Helen Waterfall has been a coeliac for just over 7 years. When she was first diagnosed it was a huge shock as no one else in her family seemed to have any problems. She’s since embraced the gluten free way of life and likes to help support others in their gluten free journeys as well. Helen is a member and a fellow admin of Coeliac Disease Support Group Australia on Facebook, and loves it. This enables her to help others who have similar questions to the ones she had all those years ago.
Helen has contributed this guest post on How to Have a Merry Gluten Free Christmas.
Having a Merry “Gluten Free” Christmas
Can you believe it, it’s that time of year again where people starting planning Christmas parties and organising and shopping for Christmas Day/Boxing Day meals. People are eating out more not only over the Christmas period but on Christmas Day itself. For those who are Coeliac, however, this takes a little more planning and investigation – especially when eating out or at a friend or family member’s house. Listed below are some of my tips for surviving Christmas without being glutened and steps I take to be prepared when dining out.
Surviving your Christmas Party
What to eat?
I’m lucky in that where I work everybody knows that I am Coeliac and that even the smallest bit of gluten can, and does, affect me. Personally, I don’t expect people to cater for me specifically and I never ask anyone to modify meals to make them gluten free for me. Not that I don’t appreciate the effort, however if they bake a cake in a pan they usually use to make their own regular cakes in, I’m concerned that there may be residues left behind of gluten from their normal/regular gluten-containing flour. Not only that if they don’t use an unopened butter or margarine – there could be breadcrumbs in it.
In order not to hurt anyone’s feelings I rely on a few options. I either avoid the cake/platter at the party or I offer to make something similar myself, freeing them up to make something different if they like. I have explained politely but firmly that the risk of cross contamination is too great for me and explain briefly that I get very sick. I have also made myself a small cake to bring for dessert or even made a gluten free pavlova, key lime pie or even banoffee pie – not only for me but for all to enjoy. You can never have too many cakes/desserts at a party. I have a separate knife/serving utensils that are either brightly coloured or have a ribbon on them, to signify they are gluten free. I also keep the gluten free food at the opposite end of the table. I’ve even cut myself a piece first and kept it separately in order to let everyone else eat the rest. And I watch the gluten free foods to make sure there is no cross contamination. Unfortunately for me eating gluten makes me very, very ill – and if I have to gently remind people that something is “gluten free” then I do so. Open and clear communication is key and I’m very lucky that people know and accept my coeliac requirements.
I have also brought along my own variation on lunch. For example, people ordered in chicken and chips from a well-known family restaurant. It’s a no-go for me, so I just brought in my own chicken (didn’t worry about the chips) and had salad. This way I can still join in with the Christmas lunch safely. I don’t believe in making a scene. I would rather go without and cater for myself so that I know I am safe.
Education and open, respectful conversation is key. These are people that you work with. If they don’t understand what being gluten free means or what cross contamination is – educate them. Tell them why it is so important. Keeping your eyes open is also important – one year somebody brought in a cold meat platter and told me that everything was gluten free on it. That was great, however another staff member had put her crusty bread roll on the platter while she made her lunch… bread crumbs/flakes everywhere. Rather than get upset I took this as an opportunity to explain what cross contamination was. When I refused some hot chips from this take-away food place, somebody tried to joke that “surely you can eat chips. Are you telling me that potatoes have gluten, ha ha?” I explained that “no, potatoes don’t have gluten… but the coating on them has gluten and the risk of contamination from sharing the same oil in the fryer as other gluten-containing foods, does.”
So, in short – be prepared. Don’t assume things are gluten free; make your own, keep your own food separate and if something is gluten free, make sure there is no cross contamination. Keep watch and enjoy yourself.
Eating out is still something I am nervous about. Meals can certainly be listed as being gluten free, gluten free options available or made gluten free on request; however whilst that takes care of the actual ingredients, meals are still being prepared in kitchens where gluten-containing ingredients and meals are prepared. On top of this staff don’t always change gloves, chopping boards or cooking utensils when making meals. I know they are busy and it might not be their practice to cater safely for Coeliac sufferers, in which case you need to ask the right questions.
