I remember the day as if it were yesterday. Gut wrenching, butterflies in my stomach, twisty knots….I was a nervous wreck. You would have never known that was how I was feeling though. On the outside, I seemed like my always, happy self.
It was a big day for me, though. It was the day where someone else (besides my partner) attempted to cook gluten free for me.
Although being a Dietitian has helped me understand the complexities of the gluten free diet, sometimes it does make the celiac in me a bit more anxious. Only because, I know how easy it is to accidentally cross contaminate a dish with gluten, how easy it can be to misread a label, and how a minuscule crumb is enough to cause damage in my small intestine.
But, I knew it was a step I had to make in my life as a celiac because being social at events involving food with our friends and family is such a large part of our happiness and well-being. It just isn’t realistic, nor healthy I believe, to never eat out again. Unfortunately, advice to, literally, never eat out again has been given out by health professionals in my community.
Celiac disease has a far reaching, although rarely discussed, effect on our mental health. Many people with celiac disease struggle with anxiety and depression due to the realities of living with a food restriction. Isolating ourselves even more by restricting eating out or removing ourselves from situations involving food because we just don’t want to deal with it, can make this worse. We need to find a happy balance and learn how to safely manage social situations with food.
We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, family get togethers and more with food. I couldn’t imagine for myself, nor for my clients, always sitting on the sidelines with my own packed food (or worse, not eating at all), while everyone else enjoyed the meal around me. There is something inherently isolating about that even though you are still eating in a group. Granted, sometimes you need to do it as there is no way around it. And, trust me, I have done it on more than a few occasions, myself.
But, it is a wonderful feeling to share food without worry. To scoop from a dish without worrying where else that spoon has been, to pick something off someone else’s plate and, simply, pop it into your mouth, and to reduce worry about cross contamination in the kitchen.
They are simple things taken for granted when you don’t have a food restriction. I certainly took it for granted before I was diagnosed. I just didn’t realize how great it was to really eat without worry. To eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, without a care in the world. And, although, it is different now, there are very simple things that our loved ones can do for us to help us feel ‘normal’ and included. And maybe even, forget about our illness, if only for a few hours.
Hopefully, your loved ones are up for the challenge when you, yourself, feel ready to embark onto another challenge of living with celiac disease: allowing other people to cook for you.
Just as an aside, I don’t go through this discussion for every social outing with food. Personally, I find it very beneficial to put the time and effort into educating those closest to me AND whose homes I eat at often.
Here, I share my top tips on how to cook for loved ones with celiac disease:
1. Be vulnerable with your loved ones and have a serious conversation with them about celiac disease.
Be upfront about your worries and concerns with allowing them to cook for you. Tell them if it causes you excess worry or anxiety. Take the time to explain celiac disease and the seriousness of it. And, educate them on the gluten free diet. Imagine a grain of rice split into three pieces. It is just one of those pieces that can cause small intestinal damage in someone with celiac disease. And, although, the individual with celiac disease may or may not experience symptoms, the damage will still be done.
Hopefully, they are open to listening and learning and do not become defensive. If loved ones do become defensive, it may not be the best time to allow them to cook for you as it will be risky. Rather, invite them to your home and, gently, continue to try and educate them on the risks and seriousness of celiac disease.
2. Cook the whole meal gluten free.
I can’t tell you how much this will mean to the person with celiac disease other than to say, it will mean a lot. It’s nice to feel like everyone else, be included in the whole meal, and to forget (if only for a few hours) that you have a food restriction. It also reduces the risk of cross contamination, significantly.
If you cannot cook the whole meal gluten free, prepare gluten free food first, before making gluten filled dishes.
3. Avoid baking gluten free for your loved one (at least at the beginning).
Baking is another complex area that requires special attention to ingredient sourcing and further cross contamination issues. It’s best to leave this until you have nailed down cooking gluten free for your loved one.
Instead, buy prepackaged desserts certified gluten free (with one of the logos in the picture) or with the ‘gluten free claim’ on the package. These logos and the GF claim ensure that the products have no more than 20ppm of gluten, making them safe for individuals with celiac disease. This will also help to reduce any food worries your loved with celiac may be experiencing.
You can also ask your loved one to bring dessert. Trust me when I say that we are more than happy to be involved in the cooking/baking process and have no problems, whatsoever, with bringing a safe dessert or other dish!
