Celiac disease: Five things you should do before starting a post-secondary program

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Navigating celiac disease while attending post-secondary school can have its challenges, but with careful planning and clear communication with accessibility services, food service staff and roommate(s), you can start a new school year with confidence.

Key points

  • It is normal to feel nervous about moving away from home, attending university or college, and learning to navigate a strict gluten-free diet on your own.
  • Remember that you are not alone. Clearly communicating your gluten-free diet needs to on-campus staff and your peers can help you feel supported.

Although you likely spent a lot of time and thought choosing the program that will meet your needs, the reality of attending a new learning environment away from the comforts of home may make you feel anxious or nervous. Here are five things you should do before you start your program to help settle your nerves and help you feel confident.

Five things you should do before starting your program

1. Fill out mandatory accommodation forms and return them before their deadlines.

Once you have accepted your offer of admission, it is important to get in touch and register with accessibility services as soon as possible so that your strict gluten-free diet and related needs can be met.

When contacting your institution’s accessibility services, ask “What specific documentation do you require?” Request a contact name, fax number, email and/or mail address. You will likely need to provide a copy of the letter confirming your diagnosis of celiac disease from your health-care team to register for and receive accommodations.

Registering with accessibility services will help you get accommodations like:

  • Academic supports and accommodations if you have an accidental gluten exposure that impacts your studies.
  • Your own room with its own fridge or microwave if you will be living on campus. That way, you do not have a roommate bringing gluten-containing food into the room.
  • Parking on campus so you can drive to get the gluten-free groceries you need if they are not available on campus.

Fill out any forms given to you by accessibility services and return them before they are due. You may be required to attend an intake appointment with your institution’s accessibility services to discuss accommodations. Prepare for the appointment by gathering and reviewing all your required documentation. Not all accommodations are required for every person with celiac disease, but it is helpful to think through what you may need before meeting. Think about what accommodations and strategies have worked for you in the past, and brainstorm questions about any concerns you may have.

2. Communicate with the campus food service staff.

If you will be living on campus, arrange time to speak with your campus food service manager, staff or on-campus dietitian to discuss your diagnosis of celiac disease, the importance of following a strict gluten-free diet and the need for a gluten-free meal plan. Ask food service staff what gluten-free options will be available for you and create a plan with them so that you can safely receive gluten-free meals. You may also want to talk about how you can follow up with staff about your experience or change in dietary needs. For example, you may need to follow up with staff if you experience an accidental gluten exposure from a meal they served to prevent it from happening again.

Communicating and coming up with a plan before starting your program can help you feel less stressed about whether your food is safe. You can instead put your energy towards meeting new people, adjusting to campus life and learning new concepts and theories.

3. Get in touch with your roommate(s)!

If you will be sharing a room, suite or on-campus townhouse or house with roommates, get in touch with them before you get to campus to share with them your diagnosis of celiac disease and your gluten-free diet. Explain to them what celiac disease is and the importance of following a gluten-free diet. Share how they can support you to avoid gluten exposure.

Although having these conversations with your roommate(s) may feel awkward, especially if this is your first time chatting with them, remember that the sooner they know about your diagnosis and gluten-free diet, the better they can support you.

4. Purchase your own mini-fridge, microwave and kitchen utensils.

Consider purchasing or renting your own mini-fridge and microwave if your residence does not provide one. If renting a mini-fridge and microwave, thoroughly clean surfaces with soap and water before using to prevent any gluten cross-contact. This way you can safely store and prepare your gluten-free foods and snacks.

Bring kitchen utensils like plates, bowls, cutlery, mugs and cutting boards so that you can prevent gluten cross-contact and safely enjoy food you may prepare in your room.

5. Bring your favourite gluten-free comfort foods.

Buy your favourite shelf-stable, gluten-free snacks to enjoy between classes or during long study sessions. If you will be living on campus, you may also want to cook and freeze some of your favourite dishes from home that you can keep in your mini-fridge’s freezer and eat when you are looking for familiar comfort food.

Here are some other gluten-free, dorm-friendly snacks and meals that you may want to keep on hand:

  • Nut or seed butters with apple slices
  • Hummus with snap peas
  • Gluten-free breakfast foods like bagels, breads, cereal or quick gluten-free oats
  • Gluten-free corn tortillas or tortilla chips with salsa
  • Hardboiled eggs
  • Gluten-free granola bars
  • Fresh, grab-and-go fruit like apples, bananas, pears or oranges
  • Yogurt or fruit cups
  • Cheese strings or packaged gluten-free deli meats

Following a gluten-free diet while attending a post-secondary program away from home is possible! With careful planning and clear, ongoing communication with accessibility services, food service staff and your roommate(s), you can have a successful start to your year.

Last updated: August 10th 2023