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 seven 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!
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 does 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.
I hope that this beginner’s guide to being gluten-free – and the Good For You Gluten Free blog – will be a resource to you throughout your gluten-free journey. Consider it your beginner’s guide to being gluten-free for life whether you have celiac disease, a gluten sensitivity or just want to be gluten-free to feel better.
Just remember, going gluten-free is not an easy or instant process. With these tips, I feel confident that you’ll be able to thrive on your new gluten-free diet in no time!
15 Tips to Help You Get Started on the Gluten-Free Diet for Beginners
(1) Clean the Pantry
As soon as you decide to go gluten-free, you’ll want to go through your pantry and sort everything in either a gluten-free pile and a not gluten-free pile. Donate anything that isn’t gluten-free (no need to keep it in your house).
If you live with gluten-eaters, you can place all foods containing gluten on the bottom shelves, and reserve the top shelves for the gluten-free foods. It’s important to put all gluten-free items on the top shelves so if anything spills, nothing contaminates your gluten-free foods.
Label the shelves (and foods) in your pantry that are gluten-free so your family, roommates, babysitters and other guests know which stuff is yours and therefore off limits to them. You don’t want someone sticking their gluteny hands in your gluten-free potato chip bag, nor do you want them snacking on your expensive gluten-free cookies.
Also, don’t forget to clean your pantry when it’s empty to ensure all the gluten bits are gone.
(2) Organize Gluten-Free Flours and Baking Supplies
Chances are you’ll want to keep several gluten-free flours on hand, so it’s important to store them right so they last longer. Unfortunately gluten-free flours cost more than regular wheat flour, so you want to preserve their health as long as possible.
I highly recommend storing all gluten-free flours, grains and cereals in airtight containers, like these from OXO, which I love!
This will not only keep your gluten-free flours fresh longer, but also will protect them from cross contamination as they will be in sealed containers.
It’s also worth noting that you want to keep separate baking ingredients, including a dedicated gluten-free sugar, baking soda container, cocoa powder, etc. Think about when you bake how you often dip the measuring cup into the flour, then into the sugar. That sugar is then contaminated. Keep all your baking supplies in your own containers clearly marked as “gluten-free” and “off-limits.”
Read more about how to set up your gluten-free kitchen.
(3) Check All Medications for Gluten
After you cleaned out your pantry, you’ll want to clean out the medicine cabinet. 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 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 in case they are ever sued.
That said, the more our community asks 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.
(4) 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 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.
The one beauty product you need to be most aware of for gluten (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 but not all people are, so it’s important to make these decisions based on your individual needs.
However, 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. I wrote this wonderful article about treating dry lips that I think you’ll love too.
(5) Get Cookin’
You have to eat – so it’s important to have a few basic meals and desserts you can make in a pinch.
I encourage you to scroll through my gluten-free recipe gallery and pick a few gluten-free meals you can easily make. I mostly use simple ingredients that you likely already have in your pantry.
(6) Master the Grocery Store
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. You will learn, slowly but surely.
Remember, if you are gluten-free, there are plenty of naturally gluten-free foods you can enjoy. Shop for things like lean proteins, eggs, fresh vegetables and fruits, seeds and nuts, whole grains that are gluten-free (brown rice, quinoa, gluten-free oats, etc.) and a bar of dark chocolate (for dessert, of course!). Buy foods you know are naturally gluten-free before diving into the packaged foods arena. (Avoid bulk bins, however, due to cross contamination.)
As you ease into things, you can begin to add some packaged foods to your grocery list. Do a little research to find some brands you might like to try. Here are some examples:
- Gluten-Free Bread – try Canyon Bakehouse, Schar or Three Baker’s Bread
- Gluten-Free Breadcrumbs – try Aleia’s Gluten-Free or Ian’s Gluten-Free
- Gluten-Free Cereal – try Love Grown Foods
- Gluten-Free Pasta – try Tinkyada brown rice pasta
- Gluten-Free Flour – try Bob’s Red Mill 1-to-1 Gluten-Free Flour Blend
You can see some of the many gluten-free products I’ve tried and now recommend on my Recommended Gluten-Free Products page.
