For college students with food allergies, navigating the dining hall can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield. But not at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where a new allergy-friendly concept is taking the guesswork out of mealtime.
The SMPL (pronounced simple) dining station offers lunch and dinner options made without the most common allergens—including milk, eggs, shellfish, soy, wheat and gluten, peanuts and tree nuts and mustard. Launched in fall 2018, it was created to meet the needs of the growing number of incoming students with severe food allergies or dietary restrictions, explains says McMaster Hospitality Services registered dietitian and wellness manager Liana Bontempo, MPH, RD. Not to mention give McMaster a more competitive edge. “More and more students with allergies have told us they are selecting schools based on how their dietary requirements can be accommodated,” Bontempo told McMaster’s Daily News.
The Christmas dinner was a feast for the eyes — and for students with allergies.
All of McMaster’s existing dining stations had long offered allergy-friendly options. But SMPL is different. “We wanted to create a place for students with food allergies where they could feel safe and not have to wait for a ‘special’ order,’” Bontempo says. “We wanted them to feel like they could eat with their friends without being treated separately.” Now McMaster is one of just four universities in Canada offering a dedicated allergy-free concept.
Setting up a dedicated allergen-free space first meant taking steps to minimize the risk for cross-contamination. “We have dedicated prep space, separate delivery schedules for incoming product, hold team trainings on equipment use and have conducted multiple test runs to make sure we’ve covered all our bases,” Bontempo says. Staff also wear easy-to-spot badges to show that they’ve been trained in SMPL’s protocol. Dining services workers who don’t have a badge aren’t allowed into the station.
And though safety is the top priority, flavor is a close second. “We didn’t want SMPL to feel clinical, so the chefs made sure that meals still tasted delicious and savory,” Bontempo says. With so many typical culinary staples out of play, SMPL chefs took the opportunity to get creative with healthy fats like olive oil, as well as plenty of herbs and spices. They also sought out unexpected uses for allergy-friendly ingredients. Chickpea- or lentil-based noodles stand in for the usual wheat pasta, for instance, while roasted sweet potato slices take the place of standard hamburger buns. Gluten-free whole grains like quinoa and rice also play prominent roles.
What’s more, all of the meals are made from scratch and designed with wellness in mind. “We wanted to make sure SMPL was a place where everyone would enjoy eating daily, including McMaster faculty and staff,” says Bontempo. “So we gave a lot of consideration to balance.” Customers will always find two protein options (one option is always plant-based), along with multiple starch and vegetable side dishes. SMPL meals are $10.99, while vegetarian ones are $7.99. Customers can also buy proteins, starches or sides as individual components.
The sumac roasted salmon filet is one of the popular dishes.
The 28-day menu pulls inspiration from around the world with options like Mediterranean tilapia, red lentil curry, potato pulao rice and turkey chili nachos. “The sumac roasted salmon filet and pulled chicken tacos are also crowd favorites,” Bontempo says. A menu without dairy or eggs means that vegan options abound as well. Think butternut squash and chickpea curry, black bean meatballs, chickpea shakshuka, lentil mushroom shepherd’s pie and lentil sloppy Joes.
Special events held throughout the semester helped spread the word about SMPL and offered even more options for students with allergies. November’s RibFest served up allergy-free barbecue pork ribs and sides. A Christmas feast featured roasted turkey and gravy with apple rice stuffing or acorn squash with chickpea quinoa stuffing, along with mashed potatoes, green beans, maple carrots and cranberry sauce. “We were proud of ourselves for serving meals that usually have priority allergen-containing ingredients and still made them feel very traditional with that home-cooked feeling,” Bontempo says. Both events saw an increase in sales, too.
The station has earned plenty of fans since it opened in September. SMPL serves around 150 meals a day and accounts for 5 percent of all sales in McMaster’s Centro dining hall. “The feedback has been very positive,” says Bontempo. “We’re hearing not only from students with allergies, but also from student athletes and even staff that they love coming to SMPL because they know that they’re going to get a great meal.”