Are you new to the gluten-free diet? If so, this beginner’s guide to being gluten-free is exactly what you need. Please note that this post contains affiliate links to products I talk about and recommend. All opinions are 100% my own.
Imagine that your favorite foods are suddenly off-limits.
You can no longer eat pizza, pasta and bread.
Going out to dinner at a restaurant feels like such a chore.
You feel lost and alone.
These are very real emotions when someone is diagnosed with celiac disease or when they realize they need to be gluten-free for other health reasons. They not only are dealing with this shocking diagnosis, but also they are dealing with the realization that they will never get to eat the same way again. We are emotionally attached to our food. These emotions are raw and very real.
I personally never realized how emotional I was about my celiac disease diagnosis until I took time to reflect on it.
Yep, it sucks.
I’m five years into this autoimmune disease and I am just starting to understand the reality of it… I will have to deal with being gluten-free for the rest of my life!I will have to deal with being gluten-free for the rest of my life! Click To Tweet
While getting told you have to be gluten-free for life is a blow for many people, going gluten-free is actually something you can now do with ease. OK, a little truth serum… it’s never easy being gluten-free. You will always have to ask questions, explain yourself, and research everything you eat. But after awhile, it gets easier. You’ll soon figure out what products and restaurants you like best, and you’ll learn to eat in a way that keeps you healthy and happy too.A little truth serum... it's never easy being gluten-free. Click To Tweet
I hope that this article – and this entire blog – will be a resource to you. Consider it your beginner’s guide to being gluten-free for life!
Just remember, going gluten-free is not an easy or instant process. That said, with these tips, I feel confident that you’ll be able to thrive on your new gluten-free diet in no time!
A Beginner’s Guide to Being Gluten-Free
Do a Pantry Sweep to Check for Gluten
As soon as you decide to go gluten-free, you’ll want to go through your pantry and sort everything in it in either a gluten-free pile and a not gluten-free pile. When your pantry is empty, clean it thoroughly to ensure all the gluten bits are gone. You can either discard the gluteny foods (if you live alone or plan to make your kitchen 100% gluten-free) or if you live with people who eat gluten, put the gluteny foods on the bottom shelves of the pantry and reserve the top shelves for gluten-free stuff only. The reason for the gluten-free products to be on the top shelves is if a box of gluteny cereal spills, it won’t spill on your gluten-free foods. Label the shelves in your pantry that are gluten-free so that roommates, babysitters and other guests know which stuff is yours and off limits. You don’t want someone eating a regular sandwich and then sticking their gluteny hands in your potato chip bag while they eat!
I highly recommend storing all gluten-free flours, grains and cereals in airtight containers, like these from OXO, which I love! This way your ingredients are protected from potential cross contamination and they stay fresh longer since you’ll be the only one eating them. Don’t leave gluten-free items open or at risk of getting glutened.
Check All Medications for Gluten
After you cleaned out your pantry, you’ll want to clean out the medicine cabinet next. Check all medications – including cold, allergy, birth control, thyroid medication, etc. for gluten. There is a lot of information – and misinformation – abound on the Internet, and manufacturers notoriously change their ingredient lists, so check labels for the most up-to-date disclosures and then email or call the manufacturer to inquire on items you’re unsure of.
A lot of times you’ll hear drug companies say something like, “We do not put gluten-containing ingredients in our products, but we cannot guarantee our products are gluten-free.” It’s frustrating, I know. I personally feel okay taking medications that do not contain gluten ingredients even if they’re not guaranteed gluten-free. I’ve learned over the years that manufacturers are always putting these disclosures on their products to cover their bases (more like CYA – cover your asses). The more we ask manufacturers to create products with our best interests in mind, the more likely they will be to create products that are safe for celiacs in the future.
