I started putting this together to send to my family before Turkey Day next week, and then I realized a (relatively) short, easy guide to cooking for someone with a gluten sensitivity or Celiac disease is not something I can remember seeing on the internet. In all my research, most of what I’ve found has been geared toward the gluten-free eater themselves. Some is highly clinical research findings. Most is recipes for gluten-free versions of “normal” dishes. But there’s not a lot out there that can spell it out quickly and efficiently for a gluten eater who has to cook for a gluten-free eater.
Thus, I give you, internet, the simple 5-step guide below. You’re welcome.
Gluten Free Cooking for Dummies
A.K.A., How to Feed Your Amanda
A simple guide to preparing food for your gluten-free loved one
Gluten allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities are a serious matter for gluten-free eaters. One wrong move can result in terrible consequences, from being sick for a few days to long-term medical complications to severe allergic reactions and trips to the hospital. Often times, though, a gluten-free existence can be a complete mystery to those who’ve never dealt with such serious food allergies or intolerances before. Having a loved one, friend, or child with a gluten sensitivity or Celiac Disease can seem daunting at first—with all the information out there, it’s hard to know where to begin.
Hopefully, that’s where this guide will come in. I’ve taken my 3+ years of experience and tons of research to combine them into a short, easy guideline for finding and preparing safe, gluten-free dishes for your gluten-free eater.
1. Know What Gluten Is and Where It Hides
Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, so it’s pretty obvious that anything made from wheat, barley, or rye is a no-no. But wheat and barley are used very heavily in food manufacturing and find their way into things you would never suspect: ice cream, margarine, salad dressing, or even lemonade. One of the trickiest parts of feeding someone with a gluten allergy or intolerance is knowing where and how those sneaky little glutens can hide in otherwise seemingly harmless foods.
Here are a few things to look out for:
- Wheat – Since wheat is one of the eight most common allergens, manufactures are required to list it on the ingredients, either within the ingredient list or at the bottom in bold. This is the easiest way to see that something is immediately off limits.
- Processed in a Facility/on Equipment that Uses Wheat – These words or any variation of them make the product potentially unsafe for someone with a gluten intolerance. If you’re feeling up to the challenge, you can contact the manufacturer to find out if and how they try to avoid cross-contamination. Otherwise, your best bet is to assume the food is unsafe for your gluten-free eater.
- Unknown Ingredients – Chances are if you can’t pronounce it, your gluten-free eater probably shouldn’t eat it anyway. Many chemical compounds created in the food industry are generally deemed safe for consumption, but these mystery ingredients can sometimes be made from a grain containing gluten with no hint to its origins on the packaging. So if there are things on the ingredient list that draw a complete blank for you, it’s safest to assume you shouldn’t consider that product gluten free. Some key words to look for:
- Malt, Maltodextrin, or Dextrin
- Hydrogenated or Partially-hydrogenated Oils
- Natural and/or Artificial Flavors
- Any unpronounceable chemicals
- Modified Starches or Modified Food Starch
- Caramel Coloring or other food colorings
- Low Fat or Fat-Free – Most things that have had some of the fat content removed have chemicals added to make it taste as good as the full-fat version (FYI, this does not apply to low-fat or skim milk, or cheeses made from low-fat or skim mild so long as they don’t have any additional ingredients). If something is naturally low in fat or fat-free, that’s fine, but be sure to double check all the ingredients on generally fatty desserts or snacks that have had their fat content reduced.
- Certified Gluten Free – The FDA just passed a requirement that in order to be labeled gluten free a product must be tested and certified first. However, this requirement has yet to go into full effect. Many products currently on the shelves may be labeled as simply “gluten free”, but have not actually been tested. This doesn’t necessarily mean the product is NOT safe, but you should review the ingredient list just to be sure. Sometimes if there is only a little bit of gluten in something (we’re talking parts-per-million here), it can still be labeled gluten free under the old system. The only way to tell that something is for sure, positive, 100% safe for your gluten-free eater is to either read the ingredients or see a label on it that says it has been certified gluten free. On the other hand, just because a food is not labeled or certified gluten free doesn’t necessarily make it unsafe, so long as your review the ingredients carefully.
2. Keep the Ingredient List
A gluten-free eater needs to be aware of every little thing they are putting into their bodies. If you made the potato salad yesterday and threw out the empty mayonnaise jar, your gluten-free eater cannot be sure the ingredients you used were safe. Unless you have verified before-hand that the ingredients you’ve used are in fact gluten free, keep the packaging or jot down the ingredient list before you discard it.
If you’re following a recipe, have it handy so your gluten-free eater can review it before the meal. If you’ve made any changes or additions, be sure to write them on the recipe—even the spices you’ve used. If it turns out well (or terrible), you’ll want to remember them when you make it again anyway!
3. Keep It Natural
The safest foods for your gluten-free eater are foods in their unprocessed, most natural state. When in doubt, go for fresh fruits and vegetables (preferable organic to avoid nasty pesticides), simple gluten free grains like rice or quinoa, raw organic or all-natural meats (after you cook them, of course), and organic dairy products. Organic options are usually more expensive, but the mainstream options can often have hidden sources of gluten, added hormones, and nasty chemicals.
Note: Don’t be fooled by the “Natural” food movement, as these products can still be heavily processed, or “Natural Flavors”, which could be anything from the natural world—even a ground up rock—that tastes like the flavor the manufacturer is looking for. Not necessarily something you want to put in your mouth. Plus, the manufacturer doesn’t have to release what it actually is.