If your work or family is planning on eating out, call the restaurant or café to ask what kind of gluten free options they have and their method of preparation. If you ask questions respectfully you will more than likely be treated with respect. I have been offered gluten free toast with a breakfast when eating out, but I had to refuse when I asked if the toaster was shared with regular gluten-containing bread. The wait staff had never thought of this. No point in getting upset with people, if you can explain and educate – great. If not, look at other options.
Whilst it’s great to go out and eat, if your family members or friends don’t understand the severity of having a gluten free meal, then personally – I wouldn’t go. I have been out to breakfast with family and I have eaten first at home. I’ve just had a pot of tea with everyone. I explained that the risk is too great for me to eat out. They either accept it or they don’t – but it’s my decision and my health. If there are no safe options for gluten free meals or you are not getting the right answers from the restaurant – then don’t go. I know it’s hard and may offend family members, but they need to understand your needs as a Coeliac and if you don’t stand your ground – then they won’t ever fully respect your needs as being that serious.
In terms of cross contamination, I tell people to think of gluten as blue paint. You’re in a café and someone uses tongs to pick up a lamington or other cake. The tongs now have blue paint on them from the gluten in the cake. If they then use the same tongs to pick up a gluten free cake – guess what… that’s right – the blue paint has transferred on to your cake. Might be a lot, might only be a little – but it’s there. And that’s enough blue paint (gluten) to cause serious damage to a Coeliac.
Christmas meals at home
In order to ensure that what I eat and feed my coeliac daughter is safe, everything in our house is gluten free (my husband has his own bread, kept separately). So, all sauces, stocks, spices, flours – everything is gluten free. We go up to spend Christmas with family and I’m very lucky that my sister-in-law makes things that are gluten free and I know I can trust it, so we complement each other with menu items. Having said that, I still ask questions regarding ingredients. As you may or may not be aware, companies change factories and manufacturing processes from time to time and it is not uncommon for something that you have bought for a while to have a gluten-containing ingredient added. It always pays to check ingredients when you buy pre-packaged foods.
A typical menu for us would start off with a baked ham, with a marinade I make myself or recently Coles have a ready-made marinade for hams. Gluten free by ingredient. We also do a roast turkey buff and I have made my own stuffing on occasion, just substituting flour for gluten free flour.
We have plenty of salads; garden salad, Mediterranean salad, tomato and bocconcini with basil plus coleslaw. Recently I have made my own pasta salad which is simply coleslaw and boiled gf pasta added to it. It is surprisingly filling and well loved (you can add whatever veggies to the coleslaw that you like). I’ve also recently discovered quinoa and make a quinoa salad. If you google it, there are many wonderful healthy quinoa salads that you can actually adapt to add whatever you like to. It’s a versatile little grain. (Some people have problems digesting too much quinoa, in this case gf couscous or brown rice also work well). We also have roast veggies and bread rolls – gluten free for my daughter and I – and kept at the end of the table. I find it best if the gluten free people sit together and that way the food that contains gluten can sit at the opposite end of the table, to avoid cross contamination with utensils, accidental splashes etc. When food is set up as a buffet style, once again I keep the gluten free end free from gluten-containing dishes and I’m not shy in coming forwards if I see the potential for contamination. My health and that of my daughter is my number one concern. I will confront family members (politely, but assertively) if there is the potential for cross contamination. I get very, very sick when eating gluten (aside from the potential internal damage) that I have to speak up for my own sake. I know a lot of people don’t feel they can say anything, this is why I am so careful with keeping everything separated, plus having different coloured cutlery and utensils or ribbons, to highlight strictly gluten free.
Desserts – I’m not a fan of puddings or mince pies, however there are a few good ones on the market now. Instead, I will make a banoffee pie, key lime pie and pavlova. I sourced these recipes from the internet. I also made gingerbread cookies and sugar cookies and this year I bought a gluten free gingerbread kit from Myer (from the Gingerbread Folk). We also have fruit platters and gf dips, plus lots of other nibbles. Then we graze for the next few days when family have gone.
Coeliac Australia have some great tips on their website about surviving Christmas gluten free. They also have good information on how to survive eating out, as well as avoiding cross contamination both in and out of the home. If you have any doubts or anxiety – have a read of their fact sheets. There are also support groups around where you can ask for advice such as Coeliac Disease Support Group Australia on Facebook – as well as checking with your dietitian or nutritionist, if you have one.
Hope you all have a very Merry (gluten free) Christmas.