This post is especially for my friend Lisa! *waves* Enjoy & good luck!!!
I get asked about a dozen times per year, how to go about STARTING a gluten-free diet. After about the tenth time of typing out essentially the same message, I finally realized it was a LOT easier to save ONE message... and tweak/update it every so often. Since I know there are actually a few people following this blog, I've decided to post my latest "tweak" just in case it could help someone.
For anyone just starting out - there are a TON of helpful websites & blogs out there... this is just ONE way to go about starting. Please feel free to share any/all of this with anyone who could use it. I'm not claiming to be an expert, just someone who's been-there, done-that with nearly five years experience.
Mama's GF 101
Welcome to a new page in your life... one without gluten, but also with fewer stomach cramps and seasonal allergies! I will apologize for the length of this, but there are a LOT of things I get asked about – and most people seem to ask the same handful of questions when first diagnosed. My son and I have been gluten-free now for nearly five years, and I can honestly say that after the first few months... it really IS worth the headache, and we ARE thriving on our new favorite foods. My son is finally gaining enough weight to be within the healthy range, and *I* am finally LOSING weight! Gluten sensitivities are not easy to deal with, but it really & truly is worth the effort. Here are a few pointers that I wish I could have had, as we first began our journey.
First things first: going gluten-free is not a death-sentence, and yes you truly CAN adapt. I won't lie & say it's easy or that you won't have a LOT of trial-and-error moments/days/weeks... sometimes months, but it's doable. Rather than focusing first on what you CAN'T eat first – it might help to remind you of what you CAN still eat.
* Fresh fruits & vegetables. Every single one of them is still safe, and can be prepared hundreds of ways without making you sick.
* Meat, (if you choose) eggs, beans... most of your UN-processed proteins are still safe. (note: watch things like cured & processed meats – as these vary by brand & flavor)
* Dairy. With the exception of things like cookie dough ice cream or cheese with funky mix-ins, this is another whole food-group that's generally safe. Ditto for dairy-free soy, almond & rice options!
* Whole grains. This one shocks people, but rice, (ANY kind so long as it doesn't come with seasoning) quinoa, corn, and special oats grown in Canada are all safe for you. And if you've never heard of quinoa, it's definitely worth trying!
* Beverages. Nearly every non-alcoholic beverage you can think of is naturally safe. Steer clear of malts & grain alcohols, and do a bit of homework on wines, (many wine companies use a wheat-paste to "glue" their barrels together!) you're fine! For chocolate-milk, it's best to make your own... I've got a recipe on this blog, but you can search the internet for literally thousands of homemade mixes that taste better, and cost a mere fraction of what you'd pay for a store-bought cocoa. My current favorite? Hazelnut Cream!
* CHOCOLATE!!! Chocolate is naturally gluten-free, so as long as you're not addicted to a cookie-crunch type candy bar, you can still indulge! Most of the organic brands are made in dedicated factories too, which means that even if you're super-sensitive to cross contaminations these will be safe. For an at-a-glance page of safe candies... you can check this website: (a staple in our house, with a teenage son!)
Gluten-Free Candy List
Things have gotten a bit easier since we switched, in identifying “safe” foods. A new law passed in 2008 meaning that foods containing wheat or any of the "big 8" main allergens MUST list them, even if they're in hidden-ingredients! This doesn't rule out all gluten... but it sure makes our life easier. Most companies seem to have taken this required change one step further and you can now find THOUSANDS of mainstream foods clearly labeled "Gluten Free" right on the packaging.
For no-fail shopping, Trader Joe's is awesome for quick ready-made foods & pastas that actually taste like “the real thing” and don't turn to mush when refrigerated. Look for the crossed-out wheat head symbol on their store-brand packages, and if you ask they'll give you a LONG list of ALL the safe foods they stock! My son swears by their mac 'n cheese, and I am partial to their GF cranberry-almond granola when the budget allows. Another lovely store that we practically live at, is Fresh & Natural Foods. They have shelf-labels for immediate identification... if the shelf has a red arrow through the foods' name, it's safe! No reading labels, and NO hunting for hidden ingredients. Nothing could be easier!
For days when TJ's may be too pricey or too far away to justify a grocery run, some other nice things to know are that Chex cereal now has 4 types of gluten-free cereal. My son is addicted to cereal, and it's nice to pay less than $4 per half-size box of something NOT buried in sugar or that tastes like cardboard. Also, most of your traditional single-ingredient spices (NOT spice blends... as some use flour as an anti-caking device) will be naturally gluten-free. And three of the biggest brands out there: Kraft, Frito Lay & Nestle all have a strict labeling policy, so if it's safe the label will TELL you! They even go so far as to specifically list hidden-wheat, so you don't have to sit there chewing your fingernails wondering if “natural flavorings” is safe or not.
Now one question people seem to be the most worried about, is eating out... and I'm afraid it CAN be a nightmare, depending a lot on how sensitive you are. I can eat at places with some cross-contamination, but if an onion ring accidentally falls into the grease my son's fries are cooked in, we'll know. So because of his extreme sensitivities we tend to stick to places that have strict cross-contamination measures in place. I can tell you that with our experience it is ALWAYS best to call ahead & not go, if there's any question at all about being able to dine safely. Likewise, check a restaurants website first... MOST of them have gluten-free statements & safe-food lists available on the internet. I like to keep a printed list of safe foods for each place we know we can eat in our glove compartment as well as in a folder here on my computer desk at home. It helps for those “I don't want to cook, but can't think of where we could possibly eat!” days. To get you started, here are the places we have eaten WITHOUT my son getting sick:
* Subway – nearly all of their salads & most of their dressings are safe & they'll switch gloves if you ask!
* Chipotle – again, all of their bowls are safe & we've never had a problem here!
