How to Deal with Dining Halls and Food Allergies

So, I started this post as someone who has had a great experience with dining halls at my school. Up to this point everyone had been so cooperative and flexible. Yesterday however I had a not-so-positive experience. I will hit on that later.

First, many of you are probably reading this because you have special needs with your diet. Maybe you are trying to eat healthier, are vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, etc. This post was not written with your groups specifically in mind, but these tips apply to you and can be helpful just the same. My target audience are those with food allergies or intolerances that need help in navigating the large, arduous lines of dining halls, especially in college.

I hope these tips and real-life examples are benenficial. If there is anything that I didn’t address, please feel free to leave a comment or email me. Anonymous or not. I will do my best to answer your question or will direct you to someone else who can.

Note: I am not a certified dietitian or doctor. With my posts I am not giving you orders, telling you exactly what to eat, and I do not promise any particular results. These are just my experiences and tips that have worked for me.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get started!

1. Contact the dietitian at your school.

If your school does not have a dietitian or similar positition, I would strongly consider whether you can live without eating in a dining hall. Yes, you can eat food in your dorm room, but that won’t be as fun or get you the entire college experience.

Although I could totally see why you would want to eat THIS for every meal! Who could blame you?!

Email the dietitian or give them a call to see what they can do to fill your needs. Have a list ready of the foods you cannot eat and what you want to know. Here is an example:

  • Allergic to: wheat, eggs, peanuts, milk/dairy, tomatoes, celery, corn, pork, rye, yeast (yogurt)
  • Cannot digest fat. Meat must be lean and food must not be cooked in oils or butter.
  • Do not consume soy products.
  • Eat simply with no added sugar, salt or fats.
  • Am looking to eat healthy, and not gain weight.

2. Decide if they can help you.

After talking to the dietitian or nutritionist, decide whether or not they understand and are able to help you. My dietitian said that they could prepare me simple food to order, which would allow me to control the ingredients. Then we scheduled a time to meet together when I arrived at college so she could further explain how the process of eating in the dining halls would work.

3. Ask for the meal plans in advance.

This is key in figuring out what to eat. If you are anything like me, I like to be prepared, and seeing meal plans for the various dining halls gives me a good idea of what I can ask for on any particular day. My college posts the menus one week in advance, but the dietitian also said that she could send me copies a few weeks in advance. If no one offers this, ask.

4. Meet with the chefs.

At first I didn’t see why meeting with the chefs would be necessary, but let me tell you that they have been life savers. On the day that I had my Dietitian meeting, she walked me around to the three different dining halls that would be able to assist me in eating with food allergies. She introduced us by name so that when I came in later we would recognize each other. The chefs also gave me their business cards/contact information so if I had questions I could email them.

5. Look at the menu and decide what to eat for the day.

Here is a sample of what could be found on any given day at one of the dining halls:

Chinese Grill

  • Thai Noodle Stir Fry with Shrimp and Peanuts
  • Crispy Tofu (V)
  • General Tso Chicken
  • Steamed Brown Rice (V*, GF)
  • Asian Noodle Salad (V)
  • Egg Rolls
  • Steamed White Rice (V*, GF)

Fresh Market

  • Full Salad Bar (V)
  • Beef and Noodle Soup
  • Mushroom Barley Soup (V*, GF)
  • New England Clam Chowder

Hearth Stone Ovens

  • Veggie Lovers Pizza (V)
  • Cheese Pizza (V)
  • Pepperoni Pizza

My Pantry

  • Philly Salad

The Kitchen

  • Grilled Hot Dog
  • Mixed Bean Creole with Rice (V)
  • BBQ Brisket
  • Chili Corn on the Cob (V)
  • Onion Rings (V)
  • Yukon Potatoes (V*, GF)

V= Vegetarian, V*= Vegan, GF= Gluten-Free

After looking over the menu, make a list of everything that you can eat (without any change).

For me, I could eat the Steamed Brown Rice, Steamed White Rice, Full Salad Bar. Everything else either contains an allergen for me, or most likely uses some kind of oil (like the potatoes).

Play close attention to the seasonings, marinades and broths that are used in certain foods. Celery salt (allergen) and flour (allergen) are sometimes used for seasoning in chicken dishes. Tomatoes (allergen) and oil (unable to digest) are often used in marinades for meat. Broths (celery, tomato, pork) are used in soups and sometimes as flavorings for vegetables or rice.

Next make a list of things that could be adapted easily to suit your needs. This means finding food on the menu that afer subtracting an ingredient or two you could safely eat. For me, this is: shrimp and chicken. They also may have other vegetables behind the counter that you could ask about getting.

Keep both of these lists with you when you go the dining hall.

6. Ask for the chef or manager.

The first thing that you should do after walking into a dining hall is find the chef, manager, or person in charge. Pull out your second list (or do it from memory like me) and tell them what you need. In some cases the chefs prefer that you let them know in advance by email or phone call that you will be coming in. Have prepared then what you want.

