Contributed by: Clare Bustin
Buffet. Potluck. Dinner at a friends. Cocktail party. Banquet. Work party.
All of these sound like fun social events, right? Well, not so much if you celiac disease.
You may be able to get by through January to November having to face only a few of these daunting occasions, but once December hits, you’re under attack.
Navigating the holidays with food restrictions is a particularly stressful challenge. You do get used to missing out on delicious treats, but as food is a significant component of many holiday traditions, things get tricky. While others may stress about aspects of the holidays such as dodging questions about when they will get married or how they expect to get a job with an Arts degree, the main goal of a celiac Christmas is – “how can I get through this without some sort of disgusting display of my stomach contents?”
Getting “glutened” at Christmas can easily take days out of your holiday, and if you’re like me and live away from your family (meaning you only see your family once or twice a year) every day you have with them counts.
So here are some tips I have gathered from very reputable experts (myself) to support you in your holiday navigation. YOU ARE NOT ALONE FELLOW PEOPLE WHO HAVE FOOD RESTRICTIONS!
As an unmarried recent university graduate in my mid-20s (and someone who is a big ol’ sook for her mommy), I am not grown up enough to have a Christmas away from my parents yet. So, I still fly home to spend Christmas with my family and consider myself lucky to do so. I am also lucky that my family has been really accommodating to smooth my transition since being diagnosed with Celiac. My mother has worked so hard to make sure I didn’t feel like I was missing out – she now makes a totally gluten free Christmas, minus a few small things (dinner rolls, a couple traditional sweets for my siblings, things like that). The entire turkey dinner is gluten free, and it’s actually quite easy and difficult to distinguish from those gluteny turkeys of the days of yore. Stuffing can be made with gluten free bread, and while many people will say “GRAVY WITH CORN STARCH IS NOT THE SAME” … you are right. It isn’t. But gravy with gluten free all purpose flour is pretty damn close (we use Bob’s Red Mill. Bob didn’t even pay me to say that! I just love that guy. Thanks Bob.). My mother has figured out how to make gluten free versions of a variety of our traditional desserts (Gluten free bread in plum pudding! Gluten free pound cake in trifle! Gluten free brownie as a base for mint squares!), and our Christmas Eve hors d’oeuvres are all gluten free to prevent cross-contamination. When nearly everything is gluten free, it’s a lot easier to stop worrying and enjoy yourself. At home you have the ability to control that yourself.
This is one of those things that is daunting, but is almost inevitable over the holidays. There are ways of making it easier on yourself:
Talk to the host beforehand. Some people are really understanding and willing to essentially revolve the menu around gluten free. It’s always your call if you feel like you can trust them – and that’s ok. But talk it out. I have friends who will send me recipes beforehand, and discuss certain brands of products to make sure everything is safe (even texting me photos of canned goods while they are grocery shopping!). Don’t be afraid to be really clear about your needs – don’t be passive.
Always have a Plan B. Eat beforehand if it works – for example, a gathering that is less formal (such as a potluck or a cocktail party with hors d’oeuvres), it’s really easy eat beforehand and not feel too left out of the eating component of the evening. Sometimes seated dinners are a bit more awkward if you’re not eating. Sometimes people get really strange when they’re eating and you’re not eating, even if you are perfectly comfortable just being there to participate in conversation. Depends on your comfort level really), so bring your own meal. On Boxing Day we have a potluck style lunch with my extended family – I usually just bring a plate of my own leftovers, and then add on anything that I know is safe (for example, my Aunt’s father has celiac disease and their family also have a gluten free Christmas, making shared leftovers much easier). Then I can sit and enjoy spending time with my family without worrying.
You have to be proactive about your own needs and your own health – people mess up all the time even if they have the best intentions – you have to be able to stand up for yourself and your health and say no. It’s really hard when someone makes a huge effort for you and you can’t eat something because they made a mistake, but hopefully they will be understanding (they cared enough to make the effort, after all). It’s ok to say no – to turn down invitations, or to insist on bringing your own meal. Everyone with food restrictions knows how irritating it can be when someone with good intentions tries to force something on you when you truly aren’t comfortable, but try and be polite and firm and don’t let it get to you. You are the one who will suffer the consequences of a glutening. You are the one who gets to determine your trust level. Keep your allies close – if someone is pushy or offended, sometimes it helps to have back-ups (my dad is a physician so that helps if someone decides to question the existence of celiac disease, and my mom is awesome in communicating with relatives to ensure I don’t get contaminated).