Here’s a list of foods that are perfectly safe for your gluten-free eater:
- Vegetarian fed natural or organic poultry
- Natural or organic pork
- Most fresh fish (wild caught is best)
- Grass-fed or grain-fed natural or organic beef, lamb or other red meats
- Organic milk or dairy products (read the ingredients just to be safe)
- Whole, skim, 1% or 2% organic milk
- Cheeses made from organic milk with no additional colorings
- Real butter (margarine is generally NOT gluten free)
- Nuts (if we’re talking about me specifically, all nuts EXCEPT PEANUTS)
- Any fresh fruit or vegetable
4. Avoid Cross-Contamination
Cross-contamination occurs when an ingredient or dish that is safe comes in contact with something that is not safe. This goes for all types of allergies, including gluten. If you open a tub of butter, scoop some out with a knife, spread that knife over a piece of gluten-containing bread, and put the knife back into the butter you have now contaminated the butter with gluten particles. Some people with gluten allergies or sensitivities can react to even the tiniest gluten exposure, so those two or three crumbs of bread could be enough to make your gluten-free eater very sick.
Cross-contamination is the other tricky part of feeding someone with a gluten intolerance or allergy, but it can be avoided with several simple steps.
- Cook in/on separate equipment – if you cook for your gluten-free eater on a regular basis, you may want to consider purchasing a separate set of cookware to use for their meals. If you only cook for them occasionally, make sure your cookware is thoroughly cleaned before-hand and gluten-free dishes are not prepared in the same areas or on the same surfaces as unsafe foods.
- Use specific utensils for specific dishes – In domestic cooking, it is easy to absentmindedly taste or stir more than one dish with the same spoon, but this could make a dish unsafe for your gluten-free eater. Keep track of which utensils you use for each gluten free dish, and do not use them for anything else. If you have decorative serving utensils, assign designated utensils for each dish so it is easily identifiable which utensil goes with which dish, and two dishes never come in contact with the same utensil.
- Make safe foods easily identifiable – Keep foods that are safe for your gluten-free eater in a separate area, group them together at one end of the table/counter, and/or create labels for each gluten free dish. This will help your gluten-free eater keep track of what they can and cannot eat, as well as avoiding spill-over from other dishes or accidental contamination.
- Instruct your other guests on safe practices – This is, in my opinion, the most important step to keep your gluten-free eater safe. Let your other guests know that you have someone with a food allergy, and tell them the steps to avoid cross-contamination. Insist that dips be scooped out with the serving utensil and put onto a plate rather than directly dipping into them with potentially unsafe chips or crackers. The same goes for condiments: have guests put it on their plates with the serving utensil and spread it on the bread/roll/etc. with their own knife (make it a rule: if it touches the bread, it DOES NOT go back in the jar). Have your guests dress their own salads instead of tossing the salad with dressing already added, as many salad dressings are not gluten free. Remind everyone to use the designated serving utensil for each dish.
- If something is contaminated, notify your gluten-free eater immediately! Remove any labeling identifying it as safe and/or remove it from the group of safe foods. Accidents happen; we all make mistakes. Your gluten-free eater will generally be understanding of the mistake and thankful that you notified them—it’s much better to be forgive for making something inedible than for accidentally making them ill!
5. When in Doubt, ASK!
If your gluten-free eater is an adult, they are generally the person who knows best what they can and cannot eat. (If they’re a child, refer to their parents.) If you’re uncertain about something, just ask them. They most likely know whether the food or ingredient in question is safe.
That being said:
5.1. Do Your Research First
Try not to let your first question to your gluten-free eater be “So, what CAN you eat?” Incessantly bombarding them with “Can you eat this?” is not a good way to go, either.
These types of questions imply that you haven’t done any of your own research. There are tons of online resources—from blogs to recipe sites to online communities and forums—for gluten free recipes. For those who are not internet-savvy, there are plenty of books on the market (my go-to is Gluten Free, Hassle Free by Marlisa Brown). These tools are available for anyone—not just gluten-free eaters themselves—and make the mystery of cooking for someone with a gluten allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity a little easier to understand. If you’re unsure of where to start, ask your gluten-free eater for some recommendations. Trust me, they will be grateful you took the time to learn about the challenges they face and ways to properly and safely care for them.
Not doing your research, however, puts the entire burden of safe food preparation solely on your gluten-free eater. This can be incredibly stressful for them, especially around the holidays when parties and family gatherings provide endless opportunities to be “glutened.” A gluten-free eater has to be vigilant every day of their lives when it comes to food. From shopping for groceries to having dinner at home with friends to going out to a restaurant, their life is already full of questions and concerns for their own safety. Doing your research ahead of time so you can prepare them a safe, delicious meal will not only keep your gluten-free eater from getting sick and/or having a serious, possibly life-threatening allergic reaction, it will lessen this burden they carry every day.
Instead of “What can you eat?” or “Can you eat this?”, try some of the following questions when you need clarification from your gluten-free eater:
- “It says it has (random unknown ingredient) in it. Is that okay, or should I use something else?”
- “I’m planning on making/buying this; is there a specific brand I should look for?”
- “You like (particular food), right? Is that always safe, or should I look for something specific in the ingredients/a specific kind?”
- “It says gluten free on the package, but not certified gluten free. Do you want me to give you the ingredients list just to make sure?”
Don’t be surprised if your gluten-free eater is full of questions for you, too. Like I said, the gluten-free eater usually knows best what they can and cannot have, and they need to know everything they are putting into their bodies. It’s not that they don’t trust you to feed them safely or want to steal your secret family recipes—they just want to be absolutely certain the food they’re consuming is safe.
If any of you gluten-free eaters out there have any additional suggestions or best practices, let me know!