Check Beauty Products, Especially Lip Care Products for Gluten
Gluten cannot be absorbed by the skin and harm your body (so it’s okay to touch gluten), but I do think you should be careful before slathering products containing gluten on your skin. Avoid putting lotions near your mouth or eyes and wash your hands after applying. Perhaps the one beauty product you need to be most aware of (besides toothpaste) is lip care products like lip balms and lipsticks. Your lip care products must be gluten-free.
Many lip balm manufacturers will tell you the same thing as drug manufacturers – that they don’t put gluten in their products but they cannot guarantee the product is gluten-free. Again, I am usually okay with this.
Even better is simply purchasing lipsticks and cosmetics from Red Apple Lipstick (all products are certified gluten-free and I love them soooo much!) as well as Gabriel Cosmetics. I use both brands and love them – read my Red Apple Lipstick review and my Gabriel Cosmetics review.
Learn Some Basic Gluten-Free Recipes
You have to eat – so it’s important to have a few basic meals and desserts you can make in a pinch. Please scroll through my gluten-free recipe archives and pick a few gluten-free meals you can easily make. I mostly use simple ingredients that you likely already have in your pantry.
Here are a few easy gluten-free dinner recipes to get you started:
- Gluten-Free BBQ Cola Chicken
- Gluten-Free Garlic Butter Baked Salmon
- Gluten-Free Slow Cooker Chicken Thigh Stew
- Gluten-Free Mini Turkey Meat Loaves
- Gluten-Free Chicken Lettuce Wraps
- Gluten-Free Asian Meatballs with Rice Ramen
- Gluten-Free Pasta Primavera (with chickpea pasta!)
- Teriyaki Tofu with Vegetable Fried Rice
Shop Naturally Gluten-Free
The supermarket is going to feel like a minefield. There are a million products that you used to eat that you don’t know if you can still eat. It’s okay. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to eat like you used to eat. Instead, shop the grocery store for things you know you can eat. I wrote about 10 foods you should be eating as a celiac in my post, 10 Naturally Gluten-Free Foods Every Celiac Should Be Eating. Shop for things like lean proteins, eggs, fresh vegetables and fruits, seeds and nuts, whole grains that are gluten-free (brown rice, quinoa, etc.) and a bar of dark chocolate (for dessert, of course!). Go for the foods you know are naturally gluten-free before diving into the packaged foods arena.
After you’ve completed your first grocery trip as a gluten-free shopper, you can begin to add things to your list that you’d like to have be gluten-free. For example, let’s say you’re ready to purchase some gluten-free crackers or gluten-free bread. Before you go to the grocery store, do a little research online to find out what brands exist and read reviews too. Not all gluten-free products taste good nor are good for you.Not all gluten-free products taste good nor are good for you.Click To Tweet
I personally have a list of my favorite gluten-free foods – ones that I’ve tried and that I recommend. Check out my Recommended Gluten-Free Products page for a list. I also recommend signing up for Urthbox, a gluten-free subscription box service. Urthbox will send you sample-sized gluten-free products to try every month. It’s a fun and inexpensive way to trial a new products to see what you do and don’t like. I’ve discovered many fun gluten-free products this way. If you use my link, you’ll get $10 off your subscription.
Also, when shopping for groceries, look for the certified gluten-free label on packaged foods (the GF with a circle around it). This will alert you that the product has been third-party tested to be gluten-free at less than 10 parts per million gluten (ppm). I talk more about GF certifications and labels next. You can find more certified gluten-free foods at stores like Sprouts Farmers Market, Natural Grocers, Whole Foods and other healthy-living and natural foods grocery stores.
(Tip! Download grocery store apps and search for coupons and deals – Sprouts offers great coupons on its app.)
Become an Avid Label Reader
You must always read food labels before you eat anything. Yes, everything. Don’t be so quick to eat those dinner mints or accept a piece of gum from a friend without reading the label first. This exercise will really make you think about how mindlessly you used to eat – mindfulness is key!
