Navigating College with Food Allergies

Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of food allergy moms everywhere quite like wondering how a teenager will navigate college with food allergies. Ask me how I know.

A little more than a year ago, my son began narrowing down which college he would be attending come August. I was personally rooting for a great campus a little closer to home. He was leaning toward a great campus nine hours away. Cue the gray hair.

My son was diagnosed with food allergies at around age one and for years my husband and I raised him to live smart and safe, but without letting this diagnosis define him. This meant not keeping him in a bubble of our own making. It did include letting him be a kid and working through food allergy challenges as they came. Thanks to hours of planning and preparing, my son participated in sleepovers, church retreats, home and away cross country meets, Boy Scout campouts and trips, and more. He, myself, and my husband worked hard as a team to make sure food allergies didn’t sideline him from enjoying all life has to offer. He thrived.

As moms, we hope our kids will take what we say to heart and that the lessons we teach them will sink in and stick. Now, we know it doesn’t always happen this way, but as it turns out, sometimes it does. My son learned not to let his food allergies define him. He learned it from me and his dad. Overachievers…all that work earned us an independent child bent on moving more than five hundred miles away. We obviously didn’t think that through all the way.

When your child is at home, you can feel a certain degree of control about watching them manage their food allergies because you can still weigh in and offer advice and give reminders in real time. College nine hours away, not so much.

At the end of the day, we let him go where he wanted to go…nine hours away. It was a great place to get an education, lay the groundwork for a career, and chase his dreams. And we did teach him not to let his food allergies define him. Why would we go back on that now?

This is where I’m going to lose some of you, and that’s okay because everybody is different. The college he chose does not have a dedicated allergy-safe dining hall and we did not request an individual dorm room. In fact, you might want to sit down for this, he even decided to go potluck for a roommate.

As we prepared the summer before he left, I was taking in the posts and comments of hundreds of parents and caregivers in my social media feeds who were adamant that their child only go to a college with a dedicated allergy-safe dining hall and a private dorm room. In my gut, I felt like this was not the right fit for my son, but rather than tell him what I was thinking, I asked him what he thought. He was adamant that he live on campus with a potluck roommate and that he didn’t need an allergy-safe cafeteria because it’s not like there would be that same option in post-college life or traveling for work.

After that statement from him, my fear of sending him off and pride in his outlook battled for prominence in my mind. Honestly, it still does…pretty much every day.

The kid made good sense. He had to grow up sometime. I couldn’t follow him to his workplace or bachelor pad with allergy meds, safe food, and constant reminders. To do so would inhibit him from becoming the man his father and I have raised him to be. He’s earned the chance to be his own person in his own right. (Sometimes people confuse a child becoming their own person with not being careful with food allergies. To assume such is a mistake, I think. It is possible to live life to the fullest while still being responsible and safe with food allergies.)

That is how it started and this is how it went.

At college orientation that summer, I went with him but was determined to stay in the background and let him start testing his wings from the beginning. I made an appointment with the campus dietitian and then I let him ask the questions and do the interview with her. She was wonderful and gave him the tools he needed to be able to comfortably eat on campus and in a variety of places. Over the year, he ate at about five different campus locations and enjoyed a variety of food. If he had a question, he had the dietitian’s phone number and email and could reach out at any time. He ate pretty much like every other kid on campus.

While we were there for orientation, we also identified at least two or three places he could safely eat off campus. During the next nine months, he ate at probably five to ten more new places that he researched and planned for on his own.

As for the roommate, God was looking out for my son because he ended up with a roommate that had similar food allergies. While that helped, the two boys still handled their allergies very differently. The roommate seldom took his epinephrine with him and did not plan ahead for new restaurants or dining options. My son remarked on more than one occasion how risky those actions were and how nervous it would make him to make those same choices.

Here we are in May and the first year of college is in the books. He did great and we are so incredibly proud of him. I know there were days where it might not have been the easiest and there were times where he went out with friends and the only thing safe for him to get was a soda or water. But…he did it. Because of what he has learned this year, he is better positioned to go out into the world without me right by his side.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that to admit as much hurts this mom’s heart a little. Yet, this is exactly what I set out to do all those years ago…raise a child who could learn to advocate for and protect himself. Will the journey always be perfect? No. Will there be mistakes and failures? Yes. But keeping my child in a bubble of my own making his whole young life wouldn’t have offered him much quality of life and very likely would have made his adult life harder.

I am a firm believer that when it comes to managing food allergies, one way is not the only way. So, whether you choose to let your child go to a college far away that has no dedicated allergy-safe cafeteria OR you choose to do it differently, just remember that as moms of high schoolers, we have worked hard for years to prepare our little birds to leave the nest. Have faith that you have done that well.


2 thoughts on “Navigating College with Food Allergies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s