Imagine planning a dinner party for this crowd: Peter is lactose-intolerant. Jill is vegan. Gannet avoids gelatin for religious reasons. James is on a liquid diet after oral surgery, and Mary is diabetic and sensitive to wheat.

These are just a few of the dietary issues Amanda Kruse deals with daily as Ball State’s wellness nutritionist, responsible for overseeing individual dietary accommodations for hundreds of students, particularly those with food allergies and intolerances. Her passionate, innovative efforts to educate and engage campus diners have garnered praise from her peers.

In April, the Indiana Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics named Kruse its Recognized Young Dietitian of the Year, honoring the 27-year-old’s role in promoting health and managing disease on campus. In June, she will begin her tenure as the organization’s youngest president-elect.

“I am lucky to work on many diverse, impactful initiatives that reach young people at a key point in their lives, as they transition from home-cooked meals and gym class to the responsibility of integrating nutrition and wellness into their own lives,” Kruse said.

“I’ve watched students try certain vegetables for the first time and individuals with severe food allergies shed their fear of dining on campus. We’ve come so far in promoting health and managing disease at Ball State, and I’m honored to be recognized for our progress.”

Encouraging adventurous taste buds

She came to campus in 2013 as Ball State Dining’s first registered dietitian; within her first year, Kruse initiated savory educational programming, including robust sampling events, and devised menu labels that detail calories and highlight options that contain gluten or are vegetarian or vegan.

To ensure safe dining options, she also shares pertinent student information with chefs and management staff. That includes a student’s name and dietary needs (allergies, for instance), accommodations (prescribed diet, such as gluten-free) and emergency information. Students know this is shared on their behalf.

Kruse also helped update and reintroduce NetNutrition, Ball State’s online tool for viewing menus and nutrition information for items at all 13 campus dining locations as well as the on-campus Burris Laboratory School for Grades K-12.

Amanda Kruse talks about a food item with a former intern of hers Jennifer Dirksen, in Woodworth Commons.

Kruse (right), talking in Woodworth Commons with then-intern Jennifer Dirksen, must mind diet restrictions and food allergies as she promotes healthy eating in more than a dozen Ball State dining locations.

A mentor to future dietitians 

To help reach and serve such a diverse population, Kruse works with various academic programs to offer internships and other learning experiences for budding nutrition and wellness professionals.

“Providing hands-on learning experiences for future dietitians is critical to our future,” she said. “I believe deeply in the importance of relying on students to help educate and serve their peers.”

Dietetics major Jennifer Dirksen, who just graduated, was an intern with Kruse for more than two years. The former vice president of Ball State’s Dietetics Association assisted with outreach at campuswide health fairs and events, helped prepare personalized nutrition plans and designed informational handouts for employees, students and parents.

“This role has given me the experience and confidence to start my professional career in dietetics, and I can’t thank Amanda enough for helping me realize my full potential,” said Dirksen, who plans on starting graduate school at Ball State in the fall. “Amanda has not only been an exceedingly great boss but a great friend and mentor, always setting time aside to help me grow and gain pertinent experience.”

When allergies, special diets abound

Lucas Miller, dining’s assistant director of operations and executive chef, said Kruse’s role is critical as Ball State adapts to the rise of students with food allergies and special dietary needs. Her routine training for dining staff and inventive campus outreach have positioned Ball State Dining as an innovator, Miller said, but it is Kruse’s personal, hands-on approach with students and campus partners that sets her apart.

“Prospective students who visit campus, worried about whether they will be able to eat safely, are quickly put at ease when they meet one-on-one with Amanda,” Miller said. “After she explains all of the options and support available, we’ve seen students decide to enroll here because they know they will enjoy a safe, satisfying dining experience.”

The bottom line, Kruse said, “If students can’t eat, they can’t learn,” and every effort she makes to connect with them wouldn’t count for much without a network of support sustained through strong campus partnerships.

Kruse works with the Counseling Center to guide students battling eating disorders and other issues related to food. She also works with international programs to help students navigate food labeling and customs in the United States.

“A student from a region that doesn’t serve pork for religious reasons, for example, might assume we serve all-beef hot dogs, like in his or her country,” Kruse said.