Obviously anything with wheat, barley and rye on the ingredient list is off-limits. However, gluten goes by many names and is found in many ingredients and products. Download my free guide, 100 Alternative Names for Gluten, to decode where gluten is lurking. Remember, judging a product by looks is deceiving. For example, the first ingredient is licorice is “wheat flour.” Many dressings, gravies and imitation products have gluten in them. One of my most read articles is this one titled, 10 Surprise Products that Contain Gluten. I have a feeling you’ll be surprised to find out that many foods that don’t look gluteny actually have gluten in them!I have a feeling you'll be surprised to find out that many foods that don't look gluteny actually have gluten in themClick To Tweet
On the topic of label reading, make sure you understand what products labeled “gluten-free” really mean. If it’s certified gluten-free, and you see the GF with the circle around it, it means it has been certified as gluten-free by a third-party organization and contains less than 10 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, better than the FDA standards (which is 20 ppm). If it just says “gluten-free” without certification (like you see on boxes of Cheerios), it means the company has self determined that it meets FDA guidelines and contains less than 20 ppm of gluten. You can read more about what gluten-free labels really mean in my article titled, Deciphering Gluten-Free Certifications and Seals.
Set Up Your Kitchen to Be Gluten Conscious
You cannot eat gluten – not even a crumb – as someone with celiac disease. Yet, there are gluten crumbs lurking everywhere in your kitchen. Just peek inside your toaster and you’ll easily see gluten crumbs. Examine your colander and you’ll find leftover gluten bits. As a celiac, cross contamination is a real problem. If something touches gluten and then touches your food, the food is gluten contaminated.
I recommend purchasing some new kitchen tools and making them dedicated gluten-free tools – like a new toaster, new colander, new electric mixer and even a new cutting board. You can color code these items so everyone in your kitchen knows that red items, for example, are gluten-free and off-limits to anyone cooking with gluten.
I have discussed how to setup your GF kitchen in length in this article titled, What You Need to Set Up Your Gluten-Free Kitchen. I know this article will help you immensely in transitioning your kitchen into a safe GF workspace.
I also recommend getting your own tub of butter, peanut butter, jelly and any other items that regularly touch bread and then are put back in the jar. Label your stuff clearly so no one touches it!
Avoid Cross Contamination With Gluten When Eating Out
Eating out is one of the most difficult things you’ll do as a celiac sufferer. Many servers, chefs and restauranteurs do not understand that even a little gluten touching your food compromises your entire meal. Great care must be taken in preparing your food – including the use of separate pots, utensils, cooking oils and clean hands/gloves. The only truly safe place to eat is at home when you control the ingredients. However, we all know that eating out makes us feel normal and brings us closer to your friends and loved ones.
When eating out with friends and loved ones, you should ask to pick the restaurant. You’ll find that your friends will want to go where they know you can eat, so chances are you’ll never have to ask to pick the restaurant, instead they will ask you to pick the restaurant! Don’t see this as a chore; rather embrace it as an opportunity to research new restaurants to try as well as pick those steady restaurants you know will always deliver you a safe GF meal. I’ve written at length about eating out and would like to point you to some excellent information on this topic.
First, I’ve compiled a list of gluten-free safe restaurants that I personally have eaten at and feel comfortable going back to. Many of the restaurants are in Denver, but I also have a list of chain restaurants that you can find across the country that will provide you with a safe GF meal. California Pizza Kitchen and Pizza Hut are some of the few chain restaurants I know of with a third party gluten-free certifications. I also have a list of fast casual and fast food restaurants that I’ve tried and know will provide you with a gluten-free meal.
Second, I want you to make sure you know about cross contamination. For example, a french fry is made of potato and oil – and it is seemingly gluten-free. But at closer look, most restaurants cook those fries in a deep fryer shared with things like corn dogs and chicken nuggets, which are not gluten-free. Ask restaurants if they have a “dedicated gluten-free fryer” and let them know that if they use the same oil for gluteny products as they do for gluten-free products, then it’s not truly gluten-free. Read my article titled, Gluten Cross Contamination and the Deep Fryer: A Celiac’s Nemesis, to understand how the deep fryer compromises your meal. Remember, just because a restaurant lists something as “gluten-free” on its menu doesn’t mean it’s safe for you. One of my favorite chinese restaurants in Denver marks a lot of items as gluten-free, but upon further investigation, the products are deep-fried in a shared fryer.
