Skip navigation
Special Diet Kitchen Plate.jpg
Opened in 2011, the Special Diet Kitchen is a dedicated meal space offering dining options that are free of the eight most common allergens: wheat, soy, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and eggs.

Special Diet Kitchen makes eating with allergies easy

Iowa State University's dedicated program serves those who must avoid gluten, peanuts, and more.

When you're a college student with a food allergy, finding safe meals can sometimes be tough. But it's easier at Iowa State University, thanks to the Special Diet Kitchen.

Opened in 2011, the Special Diet Kitchen is a dedicated meal space offering dining options that are free of the eight most common allergens: wheat, soy, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and eggs. (Soon to be added to that list will be sesame, the ninth most common allergen.) "It's a place where students can go to get food that's safe, if a student finds it harder to self-manage their dietary needs in the main dining locations," says ISU Dining dietitian Rebecca Harken, R.D., who oversees the Special Diet Kitchen menu.

The Special Diet Kitchen isn't for students who might be looking to experiment with a trendy gluten-free or dairy-free diet. Instead, it's for those who have a medically indicated allergy or intolerance (such as celiac disease or lactose intolerance) that requires them to avoid a certain food. Students who wish to eat at the facility must submit documentation from a qualified medical provider showing that they require specific dietary accommodations.

Those who are approved can eat at the Special Diet Kitchen. (They still have access to ISU's 26 other dining locations, too.) The number-one dietary need that the kitchen accommodates is celiac disease, which requires that a person avoid gluten. Peanut and wheat allergies are close runners up. In some cases, the kitchen can also accommodate students with other types of dietary needs. "We've had students in the past who have had jaw surgery and needed to eat a blended diet. We've also worked with students with eating disorders or anxiety who aren't able to manage the traditional dining center," Harken says.

Menu items served at the Special Diet Kitchen are screened by Harken for allergen compliance and nutrition. "We're always adding new things based on student preferences," she says. All of the food is prepared dedicated kitchen and served in a separate space to prevent the risk of cross-contamination. All Special Diet Kitchen chefs have completed additional cross-contamination and sanitation training on from the nonprofit Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) as well.  

The Special Diet Kitchen program is small. Of the 144 students on the current roster, Harken estimates that about 55 of them use it regularly. But for those regulars, it's made a big impact. "They feel like, I can come here and have food that's safe for me," says Harken, adding that, while students might opt to also research and try the allergy-friendly options at other dining spots around campus, having the Special Diet Kitchen to fall back on can be a source of relief. "There might be a day where they have a lot of tests or are really busy and figuring out what to eat at the main dining hall is an extra stressor. On those days they can come back to the Special Diet Kitchen and know that they'll have options," she explains.

Those options, by the way, are just as flavorful and satisfying as the conventional fare offered at the other dining halls. While allergy-safe meals sometimes have a reputation for being boring or bland, that's not the case here. "The goal is for students to feel like they're getting the same foods their friends are getting in the main dining hall," Harken says.

That includes breakfast quesadillas, pancakes, French toast, biscuits and gravy, fried rice, BBQ chicken, meatloaf, lasagna, gluten-free pizzas topped with either dairy or non-dairy cheese, chicken enchiladas, hamburgers or black bean burgers, fajitas, and gluten-free mac and cheese (also available with or without dairy). And don't forget dessert: There's chocolate cupcakes, cranberry chocolate oatmeal cookies, chocolate brownies, yellow cake with vanilla frosting, and banana muffins.

Having a dedicated allergy-free space doesn't just make current ISU students feel more at home and less stressed. It also puts ISU on the map as a destination school for those with food allergies, giving it a competitive edge. "From some of the research I've done, it seems like the designated space we have is something that's very unique," Harken says. "We've had a lot of students who've told us that they chose to come here because of the Special Diet Kitchen because they trust it as a safe place to get safe food."

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.