What can I eat tonight?
How to get through your first few gluten-free days without feeling totally overwhelmed
Have you heard this?
“You have celiac disease. You need to stop eating wheat, rye, and barley in all forms starting today and for the rest of your life. Good luck and take care.”
“I want you to go on a gluten-free diet. That means no wheat, rye or barley. I’ll refer you to a dietitian; you should have an appointment in about 2 weeks”.
If you are lucky, your doctor handed you a sheaf of papers with a list of ingredients to avoid or to check, or maybe a long list of foods to avoid. If you are really lucky, they gave you the name and number of a support group in your area to call for help.
If you get a the name of a local support group contact, call them – local support groups are an awesome source of information about where to shop, what products to try and what ones to avoid, and which restaurants in your area are helpful for people who eat gluten free.
If you are unlucky, you were sent home wondering what is gluten anyway and will ever feel normal again. Here is some help.
You are not the only person who has felt this way
Feeling overwhelmed at the thought of totally changing your diet is perfectly normal. Our goal is to help you figure out how to have a wonderful life, even without gluten.
Here are three steps to getting started on a gluten free diet without getting overwhelmed by the details.
- Start with foods that are naturally gluten free, foods that have never had any gluten in them.
- Add some products that are specifically identified as gluten free.
- Figure out what regular products are gluten free. You will be surprised how many products on your ordinary grocery shelf are OK for you to eat.
Step 1 – Start with foods that are naturally gluten free
Building your evening meal
Your first task is probably going to be figuring out what to eat for your evening meal. If you start with basic and unprocessed foods, you can fix something easy that tastes good.
Start with your meat or protein:
- chicken, pork, beef (including ground beef), turkey, etc.
- fish, seafood (not artificial crab)
Add some vegetables – your choice of almost any vegetable in any form:
- frozen, as long as there are just vegetables listed on the package
- canned as long as there is no sauce or spice added
- salad made from greens and vegetables
Add a starch:
- potato, sweet potato, yams
- rice (regular or instant is OK, but not from a seasoned mix)
- corn tortilla or taco shell (make sure it is made from corn, not wheat or a corn and wheat mix)
And a beverage:
- coffee, tea
- milk, water, juice, pop or soda
- mixed drinks from spirits
If you would like some dessert, consider:
- plain ice cream, ice milk, or frozen yogurt – vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, fruit flavored
To cook and spice your meal, you can use most of the same ingredients you would normally use:
- cooking oil, butter, margarine
- onion, garlic, olives, and celery
- salt and pepper
- spices and herbs (pick single spices and herbs, not mixed spices or herbs or anything that uses the term “seasoning”)
- oil and vinegar salad dressing (other types may be GF, but the goal here is to keep it simple)
- cheese, including pre-grated
- ketchup (as long as malt vinegar or seasoning is not on the ingredient list)
- mustard (as long as malt vinegar or wheat flour is not on the ingredient list; mustard flour is OK)
For many people, breakfast is the hardest meal to figure out what to eat, especially if you grab a piece of toast or a bagel on the way out the door or are used to a bowl of cereal.
Breakfast supplies will be one of the first things you shop for in step 2, but for your first few days, you may have to alter your breakfast routine a bit.
There are lots of “breakfast” foods that are gluten free.
- peanut butter
- juice, milk, coffee, tea
If you have some corn tortillas or taco shells in the house, you can wrap some of these ingredients up to take with you.
Bananas, apples, grapes and other fruit work for “grab and go” type breakfast eaters.
While it may seem strange, you can also eat leftovers from supper for breakfast. This is common in some parts of the world.
Lunch can be a challenge for people starting out gluten free because it is often eaten away from home. For the first few days, you may want to avoid eating in a restaurants, but here are some things you can carry from home.
- leftovers from last night’s supper eaten cold or heated up in a microwave
- salad from mixed greens and various vegetables; add eggs, meat, beans or cheese for protein; many salad dressings are GF (as long as it doesn’t include malt vinegar or wheat on the ingredient list)
- egg, chicken, or tuna salad wrapped in a corn tortilla, lettuce leaf, or dumped on top of salad greens
- veggies and dip made from sour cream and spices or hummus
- peanut butter in celery sticks
- hard boiled eggs
- cheese, including cottage cheese
- raw vegetables and dip made from sour cream and spices
- popcorn (butter is okay, skip the flavors)
- chips – start with plain ones until you are ready to read labels
- peanut butter in celery sticks
- water, milk, juice
Step 2 – Add some GF specialty products
You will want to add some specialty gluten-free foods to your diet quite quickly, to help fill in some gaps, particularly for breakfast. Manufacturers are under a legal obligation to make sure that if they use the words “Gluten-Free” on their labels, the products are actually gluten free.