Third, I want to point you to my article titled, How You Got Glutened Eating Out and How to Prevent It Next Time. This article offers tips to eating out like a gluten-free pro. When eating out, you must choose wisely – only restaurants that you know will provide you with a safe GF meal. Call ahead and ask questions. It is also important to use strong language with your server to convey that eating gluten will make you sick and that they should take all precautions (with understanding that this is not a dedicated GF restaurant). I also talk about strategies for dealing with alcoholic beverages when eating out and why you should use a straw (trust me on this one!).
Fourth, I want you to eat out with confidence and know that you’re NOT a bother to restaurants. If a restaurant wants to make it in this competitive world, they must be willing to accommodate special diets. They must realize that the person with the special dietary requests is the one calling the shots. For example, in my world, I am the one deciding where my family and dinner parties eat. I wrote this earnest article titled, 5 Ways Restaurants Can Better Serve Gluten-Free Diets. This article should be required reading for every restaurant owner and manager.
Fifth and last, if you have celiac disease, I highly recommend you avoid buffets or use much discretion when eating at them. Buffets are notoriously known for cross contamination. Even if something is labeled gluten-free on a buffet doesn’t mean it’s actually gluten-free. Just watch people at buffets. Utensils are shared. Food is dripped everywhere. So, if you must eat at a buffet, ask the servers if you can take from food that is untouched or if they can make you a special meal. In Las Vegas, the buffet at the Wynn hotel is the best and I’m happy to go there (which makes my friends happy as they want to eat at buffets!). I am okay going to the Wynn (and I go back every time I’m in Vegas) because I did a little research ahead of time and knew they would take care of me. The servers at the Wynn hotel will make you gluten-free pancakes, waffles, pizza, muffins, and seriously anything you want! Plus, you might be comfortable eating a lot of the Wynn’s buffet items because they thoughtfully display items to avoid cross contamination.
Why Some Oats Aren’t Gluten-Free
Nothing will be more confusing to you as a newly diagnosed celiac than oats. So here’s the scoop – oats are naturally gluten-free, however, the way they are grown and stored allows them to be cross contaminated with wheat. Many wheat crops are grown in rotation with oats – thus contaminating the oat crop with wheat. The farmers will then use the same equipment to harvest, store and process their oats as they use to process their wheat, again, creating another ripe opportunity for cross contamination.
So if you want to eat oats, and you should as they are an excellent source of soluble fiber, purchase gluten-free oats. Gluten-free oats will have less than 20 ppm of gluten in them (the legal limit) and are safe. You can read more about whether or not oats are truly gluten-free in my article titled, Are Oats Gluten-Free? What About Oatmeal?
Coach Your Friends on Your Gluten-Free Diet
When you go gluten-free, chances are some of your friends will want to host you for a meal. Some will know about your diet, others will not. For those that don’t know about your special diet needs, it’s essential that you tell them. If you don’t disclose it, your friend will go through a lot of trouble to make a meal for you and you won’t touch it. How insulting! I know when I host people at my house, I want them to eat what I make and enjoy it. I put in a lot of hard work preparing meals for guests and I get great pleasure when I know they enjoyed my meal. So, bottom line, always disclose your dietary needs to your host.
That said, you should offer to bring your own meal and/or a dish you can share with everyone. If your friend insists on making a meal that is gluten-free, ask if she’d be willing to go through the menu with you and if she’d be open to hearing a few tips to ensure she makes a safe meal for you. Chances are your friend will welcome this opportunity to prepare a meal for someone as special as you – and it’s a great learning opportunity for her too!
