10 steps to building a better gluten free life

There are huge hurdles to overcome when you receive your diagnosis of Celiac Sprue.  But there are great things ahead.  Just hold on tight – it does get easier.  Oh, you will have your moments of rueing the lack of gluten free cafe/sandwich & soup shops or convenience food.  You will feel a hunger-pang followed by a mini-angry pity party when you are no where you can easily access gluten free goodness.  And then, with each of these moments, you will wisen up.  Because yes, it is up to you to figure it out.

Since my diagnosis of Celiac in 2000, I have seen gluten free food explode across the market place.  I am thrilled to be able to find something, some where when I need to.  But more importantly, I’ve found the things I love and buy enough to keep some on hand.

Yes, gluten free living is getting easier.  And I hope that this blog helps some of you find more food to love as well.  If I had to give advice to someone who was starting out … just leaving the doctor’s office and wondering what in the world they were going to do, this is what I would say:

1.  Learn what you can/cannot eat.

Get a list and put it in your pocket.  Seriously.  I carried around a 5 x 8 card (yes, pre-SmartPhone days) and used it as my reference guide.  Nowadays, you can put it on your phone, buy restaurant cards (lamented instructions to share with servers/chefs),etc.  So do whatever… but keep it handy.  You will want it.

If you have Celiac and are strictly gluten free (trust me, there are others with *many* more things they have to avoid that “merely gluten”), then check with these REPUTABLE sources.  I love the Celiac Disease Center in Chicago.  They even have a “Care Package” program for people newly diagnosed with Celiac Disease.  It’s a GREAT pick-me-up for people who are struggling and/or for people to get their minds wrapped about this diet.  They have a lot to explore on their website.

2.  Learn how to cook – if you don’t know how already.  

And don’t worry about paying anyone money to take a specialty “gluten free cooking” course either.  Baking takes a while to get a handle on, but cooking?  Nope.  Get yourself a basic cookbook and go.  (No need for specialty cookbooks for cooking either, if you ask me.  I love my Joy of Cooking book so much that the binding is trashed.  HOWEVER, keep this in mind:  KNOW what you can/cannot eat.  THAT is what makes all of the difference.  See #1)

3.  Get a buddy.

There are Celiac Disease support groups (online or in person), but they don’t always fit the need.  And depending on how/who is running it, they may not be up on the latest information (and THAT leads to conflicting information…not good for anyone, but especially not good when you are just starting out).  If you are like me, the support group thing doesn’t always fit, so find a buddy.  My buddy is my spouse.  😀  He’s a willing guinea pig and was the first to walk in the house with gluten free cookbooks (Thank you, Bette Hagman – the only books around were hers at the time).

4.  Take some time at the grocery store the next time you shop.  You’re going to need it. 

Your new grocery budget will appreciate you taking the time to figure out the new scheme of things too.  No longer is the center  of the store your budget’s friend.  I wrote about grocery shopping a long time ago.  Maybe it will help you now.  ?

5,  Just because it says “Gluten Free” DOES NOT MEAN ….  And just because it DOESN’T say that it’s Gluten Free DOES NOT MEAN…

…that it is or is not….. or that it tastes good.

Use your cell phone, call the company.  Ask them about their processing, etc.  Go on the web.  Look around.   Better safe than sorry.  BUT – if you make a mistake, don’t kick yourself for it (your body will most likely do that for you).  Just figure out what you did and then try not to repeat that mistake.

6.  Find a local specialty market (or … take road trip, if possible).  

If you are lucky (like me), you might just have one near you.  The owners of these local shops not only are amazing people for finding our niche market and building their business for our needs but they are also MAGNIFICENT resources for been-there-done-that.  Don’t be afraid to ask them which pasta brand they like (because there are many… and they are NOT equal) or which fresh bread, frozen pizza, flour blend, prepared foods, etc are (1) tasty, (2) good deals, (3) worth the time/money, etc.  The owners more likely than not travel to specialty food shows, so they are also IN the know as far as upcoming products, trends, etc.  ASK.

