How to Eat Gluten-Free on a College Budget

Gluten who?
June 10, 2019
8 mins read

The concept of the “gluten-free diet” has become increasingly trendy over the past few years, as recent scientific discoveries have linked weight gain and fatigue with gluten, making food items that contain the protein easy candidates for cutting out.

Having a gluten intolerance might not seem like a big issue while you’re living at home, but once you go to college the condition vastly complicates the seemingly simple task of feeding yourself. While eating away from home might be a point of anxiety for many gluten-free consumers, it doesn’t need to be. There are many ways students can maintain a gluten-free lifestyle while away at school.

An important question to ask when you find out you have a form of gluten intolerance is: What is the difference between having Celiac disease, a gluten allergy and gluten sensitivity? Anyone who has Celiac disease has the most serious reaction to ingesting gluten.

On the other hand, gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy, means you experience a less significant reaction when ingesting gluten than those who have Celiac. Usually, people who have gluten sensitivity show symptoms similar to those displayed by people who are lactose intolerant.

Having a wheat allergy provokes symptoms that are more similar to allergies, causing those affected to develop itching, hives or even anaphylactic shock. While the latter two reactions are still serious and those affected should be wary, they do not cause the same long-term damage that Celiac disease does.

Of course, there are also those who choose to omit gluten from their diet voluntarily. This might be to promote weight loss, lift energy levels or any number of other reasons. When this is the case, avoiding the amount of gluten that spurs these reactions is much simpler.

As a college student, eating gluten-free on a budget can be close to impossible when you don’t know the resources available to you. Little do many know, however, that doing just a small amount of research can make eating gluten-free on a college budget both easy and delicious!

Where to Shop

The first step in maintaining a gluten-free lifestyle with limited funds is figuring out where you can buy cheap, tasty and convenient gluten-free products. Believe it or not, there are quite a few grocery stores that boast a gluten-free section. While many of these stores sell products well outside of the average college student’s budget, a surprising number of them provide their customers with gluten-free options at affordable prices.

The crowd favorite grocery store in the gluten-free community seems to be Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s is well known as a health-food store with prices for customers of any pay grade. While there is no single “gluten-free section” at most Trader Joe’s, there is a sizable number of gluten-free products scattered across the store.

They also provide a comprehensive list of all the gluten-free products sold in their stores, something that is useful to college students who don’t have the time to search for products that might or might not exist at this particular grocery chain.

Two other popular stores known for having copious gluten-free options are Target and stores owned by the Kroger Company. Target, like Trader Joe’s, does not have a designated gluten-free section and scatters their gluten-free products throughout the grocery section of their store.

The Kroger Company owns a surprising number of smaller grocery chains, all with gluten-free options for the mindful shopper. Much like Trader Joe’s, both Target and chains associated with the Kroger Company provide a full list of the gluten-free products available in their stores. However, the two companies go one step further by offering their customers the option to buy their products online.

If you’re looking to splurge on some more expensive stores, Whole Foods and Sprouts both offer a wide variety of delicious, albeit pricey, gluten-free products. These two stores are typically not recommended for college students whose budgets are limited, except they do offer products that cannot be found in any of the previously mentioned establishments. These more expensive grocery stores provide their customers with store-specific lists of available products based on your location and offer the option of buying the products online.

If you want to look at other available gluten-free shopping options, Very Well Health provides a more detailed list of stores that offer gluten-free options, even covering the best companies to shop from outside of North America.

Where to Eat

The stereotype of the junk-food-eating college student doesn’t exclude those who want to maintain a gluten-free diet. While most fast-food and chain restaurants are forbidden territories for students trying to avoid gluten, they don’t have to be ruled out completely.

Find Me Gluten- Free is another service, like Very Well Health, that informs the community about where to find gluten-free food. It has a comprehensive list of chain restaurants that are gluten-free friendly and a community-created list of Celiac-friendly restaurants. This website provides students with a wide range of options for different ranges of price.

There is a surprising number of drive-thru establishments that are also gluten-free friendly, the most notable of which include big names like Chick-fil-A, El Pollo Loco, In-N-Out Burger and Schlotzsky’s. These restaurants boast a gluten-free friendly label, but those who suffer from Celiac disease and severe gluten intolerance or allergies should still be wary. “Gluten-free friendly” does not necessarily mean gluten-free. But for those who are not as affected by their conditions are welcome to enjoy fast food just as much as the average college student.

There is also a long list of less expensive restaurants that are gluten-free friendly. The classic college student meal is a piping-hot pizza, and there are quite a few companies who provide for gluten-fans and gluten-free college students alike. Blaze Pizza and Mod Pizza are both companies with gluten-free friendly options that serve personal-sized pizzas, and some of the more classic chains that offer the same options include Pizza Hut and Domino’s. But be warned: These stores will usually charge extra for a gluten-free crust.

Both Chipotle and Freebirds provide their customers with customizable options, some of which are gluten-free, such as their tacos with corn tortillas and salad bowls. These restaurants can be a life-saver for the college student on a budget, because the portion sizes allow one meal to be stretched into two or three. You can put your dorm room’s mini-fridge to good use.

Several other less expensive gluten-free friendly restaurant options are Jersey Mikes, Shake Shack, Torchy’s Tacos and YogurtLand. While these restaurants do not provide their customers with a necessarily “customizable” experience, they still deliver on their promise of flexibility with their gluten-free friendly menu items.

Almost all of these restaurants also offer a student discount, so don’t forget to bring your student ID. The discounts primarily range from 10 – 20 percent, an amount that adds up fast when you have limited funds.

If you’re looking for healthier, more high-quality restaurants, there are many more expensive options that students can indulge in. BJ’s Brewhouse and The Cheesecake Factory are two pricier restaurants that both feature an extensive gluten-free menu. Both restaurants are also known for having larger-than-average portioned meals, which is, again, a huge benefit for those trying to save money.

California Pizza Kitchen, Islands and Snooze A.M. Eatery are options in the mid-price range. All three offer a sizable number of gluten-free options, but Snooze is known for their menu. Almost every item can be made gluten-free upon request.

Rubio’s and Noodles and Co are more casual options for the gluten-free patron, but they feature menu items that are both healthy and delicious.

With this insight, gluten-free college students now have the tools necessary to continue to live their life to the fullest while staying healthy. If you struggle with a gluten intolerance, put your worries to rest knowing that eating gluten-free can still be affordable and delicious.

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