I was diagnosed with gluten intolerance in 2006.
It was before there were multiple types of Udi bread – or any great gluten-free bread – readily available at multiple stores. Before many restaurants had gluten-free menus. Before you could buy gluten-free cupcakes at the neighborhood cupcake shop. Before you said “gluten free” and anyone knew what it meant. Before regular grocery stores had gluten-free pasta or Target carried gluten-free cookie mixes.
After nearly twelve years of stomach problems, chronic illness and social embarrassment, I finally had answers. But now there were new problems.
Would I be able to eat at a restaurant ever again? What about the routine of eating during the busyness of real life – schedules, graduate school, work, last-minute get togethers with friends. What about my favorite comfort foods, like the chicken and dumplings recipe that’s been in my family for five generations. And then there were the things that graced our table on special occasions – green bean casserole, carrot cake, chocolate chip cookies, stuffing at Thanksgiving. I thought about the future and the celebrations I hoped would come. And then I sat on my sofa and cried, wondering if I would ever eat cake at my wedding.
That was six years ago. Since that time, I’ve modified my family’s chicken and dumplings recipe, learned how to navigate daily life with relative ease and minimal pity parties, I’ve mastered gluten-free sauces, and all while I’ve felt better without the poison in my system.
If this is the boat you find yourself in, here are some tips to help you. This is not an exclusive list, but it is what worked for me.
1. Know the basics
Gluten is the protein in wheat, rye, barley and contaminated oats.
Those are the easy ones. Then there’s all the ingredients in which gluten hides. Modified food starch, food starch, cereal, wheat starch, malt flavoring, and wheat protein. And that’s just scratching the surface. Here’s a comprehensive list.
Foods on the high suspect list are: lunch meat, some already-cooked frozen chicken, bbq sauce, soy sauce, many brands of canned chicken broth, beer and malted alcohol, salad dressings, fake “krab,” ice cream, low-fat dairy like low-fat butter or low-fat sour cream, powder sauce/dressing mixes like taco seasoning or Alfredo sauce mix, fruit flavored candies like Twizzlers, pudding, and gravy. Really, anything that comes in a package is suspicious.
In just a few months, you’ll be able to read a label in two seconds flat!
2. Clean Out Your Kitchen
Throw out your wood cutting boards, which harbor bits of bread crumbs in the boards’ grain and cuts. Scrub the burned off bits on your cookie sheets (or just replace them). Buy a new toaster.
If you have non-celiacs in the family, set up controls in your kitchen. In my house, the only wheat is The Professor’s bread. I make his sandwiches on paper towels and then throw the paper towel away. We go through a lot of paper towels, but it’s a small price to pay. We also have his and hers peanut butter, so that I don’t get peanut butter laced with bread crumbs.
Donate gluteny items to the food bank: cereal, bread crumbs, sauce mixes, spice mixes, enchilada sauce, bread, toasters, canned soup, pasta. It’s all got to go. If you go gluten-free by just forgoing bread, and still eat gluten in other forms, you’ll never get better and you’ll never see how you feel after your body is completely empty of gluten. It’s all or nothing. Some people may find that they are low on the gluten intolerance spectrum and can tolerate a little gluten, but before jumping to that conclusion, you’ve got to go completely off.
3. Restock Your Kitchen
I think I’ll do an entire blog post about this, but here are the basics:
- Bread – Udi’s Flax & Fiber is my favorite, but there are a lot of great options out there.
- Cereal – most Chex cereal is gluten free, so are Cocoa Pebbles. They also have gluten free Rice Crispies. If you head over to the health food store, you’ll find a plethora of choices.
- Flour Mix – more on that soon
- Gluten-Free chicken broth. Yes, many brands of chicken broth contain gluten.
- A few boxed baking mixes while you’re getting your gluten-free sea legs on
- Gluten-free spaghetti, corn tortillas and other pantry staples
- Gluten-free soy sauce
- New butter, peanut butter and jelly – and anything else that could be harboring cross-contamination from double-dipped knives.
