“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.”
— The Shawshank Redepmtion
how to live gluten-free
Shock. That’s the first emotion you feel when you find out you can no longer eat gluten. (Or your son or daughter. Or spouse.). Maybe there’s a little relief, since you knew something was wrong and the last thing you want to be is sick. And then there’s the flood of fear. What will you eat? Will you ever fit in? How will we deal with field trips or soccer games or holiday parties? You look at your pantry and panic. What can we eat?
Take a breath. It’s overwhelming to make a family gluten-free, at first. The first six weeks are the hardest. And then it grows easier. As you — or your child — starts to feel well, you figure it out, bit by bit, day by day. Eventually, you look back and realize how much better everyone feels.
You are going to be fine.
For those first steps, of figuring out what gluten is and what to eat, please see our new to gluten-free page.
Now, let’s discuss the specifics of how to get there.
keeping a gluten-free kitchen
When I asked the man with whom I had fallen in love to move into my home, I was filled with a swirl of emotions. I felt joy, elation, giddy anticipation, deep relief, and a palpable sense that the rest of my life was changing into something better.
I was, however, kind of scared about the kitchen.
I wasn’t worried about his ability to cook in that kitchen. After all, he’s a professional chef with over 20 years experience of being on the line. He wakes up thinking about fish specials first thing in the morning. He can braise a pork shoulder with apples, sage, and ginger and throw together a quick Asian slaw in time for dinner. Danny loves giving me joy in the belly. My kitchen was immediately his kitchen as well.
What worried me was his bread.
Before I met Danny, I had not eaten a bite of gluten, once, in a year. Diagnosed with celiac after years of feeling lousy, I was a new woman for finally feeling well. In fact, I know that I would not have met Danny if I had not stopped eating gluten. However, not a single bit of gluten had entered my kitchen for an entire year.
I was a little scared. But I wanted to make him feel welcome.
So, when he moved in his things on that long exciting day, I opened up a drawer for him. “This is your bread drawer. And your cutting board.” He could eat all the bread he wanted, of course. He put a six-pack of beer onto the shelf of the door of the refrigerator. The only caveat? He had to brush his teeth before he could kiss me. (He forgot once, after a couple of those beers, and gave me a good passionate kiss. I was sick for days after. He understood after that.)
“Our son was diagnosed with celiac about a year ago. He had just turned 11. My husband and I were tested and came up negative so we started out as a house divided. It took only a few weeks of pulling my hair out, imagining all the sources of cross-contamination, until we realized that it was best to ditch the gluten altogether and keep a strict gluten-free household. We have no regrets.” — Wendy
It makes sense, at first, that you would try to keep gluten in the house. Most of us have grown up on packaged bread and cookies, familiar pasta and treats. It’s a shock to the system to think we’ll never eat them again. In the first phase of being a gluten-free family, most people keep a divided kitchen.
However, most of us realize, sooner or later, that it’s just much easier to make the kitchen gluten-free. After all, if there is no gluten in the kitchen, there is no chance of making your son or daughter or spouse sick. You won’t have to make two of everything when the kitchen is gluten-free. Who wants to make separate meals for everyone? Once you learn how to bake gluten-free, you’ll find there is no need to bake with gluten again.
And finally, less cooking means fewer dishes. Need I say more?
This decision is, of course, entirely up to each individual family. You have to do what is best for you.
Within months of moving into my home, my husband Danny and I moved into a new home,a place that was entirely ours together. And the day before we moved in, Danny told me, “You know, I don’t need a bread drawer in the new kitchen. I can eat bread at the restaurant. Let’s make the kitchen gluten-free.”
I loved him even more for suggesting it.
Now, years later, the kitchen we share together with our daughter and son is entirely gluten-free. They eat well: quinoa salads with roasted chickpeas and red peppers; gluten-free gnocchi with parsley brown butter; carnitas with homemade tortillas; roast chicken with broccoli and carrots. They are both great eaters who take delight in sharing meals with us.
Our daughter has to be gluten-free, like me. Our son does not. No one suffers for the lack of gluten, however. They never think of our kitchen or our meals as weird. This is their home.
I never mind if Danny or Desmond eat hamburgers with gluten buns or pizza from our friend Brandon’s pizza place Delancey when we are in Seattle. Lucy knows she needs to sit on the side of the table with me. And if Desmond wants to kiss me after eating pizza, he kisses me on the cheek.
