As if the holiday season isn’t stressful enough for some people, it can be even harder for those of us with celiac disease.
Now I don’t want to overdramatize this, but it’s hard to enjoy a big Thanksgiving dinner or any kind of holiday gathering when you don’t know if you’ll be able to eat anything that’s going to be served. And you don’t want to draw attention as the high-maintenance guest or fussy diner who isn’t eating.
When you’re making a meal at home or visiting a restaurant where you know the staff is sensitive to the needs of customers who can’t eat gluten, dining isn’t all that stressful. But dealing with social events where you don’t have any control over the food is another matter. People who write books and blogs about the gluten-free diet devote a lot of space to this.
“It can be overwhelming,” said Alice Bast, founder and president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
I’m not worried about Thanksgiving dinner this year because I’ll be eating at my parents’ house, and I know that my mother will accommodate me by making an entire meal that is gluten free. But many times in the past, my Thanksgiving was a big gathering at a cousin’s or aunt’s house with the extended family. If I was doing that this year, I think I’d be dreading Thanksgiving.
So I asked Bast for advice on how to handle these holiday gatherings.
“We do try to talk to the host or hostess in advance,” she said. “You want to minimize their stress but you have to let them know.”
The hosts usually want all of their guests to have a good time.
“They’re not going to feel so great if you’re not eating,” Bast said.
As I’ve written before, people like Bast are trying to raise awareness of celiac disease because so many people still subscribe to the myth that gluten-free is a fad diet. For people with celiac disease or some other type of gluten intolerance, the gluten-free diet isn’t a choice. It’s a serious health concern because eating the slightest amount of gluten can make a celiac sick.
If the hosts are unaware of this, you really need to make them aware. To my surprise, I’ve found that some celiacs are afraid to speak up and tell people about their condition. As Bast said, if you had a peanut allergy, you wouldn’t sit quietly and eat a meal that might have peanuts in it. So if you have a gluten intolerance (it’s technically not an allergy), why wouldn’t you let everyone know?
Now if someone is cooking a dinner for 20 people, it is unreasonable to expect an entire meal to be gluten free. But there are steps you can take to make sure that at least part of the meal is safe to eat.
“Offer to bring a gluten-free dish or come early to help them prepare,” Bast said, adding that you should also bring your own utensils to serve the gluten-free dish. Cross-contamination from other food that has gluten can be a problem.
In addition to bringing a dish that everyone can enjoy, you might also want to bring your own chicken breast or turkey roast that can be heated separately just for yourself. If the host understands your condition, he or she shouldn’t be offended that you’re not eating the turkey the host spent hours preparing.
Turkey itself is gluten free but if it’s cooked with stuffing, it very likely could come in contact with gluten.
“Don’t try to work around the gluten-containing stuffing,” Bast said.
Needless to say, gravy is another concern.
“If I were cautious about anything, it would be anything with a sauce, especially a dark sauce,” said Cynthia Kupper, executive director of the Gluten Intolerance Group.
You can never be sure that any sauce is gluten free without checking the ingredients, but Kupper said clearer sauces are more likely to be made without gluten.
Some other Thanksgiving staples like cranberry sauce are usually gluten free, Bast said, but you have to be careful about mashed potatoes.
“Sometimes people put something on top of the potato or in the potato” with gluten, she said.
Bast also suggests avoiding dips, even if you know the dip itself is gluten free. You have no idea what other people have been dipping.
“That can easily be cross-contaminated with a gluten-containing cracker,” she said.
The NFCA is holding a “webinar” on its website (www.celiaccentral.org) at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, called “Gluten-Free Holiday How-Tos with Bloggers Extraordinaire” to offer more tips to celiacs on what to watch out for during the holidays. The organization also offers a printable guide, which can be downloaded from the website, called “Entertaining gluten-free guests” that offers tips to the hosts of the holiday gatherings.
If you’re planning to go to a restaurant for a holiday dinner, Kupper said to make sure to check ahead of time that the restaurant can prepare a gluten-free meal. Celiacs are used to quizzing a restaurant staff about their gluten-free concerns, but on a busy Thanksgiving Day, the staff might not be as patient.
“I think it’s probably important to work way ahead with them,” Kupper said.
Of course, after Thanksgiving, there will still be a lot of social gatherings through the holiday season. Many people have offered the advice that if you’re going to a party where hors d’oeuvres are served but no formal dinner, the best thing to do is eat before you go, assuming you don’t know if the food will be prepared gluten free.
“I really try to focus on making this about being with people, not focusing on the meal,” said Kupper.
If you have celiac disease, it’s not OK to eat “a little” gluten at these parties. You can’t have any.
“Don’t get tempted to cheat,” said Bast.
And after the parties are done, you still have to deal with the same issues at Christmas dinner. I have a different issue, as I’ve written before. I used to look forward to the Jewish Christmas tradition of going out to a Chinese restaurant. However, the sauces on Chinese food usually have gluten, unless they are specially prepared.
P.F. Chang’s China Bistro is the one Chinese restaurant I know of that offers gluten-free versions of many dishes. Unfortunately, while you’ll find many Chinese restaurants in the Jacksonville area open on Christmas, P.F. Chang’s is usually closed.
So if anyone out there can tell me about a Chinese restaurant that’s gluten-free friendly and open on Christmas Day, please drop me a line. You would be bringing joy to my holiday season.