* Outback Steak House – one of our favorites for really fancy splurge-nights. They have a whole MENU... complete with chocolatey dessert! I could live on their garlic mashed potatoes.
* PF Changs – Another nice “splurge-worthy” place. Their gluten-free chocolate dessert is positively the best on the planet – and their meals are pretty good too... and if you choose, and they even had safe soy sauce!
* Taco Bell! Who'd have thunk - yet every time we eat there, we're fine! Their gluten-free selections are extremely limited, but when you just want a cheap dinner out - this is the place to go.
* Z Pizza is another new restaurant that is fast becoming our favorite. They will make ANY of their pizzas gluten-free in a small size... and they taste awesome!
* and a brand-new goodie... Mongo's Grill! These people really & truly go all-out with making sure their grill is scrubbed & scoured for you. No cross-contaminations and their food is awesome. If you've ever been to Khan's Mongolian Kitchen, it's just like that – but with healthier options!
Now there ARE other places that CLAIM to have a gluten-free menu, but we've had mixed luck with contamination issues. Burger King, Wendy's, Boston Market, and any number of fast-food places all CLAIM they have GF items on their menu... but the boy has gotten sick enough times that we've decided it's not worth the trouble.
Another question we get asked a lot is what OUR favorite foods are. So here is a list of a few of our absolute favorite pantry-stockers:
* Trader Joe's macaroni & cheese, Thai noodle bowls, and gluten-free granola.
* Pamela's Kitchen chocolate cake mix... GF or not, this is hands-down the best cupcake batter EVER! (possibly eclipsed however, by the new gluten free devils food cake by Betty Crocker – I reviewed this several months ago on this blog!)
* Kinnikinnik's ready-made (frozen) pizza crusts. These make the closest thing to a “real” breadstick we've had to date & are positively WONDERFUL for “lazy” days when you don't want to be in the kitchen for hours on end! Again, there's a personal review on my blog.
* Tinkyada pastas... regardless of your former cooking practices, you MUST add salt to the water with these, (I learned the hard way) but these taste like “real” pasta – even the next day! (most others turn to “mush” in the fridge overnight and are therefore only good for dishes that will be finished immediately)
* Namaste pizza crust mix... another nice mix to keep on hand. It spreads out to make TWO cookie-sheet size pizzas, OR you can use the whole bag & make a 11x15” pan of deep-dish yumminess!
* Food For Life rice tortillas... they're kind of crumbly unless you eat them immediately, but I prefer them over bread for a quick low-calorie sandwich option. (wink)
* Rudis whole-grain bread... for days when it's too hot or I'm too busy for a day of bread-baking.
* and Rapunzel brand bouillon cubes. Not all bouillon is safe, and I like their “not beef” and “not chicken” ones for soup bases better than anything else I've tried to date.
I always recommend one (and ONLY one after reading dozens) cookbook as a must-have for your kitchen. It's Incredible Edible Gluten Free Food For Kids by Sheri Sanderson. The front explains what being gluten-free means, how to make your kitchen “safe,” what things ARE still safe, and what “hidden ingredients” to watch out for. The recipes are really nice too... a bit bland as it's designed for kids, but if you double up on the seasonings or season-to taste they tend to turn out fabulous! Likewise, my all-time favorite recipe-blog is Gluten Free Goddess because she LOVES her seasonings, and nearly everything I've tried of hers has been a hit! I like her baked goodies better than most others I've tried and return to her site first when deciding to try a new recipe.
That reminds me however... baking gluten-free. I do not recommend simply trying to swap wheat-flour for an all-purpose gluten-free flour, even IF you add Xanthan Gum unless you're working with a very forgiving recipe. I've only had this work a couple times... which just isn't great odds for someone who makes nearly everything from scratch. Rather, find a recipe that's designed to be GF and then swap the spices or mix-ins to your liking. I always omit salt & halve the sugar, but tweaking flours needs to happen on your 2nd, 3rd, 97th try... NOT on the first try - and only then with extreme care & at your own risk. Likewise, there are over 3 dozen kinds of gluten-free flour available locally. I would NOT recommend picking up one of everything... you'd spend about $300 in flour, only to learn that MOST of them are only for specific types of recipe, and can only be used in extreme moderation. (I just had to toss a half-bag of coconut flour that was five years old & still unfinished!) What's in my kitchen? Rice flour, tapioca flour, cornstarch, and sorghum flour are my year-round staples. I also keep small quantities of 3-5 other flours on hand for seasonal baking, but these change with the weather since we don't eat (or cook) the same in July as we do in November. Currently I've got potato starch, garbanzo-bean flour, arrowroot flour, and almond meal on hand for “summer-weight” baking.
Cooking is completely different of course. Substitute cornstarch for wheat flour & make your gravy the way you always have, and swap pasta brands in your favorite one-dish recipe for a few “old friends.” Generally when a cooking recipe calls for flour as thickener, cornstarch or arrowroot flour can be swapped out in equal quantities. There ARE readily-available gluten free breadcrumbs, but I don't recommend them... they taste like cardboard & have ruined everything I've tried them in. Rather, save the heels from Rudis bread or any HOMEMADE bread, and freeze them for instant breadcrumbs that actually taste decent.
It's a huge change, and there are still days when I feel as if I'm missing out on “the good stuff.” But my son & I have dedicated ourselves to making this an adventure rather than a death sentence... and are committed to trying one new food & two new recipes every single week. The “adventure mindset” really helps on days when we try something not quite as tasty – we call those “misadventures” and add them to our experience!
Good luck! If you have any questions at all, PLEASE feel free to ask! I get asked about being GF fairly often, and don't mind sharing our experiences... heck, it would make my day to help someone before they do or something we've already learned the hard way!
In HIS Love,