4. Gather Resources
Find books and websites you like. Here are a few of my favorites
- Gluten Free Baking Classics by Annalise Roberts – this is my go-to book for baking (Except for chocolate chip cookies. I prefer my recipe, but my sister prefers Annalise’s recipe).
- Gluten-Free Girl by Shauna James Ahern – this is my favorite of Shauna’s books because she so eloquently explains the attitude of acceptance and adaptation needed to successfully venture into this gluten-free world. If food can make you sick, food can make you better. Her book goes through the very real mourning process, and the renaissance she experienced with food. Check out her website too!
- Gluten-Free on a Shoestring – this is my favorite new blog
The best resources I found after diagnosis were people – friends who also have gluten intolerance. They were the bearers of tips, givers of recipes, and incredible encouragers. Find a local support group, make it known far and wide that you’ve been diagnosed. You’ll be surprised how many friends of friends you meet.
5. Make Some Cookies…Immediately
Yes, go make cookies. Now. Or brownies. Or cupcakes. Now. Hope is not lost. In the emotional days after diagnosis – when you have no idea what to eat, how to cook, where to eat, what to tell your friends – it’s an important reminder that life won’t be as different as you think. Make some cookies.
I have a few favorite mixes that are great for a pinch, when in the midst of a pity party or when you’re new to all this:
- Betty Crocker Gluten-Free Mixes – these are all good and easy to find. Beware, they only make half a batch. Amazing brownies.
- King Arthur Flour Gluten-Free Cookie Mix – without a doubt, the best cookies I’ve ever had. They do not include chocolate chips in the mix. This way dairy-free people can use their special chocolate chips. The cake mix is great too.
- Namaste Chocolate Cake, Brownie and Spice Cake Mixes – these are amazing. However, I cannot recommend the Namaste vanilla cake mix. It is super gross. These mixes make full batches.
I haven’t tried all the gluten-free mixes, so please give me your reviews in the comments section.
6. Change the Way You Grocery Shop
You have two choices: exist on expensive, high-fat, high-sugar gluten-free processed foods whose tastes vary from great to horrible, or change the way you shop and think about food in general. That’s a tall order, I know, and I am not trying to minimize how difficult this is.
This change means shopping for ingredients, not convenience foods. It means trading your favorite brand of taco seasoning mix for salt and cumin and chili powder. It means shopping the perimeters of the grocery store.
It also means getting savvy of the gluten-free friendly brands. Kraft, for example, labels any gluten item. Even if an ingredient list says modified food starch, you can know that it is made from corn or potatoes or tapioca. That means Kraft olive oil mayo is safe. So is Jell-O pudding! And Kraft brand ranch dressing. Rather than researching the gluten content of every bottle of salad dressing, find a few safe standards and stick with them. Develop your gluten-free grocery list.
7. Change the Way You Think
There’s thinking changes that need to occur.
First, change your definition. When someone says gluten free, most people start racking their brains for gluten-free alternatives – gluten-free cookies, gluten-free pasta, gluten-free shortcrust, gluten-free cream of mushroom soup. People forget that a lot of what they eat is already gluten free. Chicken with olive oil and lemon pepper is gluten free. Pork tenderloin with balsamic vinegar is gluten free. Salmon with dill and butter is gluten-free. Baked potatoes are gluten-free. Rice (not rice mixes) is gluten free. Keep it simple.
Second, change your expectations. Everything will be different. I remember Shauna James Ahern’s words in her book, Gluten Free Girl. She said that foods might taste better or they might taste worse, but no matter what, they will taste different. Release yourself from the expectation that through your superior gluten-free baking skills/voodoo magic, everything will be the same. It won’t. On the flip side, you won’t be sick either.
There was a long time that being gluten free was incredibly hard – where every day was an obstacle of where and what to eat. Then one day, I woke up and it wasn’t about what I couldn’t eat. It was about what I could eat. The world opened up – fresh fruits and veggies, new grains like quinoa, every type of rice, fresh herbs, exotic spices, pomegranate syrup, homemade salad dressings, rich gluten-free soy sauce, the world’s best pie crust.
And yes, wedding cake.
Gluten-free friends, what are your tips? Do you have any favorite mixes, recipes or resources? Let us know in the comments!