Eliminating gluten from your diet, or any other allergen, can be a daunting and slightly overwhelming experience if you don’t have the right coping strategies or attitude. Here are a few tips that have helped me enjoy food without missing a beat!
1. Don’t think about what you are “giving up” or “losing”, but what you have gained.
This is classic “look on the bright side” thinking, and it is classic because it works. If you focus on things you may never have again, then you are denying yourself the opportunity to discover and explore new foods. I eat a much better variety of foods and enjoy exploring different cuisines and recipes now that I have dietary restrictions. In fact, my diet before going gluten-free was boring and frankly not very delicious. I just ate things because they were there. Now I appreciate food! And if that wasn’t enough, the changes in my health are so remarkable that I never want to go back. I do not miss gluten. Gluten-free means being free from the burden of bad food.
2. Find inspiration
Shauna Ahern of The Gluten Free Girl and the Chef provides not only amazing gluten-free recipes and techniques, but advice on how to embrace a gluten-free lifestyle. I have both of her books and am eagerly awaiting the third one. I’ve found inspiration from many bloggers, and I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderful resource the internet is for discovering gluten-free recipes, advice and support.
3. Get support
The gluten-free or Celiac sprue community is an amazing group of people. More and more bakeries, restaurants, and even school cafeterias are aware that avoiding gluten is as serious of an allergy as the dreaded peanut. You can find support groups in your community, or start one! Nothing brings people together like food, and you would be amazed at how sharing your new lifestyle with others can open up and positively affect other areas of your life. And that support group doesn’t have to be only people who are gluten-free. Family and friends need to be aware of your dietary needs, especially if you have family members who do eat gluten. Cross-contamination is a big issue, so you may want to consider making your whole house gluten free. I’m a little sneaky sometimes and I don’t tell people a certain dish is gluten-free – most of the time they never notice, or they ask what secret ingredient makes it so good! Don’t let other people’s narrow-mindedness or pre-conceived notions stop you from enjoying and exploring food.
4. Be an advocate for yourself
The hardest part about going gluten-free for me was inconveniencing other people. Turning down a heartfelt gesture like homemade cookies or sending back a salad with croutons (ah the waste!) made me cringe with guilt at first. But my health was more important. That is why it is so important to inform friends, relatives, and wait staff BEFORE meals or gatherings. So speak up! Don’t be ashamed, you are being a better and healthier you. Graciously and firmly decline those cookies, thanking the provider for their generosity but explaining your situation all the same. Many times I give my sincere thanks or compliments and offer to pass the food on to some hungry college friends or other gluten-eaters in need. At family gatherings, bring a dish you know you can eat and share a new mouthwatering experience with everyone. I also am a snack fiend; I usually never travel anywhere without a stash of nuts, an apple, some celery sticks, etc. Whole sweet potatoes have appeared out of my purse, my friends can assure you! It’s a little goofy, but my siblings can attest to how cranky I get if I don’t eat, so everyone is happier in the end.
5. Start making your own food again
It tastes better. You will feel better. I promise. It is worth it! One general rule I have is that if it comes out of a box, it is not going to taste as good as if you made it yourself. Chances are, it isn’t that good for you either. Many times it is cheaper to prepare your own snacks and meals, as well as being much safer. I discovered the joy of homemade graham crackers once I found a gluten-free recipe for them. I couldn’t believe I wasted all those years with the hard tacky things from the box. And a lot of packaged gluten-free baked goods are not worth the time of day. Making things from scratch ensures they will taste better, but also you eat them only when you really want to. Running through boxes of processed cookies, gluten-free or not, is no way to enjoy life. And your wallet won’t be happy either.
Check out Gluten Free Gobsmacked’s guide to eating GF wisely and cheaply. You can also get a group together to do food swaps, or prepare several meals on a Sunday afternoon so you have premade lunches or dinners throughout the week. I won’t lie, making things yourself takes a little more time. But the payoffs are so great you will wonder why you never did it in the first place. Prioritize your health, people. It is one of the least appreciated aspects of our lives.
6. It’s all in your head, in a good way.
Prioritizing your health also means mental health. I’ve already touched on this, but dive in! Find the good in life. Make a list of things you appreciate. Remember you can still eat any number of things. Remember that some people have no choice in what they get to eat, if they get to eat at all. Focus on all the things you can have in life if you just let go and embrace it.
7. Take it slow.
You can search the internet for any number of gluten-free creations: oreos, pies, turnovers, flour substitutes, gravy, pasta, whatever you want to eat. The amount of gluten-free support available is overwhelming. Start with naturally gluten-free foods: beans, vegetables, fruits, meats, rice, potatoes, squash, and whole foods – the things we should be eating. Then work back up to making cinnamon rolls or reworking a childhood favorite. Find restaurants that are certified-safe and in the meantime, dine in and relish it. Involve friends and family: cook together, have the kids decorate the table, picnic on the family room floor in the middle of winter, have friends over for recipe swaps or experiments.
8. Get rid of your food nostalgia.
I have wonderful memories of family picnics on the floor in our downstairs basement. I don’t remember the food being something incredible or life-altering, but I remember spending time with my family. The point is that recreating food will not bring back a certain time or feeling from our lives, no matter what kind of food it is, so it is better to make new memories and savor what is really important to you. When I first went gluten-free, I refused to think, “I’ll never eat such and such again.” I took it one day at a time, literally, enjoying things I could eat and relishing the time I spent sharing food with my loved ones. What you ate as a kid isn’t going to bring your childhood back, but you can focus on creating new memories with your children, decorating gluten-free Christmas cookies together or going apple picking, etc. Accept that the gluten-free rolls you make won’t be exactly the same as the ones you used to eat, but hanging out with your mom or sister or friend while you wait for them to proof and rise is more important than recapturing some old texture.
One of the best things I ever ate was vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberry sauce at my Grandma Mary’s house. I don’t know why it was so good, or what she did, but I’ll never recreate that dish. It doesn’t even have anything to do with gluten. I don’t really want to try to make it again, because strawberries and ice cream won’t bring my grandma back. But I honor her memory and legacy in the kitchen every time I sit down with my aunts, uncles, parents, siblings, and cousins and share food we have prepared together while exchanging hilarious stories about Grandma’s “charcoal breakfast” or the time she threw away an entire roast for the most ridiculous reason. This lady had high standards, and so do I. That’s why I want nothing but the best for you, and the best thing you can do is charge forward and create new memories, acknowledging and savoring the old ones, but moving forward all the same.