Episode 17: How to Select a College That Will Support Your Dietary Needs
May 31, 2021
If a typical college semester is about 15 weeks long and students eat three meals a day, that means they're eating 315 meals on campus each semester. That's more than 600 meals during each academic year.
That makes food a pretty important part of the college experience — and an important part of choosing which college to attend. This is especially true for students who have special food allergies or dietary needs — or even those students who want to make healthy decisions about food.
So what should students be looking for when deciding which school will meet their dietary needs and preferences? How can families ensure their student will be given plenty of allergy-sensitive options? And, on top of all this, is there a way to know that the food will be both delicious and nutritious before applying?
That's what's on the menu for this episode of College Admissions Insider. Our guest is Bucknell nutrition specialist Tanya Williams, who shares some essential insight.
If you have a question, comment or idea for a future episode, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Episode 17 Transcript
[00:00:06] BW: Hello, and thanks for tuning in to College Admissions Insider, the podcast where we help you plan each step of your college search. I’m Bryan Wendell from Bucknell University.
[00:00:16] BT: And I'm Brooke Thames, also from Bucknell University. We know there are a thousand different things to consider when you start looking at colleges, so we try to break those topics down into bite-sized nuggets.
[00:00:25] BW: Ha, bite-sized nuggets. Okay, now I'm getting hungry. Speaking of food, Brooke, if a typical semester is, let's say, 15 weeks long, and students eat three meals a day, that means they're eating 315 meals on campus each semester, which equals more than 600 meals during each academic year.
[00:00:45] BT: I'm betting that it's definitely more, if I'm thinking back to my own college experience, which makes food a pretty important part of the college experience and an important part of choosing which college to attend as well. And so this is especially true for students who have food allergies or dietary needs, or even students who just want to make healthy decisions about food in college.
[00:01:05] BW: That's right. So what should these students be looking for when deciding which school will meet those dietary needs or preferences? How can families ensure that their student will be given plenty of allergy-sensitive options? And on top of all this, is there a way to know that the food is going to be both delicious and nutritious before you even start applying?
[00:01:25] BT: That is what's on the menu for today's episode. And to help us understand that all and break it down, we have asked Bucknell nutrition specialist Tanya Williams to join us on the show. Welcome to the podcast, Tanya.
[00:01:35] TW: Oh, thank you so much for having me with you today.
[00:01:38] BW: Tanya, I'd love to start by talking about your job. What exactly is your role at Bucknell? And do most schools around the country, most colleges, have a full time dietician on staff?
[00:01:49] TW: That's really a great question, Bryan. Today, I would estimate that at least a third of the colleges and universities would have access to a dietician or have a dietician on staff. I can say many years ago when I started, this did not exist. So we're seeing colleges actually put the concept of nutrition in the forefront. In a nutshell, what we do as dietitians is really to provide nutritional therapy or nutritional education to the students in a private setting or in a group setting. And oftentimes, the dietitian will also serve as nutrition counsel for the university itself.
[00:02:25] BT: Yeah. Can we break that down a little bit more? And can you tell us some more details about what kind of support that entails?
[00:02:31] TW: As you may know, many disease states do require treatment. And part of the treatment regime may be nutritional or dietary manipulations. Think about diabetes, or cancer, eating disorders, or food allergies. So that's the biggest part of a campus dietitian’s job. The other would be general nutrition therapy that you spoke. How can I help somebody make good decisions when they're away from home, and what's available on campus? And then thirdly, I do a lot of programming, or the dietitian would do a lot of programming for larger groups like athletics, or clubs, sororities, fraternities, you name it.
[00:03:09] BW: Now, I know when we've talked before, Tanya, that you've mentioned you hear from a lot of high school students and families making sure that their student's needs will be met. So a lot of times I imagine those are food allergies or other dietary needs, like diabetes, or gluten intolerance. So is that the best bet, to email someone like you? Or how can a family with a student who has those needs, and they're in high school, right? How can they assess whether the colleges on their list or going to accommodate that specific food allergy?
