The time has finally come, and your ready to take your next step, start a new journey. It may be your first time moving away from home, and now you are fully responsible for managing your food allergies. Suddenly your in charge of choosing everything you eat, carrying your medication around all day-everyday, along with learning to wash and cook for yourself.
It’s ok you got this!
First things first, you’ve got this far in life and have been accepted to college so huge congratulations on that! Unknown to you, you have been preparing for this all your life, each day you’ve been taking the responsibility upon yourself when you leave the house, so subconsciously you know all the things to say, you know the precautions you must take to prevent a reaction and you know the procedures to deal with one if it happens.
Dealing with your allergies without your parents and not being able to try things in the safety of your own home is daunting, however totally achievable- trust me!
The key to staying healthy in your university years is to research in advance and learn about your options, plan ahead and seek support from friends and peers. This stage in life is about learning new things, enjoying new experiences and finding yourself.
An increasing number of schools and universities are participating in allergy policies to ensure safety among food allergy sufferers. So, make sure to check with your particular university what their allergy policy is.
I have included some tips on what to consider while researching colleges and universities along with how to make the most of your college years.
1. Read up, Research and Prepare
As you prepare for your transition into university life by getting new course books, new stationary, new clothes, it’s important to have a plan to handle your food allergies for university.
Contact your university and explain your situation;
- Explain what allergies you have and ask what their allergy policy is
- Tell them your course and ask what building your lectures are held in and if it is ‘’nut free/allergen free’’, if there are any cafes/restaurants on site- are they ”nut free/allergen free”
- Ask if its possible to store a spare epi-pen in the office (this may not be permitted as you are over 18 years)
- Ask if its possible to have a designated seat in the lectures so you can wipe the table and chair down before the lectures if your nervous about cross-contact of allergens during lectures
Whether your staying in the university accommodation or sharing a house with your friends the same rules apply for both.
Before moving in, ensure the house is throughally cleaned, this includes;
- The Kitchen – the surface area, the pots and pans, the cupboards and drawers where cutlery and cooking equipment are stored
- The Communal Area- the table, chairs, sofa covers washed or wiped down, door handles washed
- Your Bedroom- Wash down door handles, wardrobe handles, cupboards, drawers and table if present. You may be able to request a new mattress due to your allergies/ asthma, however this depends on the particular landlord/university but it’s worth trying anyway. You could even try to request one of the newer/cleaner rooms due to your allergies with an explanation that you are worried about cross-contact of allergens and previous tenants.
- All Door handles, cupboard handles, table surfaces should be sanitised and wiped down at least every week.
Sharing a kitchen is easier once you have gotten to know your flatmates, however it is important to make them aware of your allergies as soon as you move in so you are safe from the start.
Although explaining and educating your allergies to strangers who you’re now living with is a very intimidating thing to do- it’s a must. We all feel as though we’re being a huge inconvenience to people we just met, by telling them they cannot borrow our cooking equipment under any circumstance. We don’t want to be ‘’the one with the allergies’’ but similarly we really don’t want to experience a reaction just because we haven’t told anyone.
So, follow the tips below on how to let flatmates know about special dietary requirements;
- First make sure that you have made the university aware of your allergies and if possible request that you would like your flatmates to get notified that there is someone is their dorm with a food allergy and specific guidance on how to keep it safe for them.
- When you move in you may get in contact with your dorm supervisor/resident-hall supervisor who is usually an older student living on the same floor or in the same building as you. You should speak to them about your allergies so that they can help bring up the discussion in the flat introduction meeting at the start of the year. They will help open the discussion of the topic in a calm and normal envirnoment along with discussing other topics so you have support when informing people and the meeting isn’t just about your allergies so doesn’t seem like a big deal.
- Once you have moved in, if you don’t get a chance to meet everyone straight away you could leave a note on the table, on the front of your cupboard or on the fridge if you wanted- this could just say something like ‘’ allergic to peanuts and nuts ‘’ and then discuss it later once someone brings it up or asks about it.
- When you do finally discuss it with flatmates, just be open about the topic, you are the expert and you can set the standards from the start about how others can make you feel safe when cooking. You could suggest nut free ingredients in the apartment or ensure to wipe down and sterilise surfaces if the allergen is used. Agree that you have your own set of cooking equipment and saucepans labelled or dab a bit of nail polish on the handle and that you’d appreciate if you kept your plates/glasses/mugs etc in your own cupboard for your personal use only.
- Flatmates are always very understanding about allergies as they usually have family or friends that also have allergies and are aware that they are sharing a kitchen with others so must tidy up after themselves anyway.
- I believe in an open dialogue at all times and that by communicating about my condition to others, they were extremely accommodating, so I could relax and had no issues.
3. In Lectures/Classes/Activities/Societies
My advice is to Inform the Year head/ Leader / Coach / Organiser in charge about your allergies and that if possible, could they make an announcement at the start of the first meeting just to be aware not to bring the allergen in with them as a snack. You will realise everyone is more than happy to accommodate you and raise awareness in the class as nowadays they probably know a few people with allergies and know how difficult it is to live with.
