely never have to do anything that you don’t want to do. Second, I’ll point out that alcohol damages your microbiome (the helpful bacteria living in your gut), which can make Celiac symptoms worse, and make it harder for you to absorb nutrients from your food. You may also find yourself with an overgrowth of unhelpful bacteria. You can help to offset this by not drinking too much too often, and by including probiotics, kombucha, and fermented foods like sauerkraut in your diet. All of that said, if you still want to have a drink or two occasionally, there are safer options to consider. As a Celiac (or equivalent) human, you cannot drink beer, whiskey, rye, scotch, or malt liquor. Some types of wine are sealed in barrels with wheat paste; this is still supposedly below the allowed 20ppm limit to be called gluten free, but sensitive humans may notice, so choosing a wine labelled as gluten free is safest. If you have issues with corn, you’ll want to be mindful of a few extras like gin and vodka. You CAN safely try gluten free beer (note that these are made from other “gluten free” grains and may be problematic for some folks), wine, cider, honey based liquors, tequila, rum, and vodka made from potatoes or honey. Remember to re-hydrate afterwards with plenty of water, and electrolytes from things like honey and coconut water.
Stress is a very real part of student life. The semesters are shorter, the expectations are higher, and you’re learning how to live on your own while in school. You might be homesick, or feeling the strain of being away from your usual group of friends and support network. It’s going to be ok. Let’s take a deep breath together… slowly in through the nose, and out through the mouth, allowing your body to relax and soften the muscles as you exhale. As a person with an autoimmune condition like Celiac disease, it is important to pay attention to stress. Even if you haven’t been exposed to gluten, stress can increase inflammation in your body and leave you sore, exhausted, and struggling to absorb nutrients. With that in mind, I want to talk about some ways that you can practically help to reduce stress in your life.
1. Minimize trivial decisions.
Keep life simple by having only a few options of what to eat for breakfast, setting out clothes to wear the night before if the morning will be rushed, packing lunch the night before (maybe leftovers from dinner?), and making sure the things you will need for the day are packed into your backpack before you go to bed, or programmed as a reminder that will pop up on your phone in the morning so you don’t stress out about forgetting something and miss valuable sleep.
2. Be organized.
At the beginning of every semester I would transfer the course syllabus into my agenda book (now I would probably program it into google calendar). I would write out all of the readings that needed to be done for the following week in the weekend slots (but would read them whenever I had time), crossing them off as I went. I would also give myself “research deadlines”, “soft deadlines”, and “hard deadlines” for any papers or large projects. That way, I managed to avoid being in the position of writing an entire paper the night before it was due. I also wrote down the dates of major tests and reminders to study for them the week leading up to the test.
3. Keep your space clean and organized
You may absolutely love the freedom of not having parents telling you to pick up your socks or do the dishes right away, and yet you may soon discover that the world is a less stressful place when you can find clean socks, and the dishes are clean when you want to use them for your next meal. Chances are pretty good that you’ll be living in a small space, so giving things a specific place where they belong can help to make your home feel more spacious, and to make it easier to find the things when you need them.
4. Leave time in your schedule where nothing has to happen
You might end up using this time to call home, take a bath, take a nap, finish the assignment that’s due, or do something fun with a friend. It just helps to have wiggle room.
5. Make space for a hobby.
It is ideal to find something that is both social and active so you can get both of those needs met at once. I suggest things like dancing (I love swing dancing), team sports (intramural or recreational leagues), yoga, rock climbing, swimming, hiking, martial arts, and so on. Having something that forces you to leave home, meet new people, and move your body will be so valuable for your physical and mental health! And it can help you to find community and a sense of belonging on campus. Check the listings of campus clubs for ideas.
Meditation is just one of several ways you can create space for your body to go into a state of deep rest where it can really relax and focus on healing itself. Even taking 10 minutes as you start your day, or get ready for bed, can help to reduce stress, and allow you to maintain greater wellness. Tools like massage therapy, acupuncture, energy work, craniosacral therapy, and yoga can also be really useful in a similar way. There are great apps like Headspace and InsightTimer that can help you learn how to meditate. If you’d like to learn more, I suggest reading this longer article I wrote about this topic.
Sleep is one of the most essential things you can do for your body. It’s where our brains convert memories from short term to long term (very important when you’re studying for a big exam), and where the body can rest, repair, and digest. As tempting as it might be to cram all night, or stay up with friends, sleep is an essential ingredient in keeping inflammation down, and your autoimmune condition(s) well managed. If you’re having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, it’s well worth reading this longer article about how to form good sleep habits, and tools that can make sleep easier.
While the start of College marks a developmental milestone, and a transition into greater independence, I want to remind you that wise adults ask for support and help when they need it. If life is feeling hard and scary, reach out to someone in your support network, or find a counselor who can support you. Or you can write to me, at email@example.com. Adulting is complicated, messy stuff, and you don’t have to do it alone, or all at once. Hopefully this resource has helped to make it a little less scary. If there are topics that I’ve overlooked that you want to hear more about, please send me an email and I would be happy to talk about it and add to the resources.