Dining services should include gluten-free options
Published: Monday, December 3, 2012
Updated: Monday, December 3, 2012 15:12
It goes without saying that gluten-free awareness is much better now than it ever was, but I am not assuming everyone is an expert on celiac disease. In fact, it still impresses me when people tell me they’ have heard of it before. I’m even more impressed that a lot of chain restaurants, like Outback Steakhouse, have taken the time and effort to make gluten free menus and offer gluten free alternatives. If you go on a cruise, the chefs will cater to any of your dietary restrictions and are experts in dealing with gluten free cases. As awareness grew over the years, General Mills, who produces Chex cereal, took extra steps to replace malt flavoring (made from barley, which has gluten) from rice and corn Chex, making it gluten free. I was pleasantly surprised to find the University of Delaware Dining Services offers a gluten-free program. Though, there’s a catch. If you want the dining services to provide you with a gluten-free meal, you have to coordinate your meals ahead of time.
The reason they require planning ahead makes sense: not a lot of people need a gluten-free diet, and most gluten-free substitutes for things like bread, pasta, pizza and so on are expensive, difficult to cook and usually not all that tasty. It is logical for the dining services to shy away from providing gluten-free substitute foods unless a special order has been placed, otherwise they would just be producing really expensive food that nobody would eat.
I’ve met some people who are content with planning their meals ahead of time and making sure they get a completely gluten-free meal. But with a busy schedule and very spontaneous friends, I find it impossible to be able to tell when, where and if I’m going to eat at the dining halls. It would be unfair of me to expect the dining hall staff to work around my schedule, so I do not bother with the planning ahead option. I understand that means I will not get to eat things like pasta while I’m at school unless I buy it and prepare it myself, but I’m already paying for college myself and I have already spent a great deal of money on a meal plan and cannot afford to spend more on expensive food, so I simply do not include such foods in my diet.
I go to the dining hall and pretend I don’t have celiac disease. I avoid the foods I know have gluten in them. I also stay aware that foods like soups and gravies are typically thickened with wheat flour. Also knowing that, according to the dining service website, many variations of beef, pork, chicken and rice noodles are cooked with soy sauce that has wheat flour. Even the taco meat is seasoned with wheat flour.
It is frustrating the cooks do not use simple alternatives to wheat flour, such as cornstarch, to thicken soups and gravies. In their defense, the soups and gravies probably come pre-manufactured with flour, and in defense of whoever selects these soups and gravies, I understand gluten-free options are scarce. But I know of plenty of soy sauces that do not use wheat flour, and since when do you need to put soy sauce in a pot roast anyway? Pad thai, and its many variations, is normally a gluten-free dish because it uses rice noodles, so why then, must the dining hall ruin it for gluten-intolerant folks with a soy sauce that has wheat flour? Cooking and seasoning ground beef for tacos does not require any sort of starch. You simply cook it, drain the fat, add garlic, chili powder and spices. Adding flour stretches the spices and the meat, which dilutes the flavor and adds even more calories. I find it downright insulting that Dining Services does not bother changing the ingredients or finding better products to use in the food. It’s as bad as using animal fat or peanut oil to cook French fries, which would make them unavailable to vegetarians or people who suffer from peanut allergies, when a simple alternative is vegetable oil, which makes the fries available to everyone.
The thing that irks me is these changes are so simple. I do not understand why someone is not making the changes, because ultimately, whoever doesn’t make them will lose customers. The Dining Services is certainly going to lose me as a customer, because I didn’t pay all this money just to eat white rice and salad. I’m not expecting gluten free waffle batter, gluten free pasta bowls or gluten free bread. But I do expect the university Dining Services to take the simple step to use better sauces that will make the food more accessible.