As there are only certain foods and brands of foods that we can eat, some may be more costly than others and therefore our food bill may often be a lot higher than our peers. To keep track of spending and only buy what you need, it’s advised to do a weekly shop with a fixed budget to spend per month.
- Prepare your dinner for the week by bulk cooking at the weekend- this way you can significantly reduce the risk of cross-contamination by ensuring the surrounding area is sterile clean when your preparing the food that one day a week. The rest of the days you just have to transfer the dinner from containers to the saucepan or microwave therefore reducing risks of ross-contact by surface areas/chopping boards/utencils etc.
- Prepare lunches for on the go for the week which again helps decrease chance of cross-contact with allergens and saves money. Try not to purchase snacks throughout the week and get into the habit of packing your lunch every morning.
- You may be able to purchase fruit and vegetable from a farmer’s market which may be cheaper than branded foods.
Flatmates sometimes borrow food and drinks, if they run out of milk they may use someone else’s. My advice if your concerned about your allergen-free food getting used, especially if its significantly more expensive than other brands, you could put a sticky label on it stating your name and allergen-free. You should mention it to your housemate or if you don’t want to, another option is to store your more expensive products in your room.
6. Eating Out
**See my Tips on Eating Out **
For eating out in university cafes/ restaurants, I would contact the university in advance and make them aware of your food allergies. Ask them about the menus in the restaurants and if products contain your allergen. They will usually have to get back to you and may compromise that there wont be products directly containing your allergen (eg. Peanut butter brownie) but they cannot guarentee no cross-contamination as products ordered in may contain nuts. They also could compromise that they could prepare a particular meal specifically for you. Each university is different with different policies so it’s best to contact them and try to come to an agreement.
7. Informing New Friends
So, your flatmates know about your allergies as your sharing a kitchen but how do your bring in up in a social setting with new friends your meeting every day. Obviously, it’s not going to be the first thing you talk about but when the topic of food comes up which it more than likely will as students are always hungry and thinking of food, take this opportunity to bring it up calmly. If passing the university shop/café and choosing what your going to get with friends you can say ‘’ I’m just getting a coffee as I have food allergies ’’ this will open the topic for others to ask questions to get to know more about your allergies. If planning to go for lunch, give a suggestion of somewhere to eat and speak up if you can’t eat in a particular restaurant because of your food allergies. This again brings up the topic in a matter-of fact way without sounding dramatic or over the top about your allergies.
If a friend opens their food that contains an allergen you are worried about, just say calmly ‘’ Sorry to bother you about this but would you mind eating that later, it’s just I’m allergic to ——. ‘’ You don’t want to sound ignorant or rude but you want to let them know about your allergies without sounding offended as they probably didn’t know about your allergies before this. From my experience everyone who I have told are very apologetic as they didn’t realise and actually want to learn more about my allergies.
For Pre-drinks with friends, I’ve never had any issues as students are usually broke so they never have food at pre-drinks, everyone always just brings their own drink but if you want you can ask friends to send a text along with the pre-drinks invite stating that a flatmate has a food allergy to —- so be careful with what you bring. As long as you keep your own glass to yourself and don’t share with anyone, that will decrease the risk of any cross-contact. You could also avoid ice or put it in your glass yourself in case anyone may have touched an allergen before this.
Universities usually have a GP on site, so I’d advise you to sign up as soon as possible. It’s good to make an appointment and update your GP on your food allergies, or other conditions as they usually have lots of advice on how to deal with certain conditions during university life and on campus. They’ve more than likely treated other students with similar conditions so have a wealth of knowledge on how you can stay safe and healthy during your university years. Also, its important to keep medication up to date so they can provide prescriptions when needed rather than waiting until your travel home to you local GP.
As your well aware, you must carry allergy medication (Epi-pens)/ In halers/ antihistamines yourself. See my tips on packing my Epi-pens here* .
You also know the procedures if you need to use an Epi-pen so when you feel comfortable, ensure to tell your friends what to do. It’s very straight forward but suggest if they want to use the practice epi-pen to gain confidence on what they must if the situation arises. It’s important if they want to go over what to do in that situation give them the time to learn and ask questions.
Ensure that they know where your medication is at all times- see my tips here*.
They should know what pocket it is in your bag and where exactly you keep it on nights out or days away.
Knowing they know what to do can make your feel better and more at ease.
10. Be Confident
Speak up and practice communicating your allergies to those around you, there’s NOTHING to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. It can easily be communicated with no fuss or drama and you won’t stand out by doing so as nowadays lots of people have allergies to all kinds of things so don’t feel like you’re a burden talking about it.
Also what relaxed me was that once it was discussed at the start of the university year, that was it, most people knew about it and were aware and I didn’t have to worry about how to tell others or when I was going to have to tell them.
Think ahead and plan in advance, if you can. If you’ve organised to meet for lunch, research and suggest the best restaurant that accommodates your needs. Bake and prepare lunches in the morning before class each day so you don’t have to buy lunches that may contain allergens. Contact the university/accommodation centre/ activities leader in advance to let them know if they need to prepare anything before your arrival.
Make a list of these requests on your phone so you can go through them and check list them.