For the friends who already know you’re gluten-free and want to host you anyway are GREAT friends. Hang on to them for good! However, those friends can make mistakes too. Before you go to your friend’s house, you’ll want to ask to discuss the menu with her. Then, when you get there, ask questions about how the meal was prepared. I once went to someone’s house who bought a gluten-free bread mix to make for me. She said she followed all the instructions, and the instructions said to add extra flour for high altitude baking. Guess what? She added regular flour to the gluten-free flour mix! It didn’t even cross her mind that it was no longer gluten-free. Ug!
Your friends will not understand things like cross contamination… but I know good friends are willing to discuss these things with you and learn how to cook a meal that is safe for you. I wrote about this topic in detail in this article titled, How to Host Your Gluten-Free Friend for Dinner. You can share this article with your friend as it’s filled with great tips to ensuring a safe gluten-free meal for you!
Handling Special Occasions When You’re Gluten-Free
Special occasions, like weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, can be difficult when you’re gluten-free. As a general rule of thumb, I usually eat before I go to these events (and bring some food with me) rather than bother the busy host family with my special diet requests. Occasionally I’ll get an invite that allows me to put my special meal request on the reply form, and when that happens, I do request a gluten-free meal.
However, if I got to a luncheon or conference that I have to pay for, you bet I’m going to ask for a gluten-free meal. Business networking lunches, lunches at conferences, etc. – I always ask for a gluten-free meal. I’m paying a lot of money to be there and either want a safe GF meal or I don’t want to pay for my lunch as I’ll have to purchase my meal elsewhere.
I share my strategies, tips and gaffes in this article, How to Navigate Special Events When You’re Gluten-Free.
Traveling When Gluten-Free
When traveling, it’s always important to do as much research as possible so you’re prepared for meals. Personally, whenever possible, I stay in a hotel that has a fridge, microwave and stove top. I prefer to stay in vacation rentals (search VRBO or AirBnb to find a good rental home) or hotel suites that have a kitchenette. Then, when I arrive at my destination, I can shop for food and eat many meals in – particularly breakfast and lunches. I even cook easy dinners when we travel and as the schedule permits. It’s easy to make tacos or stir-fry in a pan. I often bring my own pan and spatula with me too – call me crazy – but I feel safer that way.
Last year, I went on my first cruise as a gluten-free girl. When cruising, you are dependent on the ship for all your meals. You are captive. While I had packed a few snacks, a person cannot live on bars for seven days at sea. The travel agent told me I would be fine – not to worry. She said cruise ships know how to handle special diets and I just needed to alert my waiter when I got there. But it wasn’t that easy.
After having to explain myself over and over again, I finally broke down in tears. The staff went berserk when they saw that and totally went above and beyond to cater to me after my meltdown. I write about what happened and strategies for cruising on a gluten-free diet in my article titled, Your Ultimate Gluten Free Cruise Guide. I have received a lot of good feedback on this article and know it has helped a lot of gluten-free people to survive on cruise ships.
Kissing, Sharing Beverages and Other Social Taboos that Affect Gluten-Free Folk
I don’t mean to be a buzz kill, but if you’re gluten-free, and your boyfriend or husband eats gluten or drinks a beer and then goes in for a kiss, you need to find a way to politely say, “No thank you.” Yep, you can totally get glutened from a kiss. The same goes for sharing beverages with someone eating gluten. And hopefully by now you wouldn’t dare share lipsticks or lip balms with anyone!
Being gluten-free is a life-changing diet. It’s not easy. At times you’ll want to throw in the towel and give up. I implore you to stick with it though. Know that your celiac disease diagnosis was truly one of the best things that happened to you. You have a gift – a means to control your disease and the knowledge of how you can live a healthy, happy life.
If you liked what you read in this article and found it useful, would you do me a favor? Please leave a comment to share something new you learned from reading this.
If you would like some help transitioning to a gluten-free diet or getting healthy, I would love to help you. I offer one-on-one gluten-free counseling and healthy living coaching, as well as gluten-free cooking classes in Denver.
Also, please don’t keep this information a secret. Please share it on social media. Thank you!