When giving them your order (say grilled chicken), be specific on what can and can’t be in/on your food. I had to ask twice about the chicken before they realized that there was oil in their marinade and that they’d have to start from scratch. For me, I said no seasonings, no oil, just water. You may need to be more or less specific with your order depending on your needs.

7. Get your “safe” foods.

After placing your order with the chef, go get your “safe” foods. These are items from your first list that you will be able to eat without alteration.

I like to get a salad first. Lettuce, cucumbers and shredded carrots. If I’m especially hungry that day I may get some grapes or rice too. Then sit down and eat while waiting for the rest of your food to be prepared. Some chefs will bring the food right to you, or you may need to ask for a time when you can come back up. Either way, before you leave them, make sure you know how your food is getting to you. It is very easy for items to get mixed up and lost in a kitchen.

8. Thank the chef and enjoy!

When eating the prepared food, note how it tastes and if you would like anything different to be done next time. For memory sake you could even write it down on your list.

9. Watch closely for after-effects.

You can never be too careful when others prepare your food. If you tend to have sever allergic reactions it may be a good idea to carry your allergy medication or Epi-Pen with you when dining out. After eating watch closely to how your body reacts. Don’t expect something to happen, because sometimes we watch too closely for something that really isn’t there.

If you think that something may have been prepared with something you are allergic to, take your usual necessary precautions. Then, email or call the dietitian and chef who prepared your food. Ask them to repeat the steps they used in preparing your order, from whether or not they washed their knife/hands to whether they added a little celery salt “just for kicks.”

Remember how your food tastes when prepared correctly. If it at anytime tastes different or off, stop eating and go ask to speak with the chef to confirm what was made.

10. Keep food with you at all times or in your room.

While it is nice to rely on others to cook and prepare our meals, on some occasions it may be nice just to stay in your room and enjoy eating by yourself. For these times, make sure to always keep a stock of food in your room that you can eat. For me, I buy fresh fruit every morning that I can keep on hand: grapes, bananas, apples, pears, etc. I also keep cans of tuna and chicken in my room that I can easily add to a purchased salad for a quick, but tasty meal when I don’t have time to wait.

In-dorm meals are really great for studying!

Snack-wise, carrots, fruit, canned green beans, protein power, pumpkin puree, baking powder and stevia are other things that I like to keep on hand when I am hungry in between meals or just want something different.

Green beans. Nature’s best and finest. Straight from the can!

How to Deal With Dining Halls When They Don’t Want to Cooperate:

Let me just tell you what happened yesterday. I emailed a chef at the dining hall where you buy each part of your meal. The other two main dining halls on campus are all-you-can-eat. I asked him about how he could adapt their chicken and vegetables on the menu so that I could eat them.

He emailed me back and told me to just ask for a manager when I came in and they would take care of it. Well, when I went in there was no manager in sight so I just walked up to one of the servers in the line and told him about my food allergies. I asked him to ask the cook (different than chef) if he was able to grill me a separate piece plain. The server returned and regrettfully repeated what the cook had said, “What is out is what we offer and I cannot make anything else.”

The girl server beside him said if I wanted a piece of grilled chicken, I could just go to the sub shop and get a sandwich. Politely I responded: “I’m allergic to wheat. I can’t eat bread.” Her mouth quickly formed into an “O” and she didn’t say anything else.

So… here is my step-by-step guide in how to handle these situations:

1. Buy what you can eat and leave.

The staff there won’t be hurt at all if you starve, on yourself. So load up on salad, vegetables, fruit, rice, whatever you ARE able to eat.

2. Tell the boss.

Get in contact with the head chef or dietitian and tell them what happened.

Dear Chef:

I went to _____ today and asked if I could speak to someone about making me a separate piece of grilled chicken. I explained that I wasn’t able to eat the oil, marinade, etc. that they put on it. The server went to the back and asked the cook and he said that what they had out was what they offered. The server said that the cook couldn’t make anything else.

Is there something else that I could have then, or what would you suggest I do? I’m confused.

I’m really not trying to be a bother, and I appreciate your time.

Thanks again,


Today he emailed me back and told me that there probably was a miscommunication between the server and whoever they talked to in the kitchen, as to the legitimacy of my request. To make this less of a hassle for me, he sent a list of people. He underlined: These are all managers. So apparently talking to the cook isn’t good enough. (Whoops!)

I also got an email from the dietitian today. Apparently some chef has been tattling!

Actually, I think it is very kind of her to be so concerned, and she offered me her assistance.

All’s well that ends well! Now… I just have to gather up the courage to try going there again. Hm… That may take awhile.

I’ll keep you posted 😛


What did I miss? I am sure there is something, so let me know and I can do another post or edit this one.

Have any other tips that you’d care to share?

2 thoughts on “How to Deal with Dining Halls and Food Allergies

  1. Pingback: Bonkers for BANANAS | Eating 4 Balance

  2. Pingback: What I Ate Wednesday (Protein Powder Edition) | Eating 4 Balance

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