I’m so grateful that we have a gluten-free kitchen. When we cook together, the experience is about the sizzle, the braising, and the quiet waiting for the roast to be done. It’s about plating and anticipation and laughing together on the way to the table. I never have to introduce fear into my food or tell my son to wash his hands before he touches my food. When he puts food in my mouth, because he’s so eager to share with me, I take a bite and say, “Oh my! That’s so delicious!”
Life tastes better without fear.
how to keep a shared kitchen
When someone in the family is diagnosed with celiac or gluten sensitivity, it’s a shock. Mothers and fathers peer into kitchen cupboards and wonder what they can feed their children and themselves. In most houses in America, that cupboard is probably full of bags of bleached white flour, packages of pasta and quick casserole dishes, granola bars and convenient snacks, as well as store-bought cookies. Everything has gluten in it.
Of course, the first priority has to be finding the foods that do not have gluten in them so the kid has something to eat. Slowly, over time, the family will build a pantry of good healthy foods everyone can share together. However, in the first flush of this all-encompassing change, the other members of the family might still want to eat their familiar foods.
Should moms make two dinners? Oh goodness, no. So many great meals are naturally gluten-free. Roast chicken with roasted red baby potatoes and sautéed spinach. Carnitas with corn tortillas for taco night. Sautéed salmon with quinoa and fresh snap peas. There are plenty of ways to make meals that everyone will love, without gluten.
However, many moms (and dads) do make separate meals, one with gluten and one without. Imagine the hassle and time spent in the kitchen required to do this. Not only are people taking the time to make two meals but they are preparing them in separate halves of the kitchen, trying to remind themselves to not stir the gluten-free beef stew with the same wooden spoon they used to stir the macaroni and cheese made with wheat pasta and flour in the cheese sauce. All the while fearing they will make one of their kids sick.
It’s far easier to keep a gluten-free kitchen for everyone. But some parents know that their other kids might feel annoyed to have all their familiar foods taken out of the home. Why can’t they have sandwiches and cereals and cookies they love anymore? So you decide to keep a shared kitchen, gluten and gluten-free.
“We are a family of four. I’m the only one who has celiac. I have a toaster oven that is gluten-free only. The toaster is used for gluten bread. Everything I bake is gluten-free, so no gluten flours are ever in the house. I have a frying pan that is the ‘gluten pan,’ and all others are gluten-free. We have the never-dip-twice rule with jam and peanut butter. Always, a clean knife goes in. For butter, we have two different dishes. Most meals cooked are gluten-free. I only make one dinner. You have to be vigilant, always.” — Jennifer
If you’re going to keep a kitchen for gluten and gluten-free eaters, you must take some important precautions.
(I want to preface this by saying these precautions are imperative for someone with celiac sprue, for whom 1/2 teaspoon of gluten is enough to start the autoimmune response and bring on 3 to 5 days of misery. Those who are gluten intolerant might choose to not take as many precautions. However, repeated low-level doses of gluten over time can make those with gluten intolerance sick as well. Many doctors and nutritionists recommend these precautions for those who are gluten intolerant as well, as a matter of course.
- Make gluten the odd man out in the kitchen.
When going gluten-free is new, it’s tempting to make a gluten-free corner of the kitchen and leave everything else the same. This is a recipe for disaster, which most people learn the hard way. Considering the danger of stray crumbs, wooden cutting boards with gluten trapped in them, and a shared toaster, it’s best to make the kitchen as free of gluten as possible.
Make the kitchen free of gluten except for one contained area. Store all the gluten cereals, granola bars, and packaged cookies on the same shelf of the pantry, on the bottom shelf. (This way, the gluten foods can’t spill down onto the gluten-free foods.) Or, make a bread drawer where other gluten items can live too. Perhaps you have one refrigerator drawer dedicated to gluten food. Be sure to put labels on the shelves and drawers — GLUTEN FOOD. DO NOT EAT — for your gluten-free child or spouse.
This is necessary for keeping your child or partner safe. But it’s also a good way to remind your family that most foods are gluten-free naturally. There’s no reason for anyone to feel left out. Make the meals gluten-free and allow the kids who can eat gluten the occasional treat.
- Buy a toaster oven for the gluten-free folks.
Almost everyone I have talked to that keeps a shared kitchen mentions the toaster oven. If a gluten-free person eats a piece of gluten-free bread that has been toasted in the same toaster as the gluten bread, he or she grows sick. It’s not worth the risk.
A dedicated gluten-free toaster oven gives you the chance to toast gluten-free bread in a space where gluten has never been. If the toaster oven is big enough, you can also re-heat gluten-free treats or pizza without worrying. Your gluten-free child will love having an appliance he or she can always use, without fear.
- Treat yourself to new kitchen equipment.