Just because whoever cooked the food is really understanding of your needs and was careful about cross contamination, doesn’t mean that everyone helping themselves to the food will be. I typically just ask to serve myself first at buffet style gatherings. I find this less stressful than trying to police the table to ensure that gluten free foods remain gluten free. There is always someone who messes up the delegated serving spoon situation (which drives me nuts from a crazy organizational control freak perspective as much as it bothers me from a celiac perspective, but that’s a story for another day kids). Give yourself a major serving if you’re particularly worried about how this will affect your chances of getting seconds and then if can’t eat it, pawn it off on someone else. I find that my boyfriend and my dad are great disposals of unwanted food. But it’s Christmas so realistically to avoid food waste you’re probably just going to eat until you feel sick. This gluttony is a much more acceptable form of getting sick at Christmas than being glutened, in my humble opinion. I also don’t ever eat dips even if the host tells me it’s gluten free and they have gluten free crackers – if there are gluteny crackers anywhere at the party, someone is going to find them and dip it in your dip. It’s the rule. (To avoid this, at our house my family ensures that every chip/cracker is gluten free)
For those who may not have been diagnosed until later in life, this is definitely tough. People who don’t have food restrictions don’t always understand how important food is to culture, to lifestyle, to tradition. It can be really emotional to say goodbye to a food that has been important to your holiday traditions for as long as you can remember, and that’s ok. You’re allowed to feel sad about losing that, and don’t let people who don’t understand tell you otherwise.
That being said, don’t focus on what you can’t have – focus on what you CAN have. This is actually my best celiac related advice I could give at any time… when I go to a restaurant I’ve stopped focusing on whining about how I wish I could try this or that, and now I just get excited when I find something I can have. Positive attitude is the only way to get past this – find new recipes, make new traditions. Experiment to adapt the traditional foods you’re missing if you are so inclined, but I know that doesn’t work for everything. Christmas is never going to be the exact same as it was when you were a kid – focus on the other traditions you hold dear and try and let go and move forward.
Your diet is like a long term exclusive relationship – cheating is a bad idea. I NEVER cheat. Seriously, people ask me all the time if I ever just sneak a cookie. But even though I miss some things that just cannot be replaced by a gluten free version (unrelated to the holidays, but homemade pizza just isn’t the same as terrible/amazing greasy take out. STOP TELLING ME IT’S THE SAME BECAUSE IT ISN’T AND NEVER WILL BE), it’s not worth it. If you have celiac disease like me you will know that any exposure to gluten can damage your system, and therefore cheating is not a good precedent to set for your general long-term health and wellbeing. If you’ve made the commitment you have to stick with it. Plus, who wants to waste their Christmas being sick, all for a bite of your Aunt’s famous pie?
Don’t just assume alcohol is gluten free! It may not be. Check labels, google constantly. For example, I used to always love Baileys in my coffee at Christmas (aka the only time I ever drink coffee), but I honestly cannot find a straight answer for whether or not it’s gluten free, so I just avoid it. Personally, I just stick to ol’ faithful – white wine. The white wine is always flowing at our house at Christmas time, drink up. If I say I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, it has nothing to do with snow and everything to do with wine consumption.
And if you are someone who may be feeding one of us delightfully difficult dinner guests over this holiday season? Try and be kind and accommodating as much as you can, but it’s ok to be honest if you’re not comfortable serving someone with a food restriction – we are used to bringing our own food. Please, just don’t question us or be pushy if we have to say no to a food! It doesn’t mean we aren’t appreciative of your efforts.
It’s not going to be easy. You might get sick anyways!! (yay…) But hopefully you can minimize risk and be able to enjoy a stress free Christmas full of love and smiles and hugs and good happy stuff that people like.