[00:03:37] TW: With years ago, the ADA actually making a food allergy a legitimate reason to ask for additional services on campus, food allergies were brought to the forefront. So a lot of colleges right now do have allergen programs through their dining services. So the first people I would reach out to would be dining services. Also view their website to see what specifically is offered for those with gluten intolerance, soy or peanut allergies, and kind of start in that direction. Generally, these individuals are coming to campus knowing what their illness or their food issue is, so it isn’t a new diagnosis. So they know what food they have to avoid. So it's best always to reach out, again, to someone in dining services first.
[00:04:25] BT: I'm curious too about cultural or religious dietary needs or restrictions. Say, students who are Jewish or Muslim have certain considerations in that respect. And so what's the best way for them to learn whether a campus will be able to meet their specific needs?
[00:04:40] TW: And this is great too. So my response will be very similar to what I said about the allergens, is to reach out to food services to see if they offer a special kosher or Halal meals. And I would also encourage the students or the parent to reach out to the religious communities on campus. Oftentimes, more specific questions can be addressed through those individuals.
[00:05:03] BT: Yeah, Bucknell, I know we have a whole kosher kitchen through our Center for Jewish Life. And so yeah, those kinds of organizations on campus can definitely help point students in the right direction.
[00:05:12] BW: So Tanya, Is this enough to just completely cross a school off of someone's list if they find that they don't have those accommodations there? If the student realized that they're going to have to be doing all their food preparation on their own? What would you recommend to a family in that scenario?
[00:05:27] TW: Yeah, that's a really, really interesting question. I do know that there are several schools now that do have what we call allergy kitchens. And within those kitchens, they will hold fast to being gluten-free, sometimes even being vegetarian or vegan so to accommodate some of the cultural issues. But I can clearly tell you that the majority of the schools will not be allergen-free, so the kitchens are not allergen-free. So depending on how intense that allergy is, or that disease state that that person or that individual student may have, they could easily cross colleges or universities off their list. Because it's a protective service, right? It's much more than are they meeting their needs nutritionally? This is something that could save their life.
[00:06:12] BW: And like you said, that's going to be a case by case thing, and families are going to know best, what's best for their students. But that's really good advice.
I'd also like to change gears a little bit to healthy eating choices. I know in some families, high school students might be just accustomed to eating whatever is placed in front of them on the dinner table a lot of nights. So college might be the first time that they have that 100% freedom over their meal planning, if we want to call it that, over what they eat. So what are some of the ways that they can prepare now in high school to have that kind of independence and make healthy choices?
[00:06:46] TW: Historically, I would have said, “Hey, we all had the home economics classes, exposing us to how to cook an egg, how to boil water, etc.” Nowadays, if you're not majoring in food, or nutrition, or if you don't even have a vague interest in the culinary arts, you can really be caught off guard. The first thing that I say that people should do is to, like anything else, prepare. Do a little search. I tend to look to see if a college has refrigerators available, microwaves available. What's the communal kitchen situation like on campus? You can review many websites and YouTube videos by college students that are actually teaching other college students how to cook and prepare meals within their dorm rooms or within their apartments alone.
If you're not interested in cooking yourself, which is pretty typical, the one website that I definitely recommend is eatright.org. That's put out by the American Dietetics Association. And it's a viable guide, really looking at what you need, and how to meet your nutritional needs, and breaking it down into food groups, food types and meals based on calorie levels, also based on what you may want to avoid. So you can get a lactose-free meal plan provided by them. And when in doubt, I would say reach out to a dietitian if available on campus. And I always say sooner than later. I'd rather you learn from the get-go versus visit me your senior year with the same issues that you started with your freshman year.
[00:08:16] BT: Yeah, those sound like great resources for students. I know thinking back on my own college experience, it can be hard in a big dining hall where there're so many options — and all-you-can-eat sometimes — to try to create a balanced plate during those meals that you're eating throughout the day. And I'm curious, you mentioned better sooner than later, starting in your freshman year if you need that support versus your senior year. And so I'm curious what current students come to you and what kind of support they're looking for? And how many students do you get coming to you kind of earlier in the process rather than later?
