Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gluten Free Beginnings

My oldest daughter was diagnosed with Celiac Disease when she was only eighteen months old.  She came down with a terrible flu at sixteen months and could never gain back the weight that she had lost.  She had big, dark circles under her eyes and a large distended belly with skinny arms and legs.  It took three trips to my family pediatrician to convince him that something was wrong.  I had already guessed that it was Celiac Disease before the third visit.  Finally at this visit, he took me seriously and sent us for blood work.  When her liver enzymes were extremely elevated, he arranged an appointment for us in the GI clinic at a children's hospital within a week.  Later that month, an endoscopy confirmed a diagnosis of Celiac Disease.

Looking back, I am so glad that she was diagnosed at a young age.  She doesn't remember that she used to eat food containing gluten, and is used to the textures and tastes of gluten free baked goods such as breads, crackers, and muffins.  If she had been diagnosed at an older age, I think she would have been resistant to try these foods.  Luckily for us, she is not a picky eater in the least.  This makes cooking gluten free meals so much easier.  We always eat gluten free dinners in our home and everyone eats the same thing.  My husband and I will eat gluten containing items in our lunches or for breakfasts, while our daughter has a gluten free substitute.  Lunches and breakfasts are not really planned meals in our home.  For breakfast, everyone eats what they feel like that day, choosing from toast, cereal, eggs, yogurt and fruit, or whatever else might be around that week.  Lunches are usually packed for work or school.  On weekends, we often have leftovers from our gluten free dinners.

"Gluten Free"  seems to be a buzz term lately.  So many people are trying out a gluten free diet in hopes of alleviating digestive upsets, skin problems, ADHD symtoms, and more.  Knowing that our family has been cooking gluten free for years, I get a lot of questions about recipes, products, and meal planning.  Families with young children often ask us how we make packed school lunches that a child is willing to eat.  I have often written the same email out to friends and acquaintances, sharing the information that I have collected over the years.  I think that someone out there will also find our information useful, and I will start sharing it in occasional posts.

To start, I thought I'd share some basic information that often gets overlooked when your family is beginning to go gluten free.  I am not a dietitian, doctor, or nurse.  These are just things I have learned through the years, and are by no means a complete guide on going gluten free.

  • Read labels carefully!  Gluten can be found in wheat, rye, barely, and oats (usually contaminated with wheat).  The label may not always say these words.  Watch out for terms like food starch, malt, and ambiguous words like flavouring.  I referred to this list often when starting out.
  • If you're not sure, call the company.  I know companies like President's Choice will tell you if the product is gluten free and if there are gluten containing products made on the same line.  I have called from my cell phone while standing in the grocery store.
  • Talk to others who are holding parties about the menu so you can bring substitutes.  Offer to bring a dish to the meal.  I usually bring a gluten free dessert that is usually (mostly) gluten free anyway - such as a cheesecake with a gluten free cookie crumb crust.  This way everyone can enjoy the same dessert without feeling as though they are eating something odd or weird.  I bring my daughter a cupcake to birthday parties.
  • For children, ask the teacher to keep boxes of extra treats and snacks at school.  This way if someone surprises the class with a treat, your child doesn't go without.  We usually send in a box of fruit snacks and a box of granola bars.  Individually wrapped is best.  We ask the teacher to let us know about planned treats and send something similar.
  • For children, watch out for school activities.  Playdough contains gluten, as do some brands of glue. Our specialist advised us to avoid touching items with gluten since it can be absorbed by the skin.  However, I have heard of other medical professionals offering different advice, so always ask your doctor.  I offer to bring in pasta for crafts or ingredients for class cooking activities.  We make gluten free playdough ourselves, but it's hard work!  Be warned:  I have never used a recipe that worked as written, and each one worked differently each time!  I always end up adding more of this or that to get it to come together.  We have broken a wooden spoon stirring it since it gets so tough.
  • We have a book that is great for your children to bring to school called, Eating Gluten Free with Emily.  It explains Celiac Disease very well in a way that little ones can understand.
  • We rarely eat out.  It just makes me nervous.  I have heard many stories about kitchen mix ups or misunderstandings resulting in someone getting sick.  When we do eat out, we tend to go somewhere that has a separate gluten free menu.  This makes me feel a bit safer knowing that they have some sort of base knowledge and are making an effort.  When at the restaurant, I explain to the server that my daughter has Celiac Disease and ask that they let the cook staff know to be extra cautious while preparing her food to avoid cross contamination.  I am always polite and everyone has always been wonderful about it.
  • We don't travel a lot. When we do, I plan places to eat before we leave home.  I do research on the internet and call restaurants to check out our options.  We always travel with a lot of fruit, yogurt and snacks in a cooler.  When we went to Disneyworld, they were phenomenal and I felt completely safe eating there.  At almost every restaurant, the chef came out to talk to us and arranged our meal, complete with gluten free desserts.  If you email them, they will send you a list of gluten free foods available at each park.

There are even more concerns if you are going to have some family members go gluten free while others consume gluten.  This is a controversial subject, and many think that you are not truly safe unless there is no gluten in the home at all.  We are very careful in our home and my daughter has never gotten sick.  Every blood test has come back clean and has not indicated that she has fallen victim to cross contamination.  She is very good to check her eating area at school for crumbs, and has even refused to eat an item in her lunch that she has never had before in case it contained gluten! Now I show her new things before putting them in her lunch so that she knows they are safe for her to eat.
  • Keep a tidy kitchen if some family members are going to keep eating gluten.  Even one crumb can make a person very ill. We often use paper towels, plates, or cutting boards under food prep areas to catch crumbs and contaminants.
  • Have separate toasters, one for gluten free bread and the other for regular bread.  We even bring our gluten free toaster with us when we stay somewhere overnight.
  • Wash all dishes and utensils thoroughly!  Running items through the dishwasher is thought to remove gluten.  Some families have separate eating and cooking utensils, although we do not.
  • We only bake with gluten free ingredients.  I do this because flour and other baking ingredients always seem to get everywhere and are so easy to accidentally ingest.  I figure we are much safer just to keep them out of the house.
  • Label, label, label!  We buy doubles of anything that needs to have a knife or spoon dipped into it. The gluten free container is clearly labelled gluten free in several places with a Sharpie.  We buy doubles of margarine, jams and jellies, relish, mustard, mayo, etc.  
  • We use many utensils.  Once it has touched gluten, it goes into the sink.  No chances for double dipping or cross contamination!
  • Explain how things work in your kitchen to guests.  I have had to be kind of rude to my in-laws at times in order to ensure that things stay safe in our kitchen.  Explain, explain, and explain again.  Sometimes I feel as though others think I am being paranoid or overly cautious, but they need to know that just one crumb can cause my child to become very sick.  I have also turned down offers from others to help in the kitchen during holiday meals, knowing that it is just faster, easier, and safer to do it myself than guide someone through everything.  Having said that, my sister and mother really get it and are wonderful help.  
Next week, I will share our weekly meal plan and some recipes that we often use.  The beginning is the hardest part about going gluten free.  Once you get into the swing of things, it gets much easier!

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  1. You have a lot of company. It's so much easier to work with a diet that is popular. This is a very informative article. You certainly have done your research.

    1. It was really hard even five years ago when gluten free products were not very popular or available. Lately though, there is a lot more out there and it has helped a lot!

  2. Great informative article!!!!

    Suzie @ Dorothy Sue and Millie B's too

    1. Thank you! We learned a lot the hard way, so it's nice to share little tips with others.