There is often a lot of trial and error to finding foods you like. Not all gluten-free products taste good nor are good for you. Always remember that just because something is gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthy!
I also recommend signing up for a three-month Urthbox gluten-free subscription box. 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 gluten-free certifications and labels in the next tip.
Also, I would say that so many grocery stores carry tons of gluten-free products these days. I find myself shopping at Costco, Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, Whole Foods, Safeway, Walmart, King Soopers and Natural Grocers all the time! (Tip! Download grocery store apps and search for coupons and deals.)
(7) Become an Avid Label Reader
When you’re gluten-free, you must master read food label reading. 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. I encourage you to download my free guide, 100 Alternative Names for Gluten, to decode where hidden gluten may be lurking.
Remember, you can never judge a product by its looks. Looks are deceiving and this is one of the biggest mistakes gluten-free people make to sabotage their gluten-free diet. For example, did you know that the first ingredient is licorice is “wheat flour?” It doesn’t look like gluten, but I assure you it’s almost entirely made of wheat flour.
Many dressings, gravies and imitation seafood products have gluten in them. One of my most read articles on my blog is 10 Surprise Products that Contain Gluten. I have a feeling you’ll be surprised to find out that many foods that don’t look like they contain gluten actually have gluten in them!
On the topic of label reading, make sure you understand what products labeled “gluten-free” really mean. This is tricky. Let’s discuss:
(a) Labeled “Gluten-Free”: If a product is labeled gluten-free (but not certified GF), it means the product must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. This means the product may indeed contain some gluten, but it is a small amount.
The FDA set these limits in part due to testing limitations, and in part based on research of how much gluten a celiac can have without causing an autoimmune reaction. The 20 ppm is widely debated in gluten-free circles. I believe the standard for gluten-free labeling should be zero ppm, as so many celiacs do not ever heal. I talk about this in detail in my article, 13 Things You Need to Know About the Nima Sensor. (The Nima Sensor can detect less than 20 ppm and that is why it is controversial in some circles.)
(b) Certified Gluten-Free: If a product is certified gluten-free, and you see the black GF with the circle around it, it means it has been certified as gluten-free by the Gluten Intolerance Group, a third-party organization. The GIG certifies that the product contains less than 10 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, which is better than the FDA standards (which is 20 ppm).
There are many companies that make their own gluten-free logos that look like official seals, but alas they are not. For example Bob’s Red Mill products are not certified gluten-free (although they have amazing processes in place to keep their gluten-free products safe so I trust them), and Cheerio’s is not certified gluten-free (and many people in the celiac community do not trust them because of their mass recall several years ago).
You can read more about what gluten-free labels really mean in my article titled, Deciphering Gluten-Free Certifications and Seals. I also encourage you to read my article, What Does “May Contain Wheat” Mean?
(8) How to Set Up Your Kitchen
You cannot eat gluten – not even a crumb – if you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. 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. Look at the top of your mixer – yep, you see all that old wheat flour stuck up in the crevices?
If something touches gluten and then touches your food, the food is no longer considered gluten-free. Period.
If you’re new to being gluten-free, I highly recommend purchasing a few new kitchen tools and making them dedicated gluten-free tools too. This includes purchasing a new dedicated gluten-free toaster, a new colander, a new electric mixer and even a new cutting board.
You can label or 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, mayo and any other items that regularly touch bread and then are put back in the jar. Label all food items clearly so no one uses them by mistake.
(9) Eating Out Gluten-Free
Eating out is the number one challenge faced by people with celiac disease and gluten disorders. It’s the biggest complaint I get from my gluten-free community, and that is why it’s the top topic I focus on when writing content.
Many servers, chefs and restaurateurs do not understand that even a little gluten touching your food compromises your entire meal. You CANNOT depend on waitstaff to get it right. No one knows gluten-free like you know gluten-free. Period.
Remember, 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.