“There are a host of fasting rituals, holidays and other customs and traditions associated with food that we work to accommodate and represent at Ball State. But we can’t know about them unless we have an open dialogue with students and the offices that support them. Collaboration is key.”

Photo shows a portion of a menu at Woodworth Commons that details food items' calorie counties and denoting whether they contain gluten or are vegetarian.

Does it have gluten? Is it vegetarian? Kruse, Ball State Dining’s first registered dietitian, must answer such questions, as is reflected by this food label at Woodworth Commons.

A reassuring voice to students, parents

In February, Disability Services honored Kruse with its Access Award to recognize her commitment to accommodating students with food issues, some of which can be life-threatening. Larry Markle, the center’s director, said Kruse makes great efforts to inform and comfort students, which lets them focus on their studies rather than stress about meal options.

“Some of our students deal with serious implications if they ingest certain foods, so transitioning to college can be a scary time for them,” said Markle, who notes gluten and nut allergies as the most common food issues.

“Amanda is always eager to meet with families to allay their concerns, and I often hear back about how appreciative students and parents are of her individualized care and attention.”

Kruse said the allergens and food issues she responds to are as varied and complex as Ball State’s student body. She monitors students with phenylketonuria, who require limited protein, and those with celiac disease, an intolerance to gluten.

But it’s the combinations of food issues that present the greatest challenges.

“Say a student with celiac is also vegan or allergic to eggs. Well, many gluten-free products use egg as a binder. Conversely, vegan options typically use gluten as a binder. So, we collaborate to identify solutions that fit within each student’s dietary options and tastes,” said Kruse, who also supervises menu development and implementation of U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines at Burris.

Promoting healthy diets over hype

Although addressing food allergies and intolerances is her focus, Kruse works to challenge students about fad diets, driven to inspire healthy relationships with food among the general population. She confronts a range of interesting approaches, including requests to purchase cases of watermelon from those on juice-only diets.

She also hears from students who would rather take a pill than bother with eating—and body builders determined to ingest upwards of 300 grams of protein a day, which can be dangerous. Heard of the moon diet? She hadn’t either, but after a quick Internet search, she now knows all about the plan that suggests certain eating patterns based on phases of the moon.

“Food is to be celebrated, but more often than not, we are afraid of our choices and make food our enemy,” said Kruse, who restricted how much she ate as a competitive rower during high school and college.

“I got into this profession because I knew there had to be a sustainable way to approach food, and there is. Many students eat the same bland options, so we work extremely hard to introduce students to healthy foods, prepared correctly, that are delicious.

“You don’t have to be a vegetarian to try a bean burger or other plant-based option, you know? Every once in a while, let’s trade that traditional pepperoni for a Noyer pizza topped with pesto, artichokes and roasted red peppers.”

Amanda Kruse holds up a fresh salad while standing in front of a display of produce and beverages.

Kruse strives to show students that healthy food doesn’t have to be bland. “You don’t have to be a vegetarian to try a bean burger or other plant-based option, you know?”

Her campus picks?

Among Kruse’s favorite campus options: the harvest turkey burger at McKinley Grille, burrito bowls at ¡Vivimos! Fresh Mexican Grill, custom pizzas at Noyer Centre and made-to-order sandwiches at Tom John Food Shop in Kinghorn Hall. Kruse also urges students to ask about the possibilities.

“Everyone knows about the Spinning Salad — a station at Woodworth where dressing is spun into a student-created salad — but the staff also is happy to make a custom veggie tray,” said Kruse, who was featured in 2015 as a “Rising Industry Star” in Foodservice Director Magazine. “We need to continue to empower students to take a role in their dining options on campus. We’re always open to new ideas.”

Kruse also seeks best practices and novel approaches through involvement with regional and national professional organizations.

In addition to her role with the Indiana Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Kruse collaborates with peers as treasurer of the group’s east-central Indiana chapter and as vice-chair of the National Association of College & University Food Service’s Midwest Nutrition Education Committee.

She also regularly presents at conferences, including those of the Indiana School Nutrition Association, and contributes to a number of nutrition journals and guidebooks.