4. Cook with safe equipment.
Gluten can hide in crevices, porous equipment, frayed plastic utensils, and more. Safe and clean equipment is needed when cooking gluten free for someone with celiac disease. Here is a list of equipment to ensure is safe for your loved one:
- Have a dedicated gluten free cutting board: This cutting board should only ever be used when you are cooking for your loved one with celiac disease. All preparation should be done on this cutting board – cutting of all fruits/vegetables/proteins (make sure to wash appropriately when cutting meat for food safety reasons)
- Have dedicated gluten free wooden spoons and other wooden equipment: Wood is porous and can easily harbour gluten particles.
- Toasting bread/bread products: A regular toaster used for gluten filled bread will cause cross contamination due to the crumbs if used for gluten free bread. A dedicated gluten free toaster will be needed, or toaster bags (which can be used in a regular toaster), or toast the bread in a regular oven on parchment paper.
- If you are planning on using plastic utensils in the cooking process, make sure the plastic spoon/flipper is not frayed at all. If so, it can harbour gluten particles and a new one will be needed. Always thoroughly wash any cooking utensils before using for gluten free cooking.
- Strainer: Gluten can hide in the crevices of the holes of the strainer and it is impossible to clean it. If you are making pasta or straining anything, a dedicated gluten free strainer will be needed. If you are making pasta, ensure you are cooking the pasta in new, clean water.
- Dish cloths/sponges: Cleaning dish cloths in the washing machine is fine. A sponge can harbour gluten particles, so a new sponge will be needed to wash counters/equipment.
- Pots, pans, appliances, dishes: Thoroughly cleaned pots, pans and dishes are typically fine to use if washed thoroughly. Pots, pans and bakeware that have scratches are not ok to use. Teflon pans or appliances are commonly scratched, so closely check these. Use parchment paper on baking/roasting pans as these are typically very scratched.
- Cooking surfaces/Counters: Ensure to throughly clean work surfaces with clean wash cloths or a new sponge.
- Hands: Wash hands thoroughly before cooking and frequently throughout the preparation of gluten free foods!!
- Use caution or avoid using a convection oven: Convection oven can cause gluten particles to become air borne landing on gluten free foods. Bake gluten free and gluten filled items separately. Turn off the convection feature when baking gluten free.
- BBQ: Use aluminum foil on the BBQ if it is not a dedicated gluten free BBQ.
5. Use individual portions or squeeze top condiments, a fresh butter and new, nut butters (ex-peanut butter), jam.
Squeeze top condiments reduce cross contamination as it avoids double dipping. Mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup come in squeeze top.
Also, make sure to always use a new butter at meal time. Because butter is usually left out and used for bread, sandwiches etc it can result in cross contamination due to double dipping. An example of double dipping would be dipping the knife into the butter and then onto the bread. Then, using the same knife to get more butter. Bread crumbs can be transferred to the butter from this action. These also goes for peanut butter or other nut butter jars, and jam.
6. Cook with simple gluten free foods at the beginning.
- Fresh vegetables (or frozen with no sauce)
- Fresh fruits (or frozen with no sauce)
- Plain, unseasoned meats, fish, plain tofu, eggs, blocks of cheese (grate yourself), or plain, gluten free beans/legumes (bought in a package or canned)
- Fresh herbs or dried single ingredient herbs
- Oils, butter
- Vinegar (however, do not use malt vinegar as it is not gluten free)
- Honey/maple syrup, sugar (ensure it hasn’t been contaminated from previous baking such as measuring cups dunked into the sugar after measuring regular flour)
These are the safest gluten free foods to start cooking with for individuals with celiac disease.
7. Show compassion, understanding and empathy if your loved one does not feel confident eating a dish that was prepared.
It is understood that a lot of time and effort was put into preparing something gluten free and that you would want your loved one to enjoy it and to feel included. But, understand that just a very small mistake (such as accidental use of a wooden spoon used for gluten filled foods) can and will result in small intestinal damage in someone with celiac disease.
Remember, that it is not only disappointing for you as the cook, but it is also heart wrenching for the person with celiac disease to decline food that had so much love and effort put it into it. Be understanding and do not make the person with celiac disease feel guilty for declining.
8. Involve your loved one in the planning (and even cooking) process.
Eating out can cause a lot of worry and anxiety for someone with celiac disease. Help them ease their concerns by including them. Call them and ask if certain foods are ok. E-mail them ingredients in a sauce you are thinking of making and ask them if it is ok. Show them a package you are thinking of using and ask them if it is gluten free.
The person with celiac disease will not feel annoyed but, rather, at ease because they know their loved one is, truly, taking the challenge of cooking for them, seriously.
When you are first cooking gluten free for your loved one, involving the person with celiac disease is very important to ease concerns. Depending on their comfort level of eating out, the person with celiac disease may want continual involvement in the cooking/planning process. I know for myself, I continue to appreciate the involvement as it helps manage my emotions.