Tip: If a product says “Wheat Free” but not “Gluten Free”, don’t buy it. It will probably have oats or barley malt in it.
Where to shop
Almost every grocery store carries some gluten free products. They may be found in a “Natural Value” or “Specialty Food” section. Gluten-free products are also found in specialty health food or natural markets.
What to buy
For your first shopping trip, look for a few basics:
- crackers or pretzels
- cereal, if you like that for breakfast
- cookies or sweets
Crackers or pretzels are useful to add to your lunch or snacks to eat with peanut or nut butter, cheese, jam, and jelly. You can even make mini sandwiches with them.
You will find a few gluten-free cereals in the main cereal aisle, specifically Chex from General Mills and Kellog’s Gluten-Free Rice Krispies (make sure you pick the right type of Rice Krispies).
You might expect that rice and corn cereals would be fine, but most of them have barley malt as an ingredient. More gluten-free cereals are available in the specialty aisles and stores.
If you want hot cereal, consider cream of rice, corn meal porridge, or grits. Leave oatmeal out of your diet until you have (1) reviewed the recommendations from various medical advisory panels, and (2) located a source of pure and uncontaminated oats from a specialty supplier. Normal brands of oats are not acceptable for people with celiac disease because they all contain traces of barley or wheat.
There are several good brands of gluten-free pasta. Most are made from rice or brown rice. Others are made from corn, potato, and quinoa. You can use them like regular pasta, although they might be stickier than normal wheat pasta unless you rinse them well after cooking. Follow the cooking instructions on the package.
If you have a sweet tooth, look for cookies or bars labeled gluten-free. There are a variety of flavors available from many different manufacturers.
Look for GFCP Certified Products
The Gluten-Free Certification Program is based on Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems, already widely used and accepted in Canadian food manufacturing. This goal of the program is to review potential hazards, including gluten, as part of a manufacturers overall safety and quality management system. This prevention approach is combined with analytical testing procedures for incoming ingredients, as well as in-process and finished products. The GFCP mark provides added assurance that the products carrying the mark are both safe and gluten-free.
What about Bread?
Whether you tackle gluten-free bread right off the start is an individual choice. Virtually everyone is disappointed when they first try gluten-free bread, rolls, or bagels, because the products do not have the same texture as wheat products.
If you are already feeling upset and overwhelmed, leave the bread for a while and try some other products first.
When you are ready to buy bread, buy two other things first:
- a new toaster – cheap is good for this toaster
- a new cutting board
The new toaster is to avoid accidentally getting wheat crumbs on your gluten-free bread. If you look inside your current toaster, you will see a big pile of crumbs at the bottom of the toaster and often some buildup on the wires. When you share a toaster with someone eating regular bread, you will contaminate your gluten-free bread with wheat every time you use the toaster.
Gluten-free bread usually works best when it is toasted, even when you are making a sandwich. It might hold together when it is first baked, but after it is frozen, it often crumbles when you eat it, unless it is toasted first.
The new cutting board is to protect you from getting wheat crumbs when you make toast or a sandwich after someone else has done the same thing with wheat bread. You can clean a cutting board so that cross-contamination doesn’t happen, but it becomes very easy to forget to do it over time. Always using your own cutting board just prevents mistakes from happening.
Tip: Crumbs matter when you are eating gluten free. If you have celiac disease, your body will be damaged by crumbs from someone else’s toast whether they come from the toaster or from a shared butter dish.
Step 3 – Find out which regular foods are gluten free
A lot of regular processed foods are gluten free too. You can find brands of ketchup and icing sugar that are labeled “gluten free” but why pay specialty prices when the same brands everyone else eats are fine?
The key is learning to read product ingredient labels. It may feel like a huge task at first, but there are really only a few rules.
Rule # 1: Read every label every time you buy the product. Ingredients change over time.
Rule #2: If a gluten ingredient is added to the product, the word wheat, rye, barley or oats MUST appear on the label.
Rule #3: Check the Contains statement first. If it has a gluten ingredient, you know it is not OK. If there is no gluten ingredient in the Contains statement, the product is OK.
Rule #4: If there is no Contains statement, check the ingredient list for the words wheat, rye, barley or oats.
Rule #5: Treat anything listed in a “May Contain” statement as it if was part of the ingredient list.
