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A Family’s Survival Guide To Your First Gluten Free Holiday – Nov. 21, 2012
by Leah Carey
The holidays are a time for family, and most families organize their time together around a central theme: food.
So what happens when a loved one suddenly can’t eat what’s on the menu? If it’s your first time dealing with a gluten sensitivity in the family, it can be a recipe for stress for everyone.
This survival guide is for family members who want to prepare a special holiday meal that makes all of the family members feel special and appreciated.
What is a gluten allergy?
Starting with the basics, gluten is a protein found in several grains, most notably wheat.
Responses can range from a mild gluten sensitivity, through full-blown allergies, to a serious auto-immune condition called Celiac disease.
According to Dr. Thauna Abrin, a naturopathic physician in Hardwick, common symptoms include bloating, fatigue, stomach aches, joint pain, diarrhea, inattention and hyperactivity. “It affects mental clarity and makes them feel tired,” said Abrin. “But the lasting effects are digestive.”
She added that between 7 and 20 percent of the population now experience some degree of gluten sensitivity.
“They told me I had two months to live”
Cindy Noyes of Littleton, N.H., knows the discomfort all too well. In 2009, she was told that she had a gluten intolerance so severe that she had only two months to live.
“I immediately got a second opinion and they said that I was really, really sick. But I probably had longer than two months,” said Noyes with a laugh.
Almost four years later, Noyes, who is the owner of Thyme To Learn Wellness, is the picture of good health and she has a lot of tips to share.
Color coordination and location
“Just taking the spoon from the gluten-type of food and stirring the non-gluten type of food can make a person sick,” said Noyes.
One solution to avoid that type of cross-contamination is to color coordinate the serving utensils. Noyes has a set of purple serving spoons that she takes with her and that only go in gluten-free dishes. “Those are MY spoons,” she said. “You can go to the dollar store and pick up some serving ware that’s yours, and then each type of bowl has its own spoon. That way you know what’s safe.”
Noyes also has some friends who use red serving spoons in dishes that contain gluten. “Red means don’t touch!”
Physician Abrin suggests that with acute sensitivities, the family may want to set up two separate serving areas in order to prevent airborne contamination or mixing up spoons.
For a plan like that to work, of course, everyone at the table needs to know the system. “When I first started, it was something we said before we said grace. ‘Just as a reminder, Cindy can’t eat anything that has gluten in it, so just be sure to put the same spoon back in the same bowl,’ and everybody did it.”
Because kids may not be so observant, Noyes said “We just served them so they didn’t have to worry about it.”
For gravy and other items that require flour for thickening, Noyes suggests gluten-free flour, which can be found at many health food stores. “You use it just like regular flour. It rises, it does everything just the same like it normally would,” she said.
Abrin also suggests garbanzo bean flour as a good gravy substitution.
There are several brands that make gluten-free bread which can be used for stuffing (they’re usually found in the frozen foods section). The most widely available are Udi’s, Rudi’s, Ener-G and Food For Life.
Noyes’ family traditionally has a green bean casserole, but she could no longer eat it because French’s onions have gluten. “You can use Funyuns instead,” she said. “It tastes a little different, but you still feel like you’re eating the same thing everyone else is eating.”
Both women also have found ways around the most traditionally gluten-heavy course: dessert. Noyes gets frozen Gillian’s gluten free pie crusts; Abrin suggests making the filling as a pudding and leaving off the crust entirely.
“It takes a lot of self-confidence to stand up for yourself, especially when you’re around family,” said Noyes. “It’s really hard to be able to tell your mom or dad or sister or brother, ‘You’ve just made this wonderful meal and I’m sorry I can’t eat it.’ … You have to be able to get that gumph to say, “I love you, but.” For me that was a really hard thing to do.”
When she does stand up for herself, what does she want to hear from her loved ones? “It’s that supportive, ‘Okay, I still love you, let’s figure this out together.’ That’s the thing I wish I could hear on a regular basis.”
She also loves it when someone jumps in ready for a challenge saying, “Okay, what can I get for you? What can we do about this?”
Noyes is also happy to bring her own food, even to a big family meal. “I’d much rather bring something and know that I’m safe than be worried the whole meal, ‘Is this going to make me sick?’” She said it’s not rude for the host to accept that offer. “You’re not doing anything wrong to ask them to bring something.”
If you decide to go the pre-packaged route rather than cooking from scratch, be aware that while gluten-free products have become easier to find, they are pricey.
It’s also important to know that “wheat free” is not necessarily the same as “gluten free” and gluten can hide in all sorts of tame-sounding ingredients like “vegetable starch.” If this is your first time, it’s best to stick to boxes that are clearly marked “gluten free.”
“If you have the word gluten free on it, it’s going to be more expensive inevitably,” said Noyes. However for her the convenience factor outweighs the cost for a special meal.
But Noyes warns, “You’re not going to find a gluten-free packaged stuffing. If you do, let me know because I want to find it!”
As the recipient of many gluten-free surprises from friends, Noyes suggests doing some recon before buying a special treat for your loved on. “Ask whoever has the gluten allergies what brands they like, because there are a lot of them out there that taste just like cardboard!”
Take mine off first
Noyes also said that the main meal, whether it’s turkey, chicken or ham, is naturally gluten free. Remember to cut a chunk of meat off before putting it on a platter with gravy or stuffing and your loved one will be fine. Just don’t forget that you need to cook the stuffing in a separate container, rather than inside the bird, in order to avoid contamination.
If you want to try something new, there are lots of websites dedicated to gluten free cooking.
“The Internet is a wonderful place to find recipes. You can do almost everything that you normally would,” said Noyes. She suggests livingwithout.com, which has many recipes and information about specific products and how to not cross-contaminate.
Abrin suggested glutenfree.com and celiac.com.
If you say you’re going to do it, do it
Last Christmas, Noyes had a nightmare situation — she had all the appropriate preparation conversations and her family told her it was no problem. She offered to bring her own food and they told her it was all taken care of. When she showed up, there was nothing there she could safely eat.
“I didn’t speak up and I ate meatballs, which are full of wheat and I was sick … through New Years,” she remembered. She’s now learned her lesson that she needs to take food wherever she goes, it also points to the biggest lesson of all for families: if you say you’re going to provide for your loved one, make sure to follow through.
Being a part of the family
Both Abrin and Noyes debunk the idea that people with gluten allergies are seeking attention.
Abrin said, “It could be a conception that the person wants the whole world to accommodate to them. But I think it’s about adapting to the needs of someone you love.”
Noyes was clear that this isn’t just a fad for her, it has been a life-changing experience. “You want to be accepted by your family. It’s hard when you have food allergies to not feel like you’re left out because you have to eat something different than everybody else. … We have to suffer when we go to restaurants, and we have to suffer when we go buy groceries. The one place we don’t want to suffer is with our loved ones.”
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