Becoming a label reader
Before you needlessly throw everything in your kitchen pantry away, and as you begin to go shopping for gluten-free products, the biggest change in your shopping routine is that you’re going to become an expert at reading labels and enquiring about ingredients at counters. Don’t go shopping without your reading glasses. Familiarize yourself with the ingredients you want to avoid. Go to gluten-free association websites such as celiac.com and .org, or ones that your health professional has recommended and bookmark them for future reference. Print out the lists of ingredients you can and can’t have. Tape that list up somewhere in your kitchen and download a pdf version to your mobile device to assist you when you’re out shopping or at a restaurant.
One of the first, and most important, distinctions to keep in mind when shopping is that “wheat free” on a label does not mean gluten-free; it just means that there is no gluten from wheat sources in there. So all gluten-free food is wheat-free, but not vice versa. And contrary to what its name seems to imply, buckwheat actually is gluten-free, as is wheatgrass (a great superfood found in many green-powdered blends). -I know; it’s confusing at first, but these are the kinds of distinctions you’re going to be able to make with ease soon enough.
Your label-reading skills are going to be an empowering asset in your diet and health, and will also help you to start to notice all the other stuff in those long ingredient lists; like artificial ingredients and preservatives and food dyes that you should have been trying to suss out before but, like most of us, your eyes would just gloss over. Now we’re all paying a little more attention to those dense paragraphs in micro-fonts. Welcome to the club!
Taking stock of your pantry and refrigerator
If you’re living alone, start pulling out all the foods with gluten and put them on the counter to donate to a friend or set up a separate gluten-foods section if you want to have snacks available for visitors. If it’s going to be too much of an irritation or temptation having these items around, give them away.
If you’re in a household situation, create an area where you will put all of your gluten-free products and let everyone know not to mix the two sections up. Except for certain kinds of rice pastas and potato pancake mixes that might not have gluten in them, just about every bread, cookie, cake, dessert crust and baking mix found in the average (American) pantry is going to have to go. I know it’s depressing but we’re going to have your gluten-free area filled out soon enough.
Double check the ingredients list on rice and corn cereals, buckwheat pancake mixes, corn and potato chips for any added sources of gluten; there’s a good chance many of these will be able to go in your gluten-free section. Next, go through your pantry’s sauces, dips and toppings. Some tamari sauces, salad dressings, guacamoles, ketchups and mustards are going to be gluten-free; others like soy sauce will have a bit of wheat or other gluten added and you’ll have to pull them out.
For your first week, it helps to lean on things you already eat a lot of which just happen to be gluten-free. Meats, eggs, fruits and vegetables with special attention paid to any coatings, sauces and batters that need to be eliminated. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a gluten-free pancake mix or rice/corn cereal; and if eggs and gluten-free sausage are on your ‘ok’ list, they can fill in some breakfast gaps during the first weeks while you start making your adjustments. There are a lot of gluten-free cereals out there, and if you’ve been advised to also go dairy-free, just start to experiment with the various rice, almond, hemp, lactase-free, etc. choices that are out there. (I would check with your physician or nutritionist before going the soy milk route; over 70% of the U.S. soy crop is now genetically modified, soy has phyto-estrogens, and too much raw soy can cause bloating and irritation in many people.) There are also a wide variety of gluten-free breakfast bars, and I’ve found some really great gluten-free waffles and french toast in the freezer sections of many grocery stores.
Lunches will be the toughest challenge during your first month, as good and easily accessible gluten-free breads, doughs, muffins, etc aren’t always easy to find and you may be at work where the only options are cafeteria food or fast-food joints outside the office. Here, try to stick with plain meats (no hotdogs, baked coatings or sandwich breads) like steamed and grilled chicken, fish or steak, paying attention to condiment and salad dressing ingredients. Have plain fruit instead of pies and cakes for dessert.
Most pasta (except rice, quinoa and corn pasta) will also have to be avoided at dinner, so think about rice and potato-based side dishes. Avoid grain-based alcohols and beer, except rice beers without additional sources of gluten, or wines for after work. There are several manufacturers now of good gluten-free beer that you will be able to track down, but sometimes trying to find places where you can buy or special order these can require some legwork and calling around.
The first week is the biggest challenge. It’s also an information overload. The anxiety-filled shock of having to give up foods that you’ve been eating your whole life, the uncertainty of what to replace those foods with, and the inconveniences and questions to and from those around you can add up to a very stressful experience. But by relying on staple foods you eat that already were gluten-free, by perusing the many online resources for gluten-free foods and support groups, and by taking the initiative to self-educate yourself about all of the ins and outs of gluten sensitivities and ingredients, you can get through that first week feeling a little less panicky and a little less alone. Be patient with yourself; some of the products that you try you’re going to like, and others you won’t. A gluten-free diet is something that is only going to get better as you begin to explore the hundreds of varieties of foods available to you and continue to educate yourself and family members on the choices available.