Everyone reacts differently to being put on a strict gluten-free diet for life, usually with a combination of feelings:
- Sometimes people are happy because they finally have a reason for their health problems and a way to make things better.
- Sometimes people get angry at being forced into a gluten-free diet or at their doctor for taking so long to diagnose their problem
- Sometimes people declare that everything gluten-free tastes like crap and they are going to eat what they want to eat, no matter what.
There are some strategies you do not want to emulate.
- Some people eat gluten free, sort of, but they regularly cheat on their diet, putting their current and future health at risk
- Some people stick to an extremely limited set of foods and are constantly unhappy about it. They leave themselves open to potential nutritional complications because they don’t eat a healthy variety of foods.
Your local chapter of the CCA can help a lot as you get started. They have peer counsellors who can answer questions and help you find products locally. They also provide reassurance that you are not the only person in the world dealing with this problem. Find your local chapter here.
Finding Reliable Information
The Internet is full of information about celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and the gluten-free diet. Not all of this information is valid, useful or accurate. Separating Internet myths from fact is a key piece of being comfortable with eating gluten free.
The quantity of information is staggering and it comes in so many forms – from blog entries to dense scientific articles. On top of sorting through the huge quantity of information, you also have to deal with a very uneven level of quality.
Some of it is sheer speculation without a shred of proof; some is the result of years of painstaking study and research. Some of it comes from people who want you to buy something (or not buy something) and some of it is offered with the best of intentions.
I don’t think a lot of people specifically try to create fear maliciously, but sometimes they repeat information they have heard from other people who have either misunderstood something or who have drawn conclusions that are absolutely unwarranted based on fact.
Here’s an example. I was sent a newsletter that basically said “there seems to be am Internet controversy about whether enriched rice is safe because there might be gluten in the enrichment coating so I suggest you avoid it”.
I went looking for the Internet controversy and found one blog post that suggested this might be true, but with no supporting evidence. That same blog post was picked up and reprinted verbatim in about 10 other blogs. Now there were 10 sources that showed up in a source making this allegation, and unless you went look closely like I did, you wouldn’t realize that 9 of the 10 sources were simply repeating the same unsubstantiated claims.
Figuring out whether a particular source is reliable is not an easy thing – it takes detective work. You have to figure out where to look and what clues to look for. You may run into way too much information or not enough at all. The easy way is to just accept whatever you find, but this may not be the best solution.
How do you evaluate information?
First, look at the date of the information. Information that is even a year old is often out of date when it comes to specific product data. An article that said Corn Chex was not gluten free would have been correct in 2008 but by 2009 it was wrong.
Sometimes you can tell how credible a statement by the evidence that is presented to support it.
One of my favorite Internet myths is the rumour is that some tea bags are sealed with a wheat paste. If that was the case, the tea from those bags would not be acceptable for someone who needs to eat gluten free. There are lots of Internet blog posts and email messages and web sites that repeat the myth, but the next sentence is virtually always something like “I called company A and company B and company C and they told me they don’t use wheat paste to
seal their tea bags”. I have yet to find someone who has found a company that actually does this. “But it might be true” is usually the final sentence.
Hmmm. Doesn’t sound there is a lot of credibility to this myth.
I took it further and looked for information on how tea bags are actually sealed. I found some industry pages and some companies that make machines that seal tea bags and some tea. What did I learn? Tea bags are generally sealed in one of three ways: heat sealed with a bit of plastic, crimped where the top and bottom of the bags are pressed really hard together, or folded and stapled. When I pushed really hard at one person who was making a tea bag claim, they sent me a notice that a “food grade” glue had been approved by the World Health Organization for use in manufacturing tea bags. No information about the ingredients, nothing that even hinted at wheat. From this, they justified spreading the information that this was something people should worry about.
Does this mean that all tea is gluten-safe? No. Some herbal or flavoured teas contain barley malt, but black, green, oolong, and white tea are all naturally gluten free and grow in areas where gluten grains do not grow.
If you have time and a detective bent, do your research. When you read a new “fact”, make sure you check the credibility of the information and the source before you pass it on or change your behaviour.
If you don’t have the time for this, join the CCA and read the information they send you. They will keep you up to date with the latest finding and will only pass on credible information. A few people with gluten sensitivity have told me that they are concerned about joining a “celiac” group. They don’t have celiac disease, after all. My answer is that the people with celiac disease are the most sensitive to gluten – even more than those with a wheat allergy. If you follow the advice for gluten that comes from those groups, you will definitely be safe.