Any porous surface can trap gluten. That means the wooden cutting board you pull out from your counter, the one with a faint white sheen on it from the hundreds of pies you rolled out on that surface? It has gluten in it. So do your wooden spoons and the wooden rolling pin.
Cast-iron pans are a boon in the kitchen. But if you’ve used your cast-iron pan to make fried chicken or flip pancakes, you’ll want to clean it thoroughly and re-season it. To do this, scrub your cast-iron pan and put it in the oven. Then, let it stay there while you run it through the self-cleaning cycle of your oven. That heats the oven to 900 to 1000 degrees, which will kill the gluten proteins. You can also buy yourself a new cast-iron pan!
If you own nonstick pans, and there are any scratches in the surface, ditch them. If your rubber or silicone spatulas have cracks or frayed places, buy yourself new ones.
Essentially, any surface like wood, iron, or silicone that can trap minute amounts of gluten can make you or your children sick with repeated use. Splurge for your family’s health. Buy new equipment.
- Designate some pans and utensils for gluten cooking.
If you plan on cooking separate meals — one with gluten and one without — then designate one pot and one pan for gluten cooking. The nonstick pan you use to make grilled cheese sandwiches with traditional bread? Put green painter’s tape on the handle and write GLUTEN with a big marker. You should do the same for the pot in which you will cook the gluten pasta. That way, there are no accidents.
But here’s a hint: there are great gluten-free pastas on the market, particularly a brand from Italy called Jovial. When we cook it up for friends, everyone remarks on how good it tastes and how fabulous the texture is. Make one pasta for everyone. Spare yourself the trouble and the expense of two meals.
One reader of this site suggested buying a small plug-in grill for the gluten food. It can do everything from sandwiches to breaded meats. One pan makes your clean-up easier too.
- Make the gluten-free food first.
Make the gluten-free person in your family feel special. Serve him or her dinner first.
It makes sense to make the gluten-free food first. If you cook gluten-free pasta in the same water where you boiled the gluten pasta? Your kid is going to grow sick. Cook the gluten-free pasta first. If you cut a sandwich made with gluten bread and use the same knife to cut the sandwich made with gluten-free bread, your partner will grow sick. There are too many ways that you could forget the crumbs or small amounts of gluten.
Make the gluten-free food first.
- Take a conscious tour of your kitchen.
So you’ve designated one shelf of the pantry for gluten foods, have a toaster oven for the gluten-free person, bought new safe kitchen equipment, and designated some pans for gluten cooking. Are you using the same wooden spoon rest you did before you took the family gluten-free? Ditch it. Did you ask your husband to cut his gluten-free bread on the counter above the silverware drawer? Think of the crumbs that might drop in there repeatedly. Have you bought a squeeze bottle version of all your favorite condiments, so there’s no dipping a knife with bread crumbs back into the peanut butter that the gluten-free person uses next?
It really does take constant vigilance to keep your child or partner safe. If you truly do want to share a kitchen with gluten eaters and the folks who cannot tolerate gluten, you can never stop thinking of ways to keep everyone safe.
- Get everyone involved.
Finally, this is a family affair. Don’t let the kitchen be the domain of one parent or another. Get everyone in there to go through the pantry and find the foods with gluten in them. Ask your teenage son or daughter to drive them to the food bank. Get one person making labels, another one cleaning out the refrigerator, and another labeling the handles of pans. Put on some music and make it a party.
Anyone who walks into your kitchen needs to be involved in this process. When friends come over and offer to help cook, show them how to avoid cross-contamination. If relatives come to stay, politely ask them to follow the same rules you use when spreading peanut butter. Some of us might feel like a bit of a boor by insisting that people pay attention to your rules. But guess what — it’s your spouse or your child and your kitchen.
The more everyone is involved in the kitchen, the better the food will taste. Most importantly, you’re involving everyone in the process of keeping one of their loved ones safe.
You can do this. And it grows easier with time.
Still, think about taking the entire kitchen gluten-free, if you can. So much easier!
how to travel gluten-free
If you are new to gluten-free, how do you negotiate travel?
First of all, you have to admit this to yourself: it’s going to be hard. However, you don’t want this to stop you from seeing the world. (That shot above is from the Cinque Terra in Italy, where it is NOT hard to eat gluten-free.)
For years I’ve been wondering why we have come to accept such a low standard of food in public places. Airports. Train stations. Hospitals. Schools. I firmly believe we are what we eat. And who we are in transition times tell us who we are too.
If that’s true, what does the airport tell us about our culture?