[00:08:45] TW: Yeah, so this is a really super good question. So on a daily basis, I can see anywhere from eight new visits, which are about an hour each, to 16 follow up visits, which are about half hour each. So I'm quite busy. When I see a patient, we refer to that as medical nutrition therapy. Nine times out of 10, when the patient comes, there's something going on. There's something with their belly. There's something with their gut. Maybe they're experiencing some reflux. Maybe they're fatigued. I think of non-athletes and athletes coming to me when it comes to performance, “I don't feel right.”
So we start with blood work a lot of the times, and then we're able to complete a diagnosis. Once I have the diagnosis, then we begin that therapy. So it can be a new onset diabetic. It can be a student experiencing gastric reflux for the first time. It can be a student coming on campus who just finished up therapy for cancer. So you wouldn't think that these are the things that you would see on a college campus, but honestly, it's a very clinical environment.
And then I'm lucky enough to have the students that trust me and want to know, “Hey, how do I navigate this new situation that I have?”, much like you said. “I didn't grow up having a buffet in my house. How do I get around this? What is too much? What is too little? What should I be looking for?” And then, of course, the disordered eating patterns that we see too that develop because of anxiety, or depression, or other situations. There's a lot of competition on a college campus, so it does create an environment that then can be very intimidating for individuals.
So in a nutshell, again, that's where it all starts. But it really leads into things that you could never imagine. So it is very, very valuable to have a dietitian on a college campus and to work with those in student health, to work in conjunction with other medical professionals as well.
[00:10:38] BW: You also mentioned athletes. And I know at some larger schools, the athletes have their own like fancy dining hall that no one else is allowed to go into. At Bucknell, everybody eats together, right? But are you offering support to these athletes on how they can fuel their bodies to compete at a division one level?
[00:10:56] TW: Yes, Bryan. So I am actually a specialist in sports nutrition therapy. So I've been doing this with our students for over 15 years. And what a unique opportunity to really teach an athlete how to take their sport from a high school level to, like you said, a D1 level or a collegiate level. It's a different ballgame altogether. What's required on and off the field is quite demanding, and teaching somebody to eat to support their activity as well as to support their education is a big deal. We at Bucknell choose to interact or allow our students to interact with one another, so we don't have a separate facility. But their dietary requirements are definitely specific to the sport and very different than a traditional non-athletic athlete.
[00:11:43] BW: Can you give me an example of that? Because I know we have 27 sports at Bucknell. So what would be like the range of what a different athlete in one of those sports might consume?
[00:11:53] TW: Sure. I always compare golf, or softball, or baseball to something like football. So let's say a typical lineman might need anywhere from 5,500 calories a day. Probably, I would say anywhere from 225 to close to 320 grams of protein per day. So in your minds, think six to seven meals per day is what I need to get into this particular athlete in between all his classes or her classes, as compared to a softball or baseball player, I would say non-pitcher. So we'll say maybe first baseman. They might need 2,500 to 2,800 calories a day — just a non-active bass sport versus something that's very intense.
But when we think about athletes at this age, we also have to think about their nutritional needs as — And I don't want to say adolescence — but adolescence. So I'm also looking at vitamin D. I'm looking at their iron. I'm looking at calcium, phosphorus, all these things that attribute to bone health. So they continue to grow healthy and remain healthy, as well as feeling their sport. It's a tough job.
[00:12:58] BT: And I'm curious too, quickly…A good number of students as they kind of move throughout their college years will perhaps spend less time in the dining hall, maybe a little bit more time cooking in their dorms. We have some situations where people kind of live in these quad situations where there is like a common kitchen or things like that. And so any quick tips for students to think about as those opportunities might arise for them to kind of change the way that they interact with the dining hall and taking more responsibility? How can they ensure that they're still making good food choices when they take on more of that responsibility?
