Dietary Restrictions and Dining Hall Diets: What Options Do Students Have?

The college diet is well known – french fries at 10am, not a vegetable or fruit in sight, coffee as water, one meal a day – that kind of thing. Everyone likes to joke about college student’s poor eating habits. But is the college diet a consequence of a student’s choices or is it what food options are made available? And what does dining on campus look like if you’re a student with a specialized diet?

Katie N., a sophomore with no specific dietary restrictions beyond her preferences, says she feels for students eating specific diets.

“I mean the food is dining hall food, I don’t always find stuff that I like, but at least I find stuff I can eat,” Katie says. “My roommate is vegan and there’s like nothing for her.” 

Anthony M., a senior at Pitt with Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that presents as a severe gluten allergy, says being a student with a meal plan and dietary restrictions isn’t easy. 

“Yeah, I’ve had Celiac’s disease my whole life, so I know how to feed myself. Like I’m used to looking for the gluten free options,” says Anthony. “But it’s not easy when you have a meal plan and have to eat at certain places and those places don’t have food you can actually eat.”  

The Eatery at Towers has nine food stations for students to explore with the assumption being a student will be able to find something. But if you’re a student with one of the eight most common allergens, especially if that allergy is severe, the only station you can put your confidence in is Flourish, Pitt’s allergen-friendly station. 

What will you find at Flourish? When I walked into The Market at 2 p.m. last Thursday, they were offering sausage links, steamed broccoli, and roasted potatoes. This is the meal they will serve from noon (when breakfast turns into lunch) until The Eatery closes at 10 p.m. that night.

I notice that cubed honeydew and cantaloupe was offered as well. The section of Flourish offering a build-you-own salad bar was closed. I see a package of gluten-free buns and a loaf of gluten-free bread. As a frequent flier at Flourish, I was surprised I didn’t see pork as the protein for the day — it usually is. 

If you are a gluten-free student like I am, or, one who chooses not to eat meat (like I am not), you will not have anything substantial to eat beyond broccoli and potatoes on this Thursday at Flourish. Your options are to leave The Eatery to find other food options (either on-campus or off-campus) or to explore the other stations. 

At each station there are cards that will tell you what the food item is, what ingredients are in it, and any potential allergens. However, Michael DiBiasi, Pitt Eats’ Dietician, will be the first to tell you that at those stations, they can’t promise that cross-contamination won’t happen. For those with severe allergies, this risk is not worth it. 

Anthony M.’s advice for students with allergies is pretty straightforward — get past the meal plan as quickly as possible. 

“I would probably just say eat a lot of salads. Find stuff you like, sort of, and get used to it,” he suggests. “There aren’t very many options for us [fellow students with allergies]. I started eating well again when I moved off-campus and didn’t have a meal plan.”

For students with dietary restrictions, the dining hall diet doesn’t look very sustainable – options are limited. According to advice from students with allergies, your off-campus options are better.