For years, there was almost no gluten-free food in airports, besides overly sweet yogurts, hard-boiled eggs, and chips. (Fritos, which are only made of corn, oil, and salt, are gluten-free. Believe me, they have come in handy for me before.) It’s better now. In some airports, it’s MUCH better. Still, you’re not going to find much gluten-free food, or even anything healthy, in most airports.
You have to plan ahead. Pack your own food, if you can. (That’s easier when leaving from home than coming back.) Scout out locations in specific airports that might have a smoothie place, a menu that includes fresh vegetables, something other than packaged crap. Ask about gluten-free foods in specific airports on Twitter. It’s amazing the answers you’ll receive.
The ease of your eating seems to depend on the airport you land in. Whenever I am down in San Francisco, I am so happy to see an organic cafe and a Napa farmers’ market stand in the middle of the airport. There, I have no problem. Even better, when we were in Atlanta on a four-hour layover years ago, we went to One Flew South. In a week of astonishing meals, this was one of the best. This restaurant, on the E concourse behind the security gates, serves regional food made with local ingredients, organic where possible. I had a fresh vegetable sushi roll with microgreens grown within 100 miles of the airport. We loved the Chinese five-spice fries, the Benton’s bacon and goat cheese salad with frisee, and the red wine and ginger poached pears with vanilla mascarpone.
I’m not kidding. I ate that in an airport. We had a similarly astonishing meal at Root Down at the Denver airport.
A server at the restaurant at Atlanta not only understood how to feed me safely, but he also said, “You know, the last three years, since this place opened, we have seen more and more people coming in who are celiac and need to be fed gluten-free. Something has shifted. It’s clear this one is here to stay.”
Things are improving.
But you still have to plan ahead and advocate for yourself.
What about road trips? Those are hard too. You can no longer drive until the night and pull up to the first diner you find. Pack a cooler full of food. Stop at farmers’ markets, food co-oops, and national chains like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s to keep that cooler full. Have picnics on the edges of beautiful lakes. Or in the hotel room in the evening.
How about hotels? It depends on the hotel. Some chains get it. They have GF on items on the room service menu. You ask them about cross-contamination and they have all the right answers. Some of them — especially in smaller to medium-sized towns, away from urban areas or the coasts — have no clue. Every single item on the breakfast menu, except for bacon and eggs, is made with wheat. Do some scouting and call before you go. If you have your choices for hotels in a town, choose the one that answers your questions best.
At the very least, make sure your hotel room has a small refrigerator so you can keep some staple items in there — fruit and vegetables, bars, some cheese, some sliced meats, olives, a little treat. Make sure you don’t feel deprived.
Whatever your needs, make sure you plan ahead for them. You deserve it.
how to eat gluten-free in restaurants
When I was first diagnosed with celiac, I read repeatedly on forums that I would never be able to eat in a restaurant again. Too much cross-contamination. No one gets it. You’ll get sick. I listened for the first 3 months. And then I went out to eat at Cafe Flora in Seattle and made it through safely.
A few months later, I met a chef. We fell in love. He changed his restaurant to be gluten-free so he could feed me. We got married. And we have eaten in great restaurants around the world, safely.
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that life is over when you have to go gluten-free.
There’s definitely an art and science to eating gluten-free in restaurants. It isn’t easy everywhere. You have to do your homework. You have to choose a good restaurant that makes all its own food and truly cares about its customers. You have to ask the right questions. And you have to be willing to seem a little annoying or picky — all the time knowing you are merely advocating for yourself and your own health.
We’ve created a PDF about how to eat gluten-free in restaurants and a list of some of our favorite places. Sign up for our newsletter and you’ll receive it for free.
Life’s too short to stay at home all the time.
how to survive the holidays and celebrations
Oh, this can be a tough one.
On the one hand, family gatherings of any kind should be about love and kindness, about caring for each other. However, for many of us, that isn’t always the case. I’ve heard from many readers that the holidays can be a battleground. I’ve read that this gluten-free thing is just a big fad. What’s wrong with you? Just have some stuffing. It can’t be bad for you.
We can’t choose our families. But we can choose how we let them treat us.
So, first up? Read this piece I wrote years ago about the symptoms of celiac and gluten sensitivity. It’s a good resource for anyone who doubts why you are doing this. The comments should show us all what a community of people we are. As I like to say, who would give up gluten for the fun of it? Obviously, anyone who sticks with this must know that his or her body needs this. Remind people of how serious this is.
If you have an ally in the family who might be in the kitchen, send them this piece about how to feed someone gluten-free, safely. There are a few precautions people who care have to take. It’s not that hard.