[00:13:28] TW: I refer a lot of people to Pinterest. I love Pinterest, because you can search healthy meals, quick meals, efficient meals, budgetary, like good budgetary meals. So it really allows you to see these recipes. The more individuals can get their fingers in the preparation of food, the better it is. I say that not only for my private practice patients, but for individuals here on campus. You get to go through the process of buying things and seeing what makes sense, buying things seasonally, buying things local. I always say shopping on campus. What can I get in the caf? What can I get in the bison? And then what can I bring back to my room to create a meal? So we're lucky enough that we've created many recipe books based on that concept over the last couple of years. And I'm more than willing to share those to any students that ask.
[00:14:20] BW: Are schools in general getting better at making the selections themselves healthier? Because I'm thinking back to when I was a college student and I could have chosen to any number of super unhealthy things. I could have had Cheetos for three meals a day, and two liters of Mountain Dew, and all those options were right at my fingertips with just a single swipe of my card. So have things changed and now schools are saying, “Okay, we're only going to present healthier options?”
[00:14:48] TW: I would say yes and no. I would say as of the last five years, students coming onto campus are looking at their campus experience a little bit differently than we did. So they're looking at the fitness facilities. They're looking at what's being offered to them in the dining halls. Are there healthier choices? Are there fresh choices? Are they organic? Are they local? So that really has come to the forefront.
The one thing that, again, I tell my parents all the time is we can't necessarily not offer fried chicken and French fries, right? Those are going to be something that are offered in the world and presented to your student forever. So it's teaching someone that those foods can be used, and can be consumed, and enjoyed in addition to eating quite healthy as well. So to exclude things on campus, like frozen yogurt, unless you're going to exclude frozen yogurt the rest of your life, why do it? I think it's much more appropriate to teach people how to eat a variety of foods in a healthy way.
[00:15:46] BT: And I guess a follow up to Bryan's question about nutritional information. I know that most schools, including Bucknell, put menus in that nutritional information online for students and parents to read. But it is hard to know whether something tastes good by just looking at ingredients or pictures. And so what can students considering which schools to possibly attend do to make sure that the food that they're eating isn't just healthy and nutritious and good for them but also tastes good?
[00:16:15] TW: And this is great. Again, this is what I encourage everybody to do: sample the goods. When you're on that tour on the campus, of a college campus, university campus, go to the dining halls, sample the food. Most of the time that's offered. If not, ask. Ask all the students that are around. Really get the opinion of, “Is this a good facility to eat? Do you enjoy it? Is there a variety? What do you like best?” And then the second thing I would think about is the comment cards and any feedback. Does dining listen to that? The feedback? Saying, “Hey, we'd like more of this and more of that.” And that can be very beneficial to.
Again, sample the goods, talk to people, visit the different college campus dining centers as you would visit the different classrooms to get a feel for what is being offered. And go online. Check out and see what types of food are being offered. And finally, is the menu itself a six-week cyclical cycle? Is it a three-week cyclical cycle? Meaning, how often are you going to see the same thing over and over again? That's the biggest complaint that I hear on campus.
[00:17:22] BT: Yeah, great advice. And sounds like a good excuse to go on a little food tour as well as you're dropping by these different campuses. Well, I think that's a great place to leave today's discussion. Tanya, thanks so much for joining us and sharing your expertise.
[00:17:34] TW: It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
[00:17:37] BW: And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in. If you enjoyed this episode, we'd love you to rate, subscribe and share it with your friends and family.
[00:17:45] BT: If you happen to be listening to this podcast on our website, which is bucknell.edu, we would love for you to also subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Just search for College Admissions Insider to make sure that you don't miss any of our upcoming episodes.
[00:17:58] BW: And speaking of upcoming episodes, we've got another one in just two weeks. Until then, please contact us at email@example.com. That's our email address. Get it right to me and Brooke. You can send us questions, episode ideas, or even your favorite recipe.
[00:18:15] BT: And lastly, you can follow Bucknell on all of the socials @BucknellU on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. You can also follow our student run Instagram account, which is @iamraybucknell, where you may or may not see some insight into what the caf and the eating options look like on campus. And you can find all those links in the show notes.
[00:18:34] BW: Alright, thanks for listening and we will see you next time.