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What to Do When a Friend or Family Member Can’t Eat Gluten
Going “gluten-free” is becoming increasingly prevalent these days. Some people suggest that gluten is bad for everyone and that we should all eliminate it from our diets. It’s unclear if that’s true, but it is certain that gluten intolerance is more common than previously thought and that several other conditions, like autism and Crohn’s Disease, can also benefit from a gluten-free diet. Twenty years ago, very few people had even heard of gluten, but now almost everyone has an extended family member or acquaintance who is avoiding it, if not someone closer.
As someone who has lived with gluten intolerance for 20 years, I’ve noticed that the people around me often don’t know what to do when confronted with my condition. They want to be helpful and accommodating, and they certainly don’t want to make me sick, but they don’t know how. There are plenty of tips for the newly diagnosed, but not for their friends and family! So here are some tips on how to support the gluten-free eaters in your life.
Have an Alternative: We understand if you want to serve a meal that has gluten in it. It can be hard to avoid, especially if the meal is catered, as at a wedding. But do try to make some sort of accommodation for us! If we’re going out in a group, give us a say in restaurant choices so that we end up somewhere that has something gluten-free on the menu. If it’s a big event and an easy and equivalent substitute doesn’t present itself, ask if we could bring something. Trust me, I’d much rather bring my own food than politely suffer through a plain chicken breast that I still don’t trust because it’s been on the same grill as other food or a salad with no dressing because the catering company won’t tell me the brand. This goes double for kids. An adult can easily understand when there’s been an oversight or when something just couldn’t be worked out. An 8-year-old consigned to the salad bar while their peers eat pizza and cake will be considerably more upset.
Don’t be Offended if I Ask to Check Ingredients: It isn’t about you. People who have to eat gluten-free know from experience that wheat and gluten can be in all sorts of things you wouldn’t expect. For example, you may have been confused about the salad dressing comment up there- but some types of vinegar, a major dressing ingredient, can be made from wheat. Wheat flour is one of the primary ingredients of licorice. Modified food starch shows up as a thickening or filler agent in all types of food and may be made from wheat. These are only a few examples, and we know that they’re easy for people who aren’t used to thinking about it to miss. One of the best things you can do is keep sauce bottles or ingredient packets for us to read instead of immediately throwing them away. Even if you did everything right, it gives us more peace of mind.
Be Aware of Cross-Contamination: Cross-contamination is what happens when food that has gluten gets mixed with food that doesn’t. This can happen from gluten-free foods being prepared on surfaces that haven’t been thoroughly cleaned, stirred, or moved with the same utensils as gluten-containing food or being near enough to gluten-containing food that crumbs fall into the gluten-free food. This is mostly a problem for people with gluten intolerance or wheat allergies, and even some of them won’t react to such a small amount — but many will, especially once they’ve been on the diet for a while. If your friend or family member is of this type, make sure to separate utensils and to let them go first through any potluck-type lines in order to avoid cross-contamination.
Ask: If you’re preparing a dish with processed ingredients like sauces or spreads, ask which brands are gluten-free. If you want to buy a gluten-free alternative to what you’re serving, ask which brands are good. There are many more good-tasting gluten-free options around now than when I was first diagnosed, but some are still better than others, and certainly some taste more like their “normal” equivalents, which is usually important to people diagnosed when they’re older. If you’re wondering what restaurants have gluten-free options, ask. Again, some are better than others. You might be afraid you’ll be annoying, but it’s actually the opposite. Not only will your gluten-free friend or family member be happier with the result, they’ll be thrilled that you care enough to ask and adjust your plans for them.
If you take the time to consider these tips when planning any meal event that will have a gluten-free attendee, I guarantee they’ll be touched and impressed. My good friends and my extended family have learned over the years to do these things for me and my immediate family; use our experience to speed up the process for yourself and be even more supportive to the people around you who have to avoid gluten, for whatever reason.