Choose your battles. Remember yourself that this is about love and kindness, about caring for each other. It’s hard to do but sometimes I eat before I go to a gathering, so I can sit and talk with people and not make it about the food.
Afterwards, a separate celebration of that holiday or incredible event is more than warranted. Friends Thanksgiving, gluten-free!
And if you want to take your own gluten-free red velvet cake, pecan pie, sourdough bread, or potato filling for a celebration, we’d like to suggest our cookbook, American Classics Reinvented. We created it for just this reason: so you don’t have to feel left out.
how to help gluten-free kids
It can be hard to be a gluten-free kid. Teenagers go out for pizza after soccer games. Birthday parties always have cake. School lunches are almost always rife with gluten contamination. How do you help your son or daughter negotiate the experience of being gluten-free?
You talk. You acknowledge that this is hard. You come up with strategies together. And you, as a parent, remind yourself continually that you are actually helping your kids to become resilient and advocate for themselves.
If the kids are 7 or older, sit down together and read this piece I wrote about being new to gluten-free. Focus on the psychology of this — saying yes to it, appreciating it, allowing yourself to feel lousy sometimes. If this is a family experience, something you go through together, everyone is going to be more successful at this.
Little kids (1 to 4): be vigilant for them. speak up for them for family and friends. introduce them to plenty of new foods that don’t contain gluten. keep a few favorite packaged treats in the house for special occasions. make it a game. be sure they know how important this is. find friends who also have food allergies so they don’t feel alone.
Big kids (5 to 10): teach them how to advocate for themselves. teach them to ask teachers and caregivers about whether or not a food is gluten-free before eating it. gently suggest class celebrations that are not treat food focused. invite friends over for playdates so they can eat snacks in a safe space. offer to bring gluten-free snacks to all the playdates. Mostly, make a big batch of gluten-free cupcakes, freeze them individually, and bring them out in case of emergencies.
Early teenage years (11 to 13): let’s face it, these are hard years. everyone feels left out and awkward and everything feels hard in moments of these years. helping your child understanding that this is part of the process, and gluten-free is merely the metaphor for this feeling, is probably the most important step.
Teenage years (14 to 18): these are the years when your kids are starting to grow away from you. trusting them to take care of themselves, gluten-free, is an important step in letting them go. of course, continue talking. never stop talking to them at this age, but in particular here, talk about where they feel awkward or hesitant to advocate for themselves. and remind them that they are being brave in feeding their own bodies well. most teenagers aren’t good at this! but a celiac teenager needs to be entirely gluten-free to avoid further health problems later in life. be kind.
I will say that the more we focus on the positive parts of being gluten-free — feeling healthy; advocating for ourselves; being unique in a field of sameness — the more easily our daughter accepted the fact that she has to be gluten-free. She’s her own fiercest advocate now! And I have to say, that’s very encouraging to see in a 7-year-old girl.
You can do this.
FIND YOUR PEOPLE
Let’s be honest about this. Needing to be gluten-free? It can be hard in the details sometimes. (Look at the length of thisguide, and I’ve barely scratched the surface!) But once you get the hang of it, you won’t fight it so hard. You’ll feel better. You’ll know in your gut (and joints and head and heart) why you need to be gluten-free. That part gets easier.
What can sometimes still be hard is having to explain yourself, over and over again, why you can’t have a piece of that pizza, and no you can’t take that piece of cake. We live in a culture where some people seem to think that you needing to be gluten-free is an affront to them. (Fine. Now I have to arrange my dinner party menu.) You don’t have to look hard in the popular press to find mentions online of people doubting those of us who have to be gluten-free. You can see it in the eyes of servers at restaurants, sometimes, the ones who wonder if you really get sick if you get a little gluten, since the night before they had in a woman who “needed to be gluten-free,” for the meal, then decided she’d splurge on that piece of pie in the end.
And you’ll have to explain over and over that no, going gluten-free is not a weight-loss diet for you.
It can be tiring.
Find your people.
It helps, as with everything else in life, to have people who get you. The people who feed you safely without questioning you. The people who listen to you vent as you talk about your disappointment that your kid’s teacher fed her candy with gluten in it without asking you first. The people who have your back.
Find those people and stick with them.
I’m sure you’ll find those people in your life. But there are also people online who understand, like the community reading here, who talk with each other on Facebook. Or at our subscription community, Feeding Our People. We’d love to see you there too.
Find the people who say yes to you. That makes living gluten-free so much easier.
Please leave comments here, sharing your story and offering specific suggestions for any of the ideas here. Let’s be each other’s people.