If you are fortunate enough to live in a town with a co-op or organic grocer (Whole Foods, People’s Market, etc…), you will also find knowledgeable people (or a decent stock) too.  Just don’t expect your local grocery stocking crew to necessarily know the gluten-free section well enough to tell you what tastes good and what doesn’t.  (But you might just be surprised, the woman who stocks the “Natural” section at our local Safeway has a brother with Celiac.  She struck up a conversation with me about helping her brother … I loved having a little influence over what got stocked in that section, to be honest.  LOL)

7.  Grab a cup of coffee (or tea… or whatever) and sit down at Barnes and Noble in the cookbook section.

Read the difference authors and the flours they use.  Find a few recipes that are similar and compare them.  Some authors use only starches (like cornstarch) for their “flour base”.  Not only do you have to figure out if you can make what they are proposing, but are you going to like it?  I, for one, am not a fan of cornstarch-based stuff as it leaves a funky aftertaste.  A buddy I know dislikes sorghum (too bitter for her).  Another thinks brown rice is the only way to go.  Whatever.  Figure out what works for YOU, YOUR KITCHEN, YOUR LIFE, YOUR NEEDS, etc.

8.  Want to bake?  Risk it.  Really.

Just don’t do it with 8 million spendy flours.  Start simple.  Don’t kick off your foray into gluten free baking by looking for the loaf of bread you remember from some far-off place in gluten-land.  Start with a flour mix and make some cookies.  Really.  Follow your recipe for cookies from when you were a kid and use a gluten free flour mix (like Gluten Free Mama Almond Flour Blend (not much almond, by the way), or Pamela’s, etc) and add some xanthan gum.  (1/2 teaspoon per cup of flour in a cookie recipe). (GF Chocolate Chip Tahini Cookies, anyone?)

Some gluten free recipes seem fairly elaborate.  If you are trying to re-create a croissant in a gluten free version, it will be a long process.  Have you ever made a croissant?  It *is* a long process.  (Here’s my GF Croissant recipe, if you are so inclined.) Now, if you are trying to make a focaccia bread and the flours are going to cost you $35?  Reconsider.  Really.  Well.. unless you have a different grocery budget weekly than I do.

9.  Choose your gluten free path wisely.

The longer some people are gluten free, the crazier the path they tend to follow.  Or so it seems.

I know a few gluten free bloggers who venture into the never-neverland of food from husks or strips of coconut bark or… I don’t know.  But it’s true.  I don’t think I’ve landed on those islands just yet, but truly, I live gluten free because I have to.  NOT because I want to make a career path out of it.  I still bake/cook like I used to – but just differently.  We probably eat quinoa now because I had to go GF, but there’s no saying I wouldn’t have tried it otherwise.  I think it just came into my life a little sooner rather than later.

Find a gluten free blogger or site that seems to echo you/your family’s eating habits.  Then keep reading.

Check out advertsements in gluten free magazines or websites just to familiarize yourself with the wide variety available, but don’t feel the need to “throw the baby out with the bath water” from your family diet.  I am willing to bet you have SOME things in your repetoire that were gluten free to begin with.

10.  Find nutritional balance.

Not all gluten free goods are going to offer you nutritionally sounds whole grains, etc.  PAY ATTENTION.  Most commercial gluten free breads rely heavily on starch (tapioca, potato or corn) for the majority of the “fluff” and “flexibility” of their toastable creations.  This is a far leap from the whole-grain high fiber breads you may have been eating.  You will need to adjust your baking, buying and consuming to give your body what it needs to be healthy again.  It’s more than gluten free, you need to find gluten free AND good for you.   Start here in blog-land.  You will find lots of treasure recipes that use whole grains.  You can analyze recipes on Nutrition Data too.

Most importantly:

You are not alone.

There are millions of Americans with Celiac Disease.  And MANY more who are gluten intolerant.

You will survive and thrive.

Welcome aboard the Gluten Free Train – 
We travel with food. 😀

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