I hope to help the gluten-free community eat out more safely and have a slew of resources readily available:
(a) I hope you’ll read my ebook, Eating Out Gluten-Free: The Ultimate Guide to Gluten-Free Safe Dining in Restaurants and On-the-Go. This ebook includes everything I know about eating out safely while on a gluten-free diet. It’s required reading if you ask me!
(b) 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.
I’ve also tested 20+ restaurants with my Nima Sensor – you can see the full report in this post, How Did 20 Restaurants Fare Against the Nima Sensor? The Nima Sensor has been a lifesaver to me as someone who loves to eat out. I hope you’ll take a moment to read my article, 13 Things You Need to Know About the Nima Sensor.
I also want to take a moment to help you understand that it’s important that you speak up and advocate for yourself when eating out.
Don’t be scared to pick the restaurant or speak up when your friends pick a restaurant you can’t eat at. No one wants to eat while you stare at them. Eating is more fun when you have friends to share with, so speak up and tell you friends how much you love eating out with them, but would they mind eating at such-and-such restaurant instead?
Embrace being gluten-free as an opportunity to research new restaurants. I have tried many new restaurants just because I know I can get safe meal there. In fact, when I went to London, I had so much fun exploring the GF scene there and finding my tribe. If you take the time to look, you’ll find it!
When ordering at restaurants, look for things that are as naturally gluten-free as possible. Salads, grilled proteins, and omelets are usually safe bets (always ask to be sure!).
Avoid things cooked in a deep fryer like French fries and chicken nuggets (unless the restaurant has a dedicated GF fryer). Also, avoid anything toasted (unless they have a dedicated toaster) and cooked in a waffle iron (unless they have a dedicated waffle iron).
Cross contamination is a big issue when eating out safely, and something you must always be weary of. Anything cooked on the same surface as something with gluten in it is not okay for you. They must use clean oil in their woks, clean water when cooking pasta, and clean muffin tins when cooking GF muffins.
You may also want to avoid buffets or use much discretion when eating at them. Buffets are notoriously known for cross contamination. I’ve witnessed on many occasions people using utensils to grab multiple items. If you find yourself at a buffet, do yourself a favor and have a discussion with the manager. He or she might be able to prepare you a safe dish in the back, or help you better navigate the buffet as a last resort.
I have had to navigate a buffet a few times in my life. I don’t enjoy it, but I can do it. I always take food from the back of a platter (which is untouched) and try to stay away from anything that is near gluten to give myself the best chance of having an uncontaminated meal. For example, I won’t take turkey if the stuffing is right next door – it’s just too close – or if the gravy is behind the turkey dripping on it as people ladle it on their plates.
(10) Understanding Oats
Nothing will be more confusing to you as a newly diagnosed celiac than oats. There are some people who go crazy when it comes to oats and whether or not you should eat them.
Let me fill you in on why oats are a hotly debated item in celiac circles.
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 on fields in rotation with oats – thus contaminating the oat crop with wheat remnants. These farmers will often 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, ONLY purchase certified gluten-free oats or oats (I also eat Bob’s Red Mill GF Oats even though they are not technically certified GF).
Here’s where more of the debate comes in: Many oats are grown in rotation with wheat, but then are optically sorted to remove the wheat. There is a TON of debate on whether these oats are actually safe for people with celiac disease. I encourage you to read my article, Are Oats Gluten-Free?, and then make decisions about what’s best for you based on that.
Regardless of how you approach oats, be sure to only consume gluten-free oats. Many restaurants will say their oatmeal is gluten-free (because it’s naturally GF)- but it’s up to you to actually check on what oats they’re using. Non GF oats are notoriously filled with bits of gluten, so don’t be fooled!
(11) Getting Social
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, don’t be a martyr… always disclose your dietary needs to your host.
When you speak with your friend, offer to bring your own meal if she does not feel comfortable cooking for you. Tell her you just want to be with her.
Chances are she will insist on making a gluten-free meal for everyone. If this happens, ask if you can discuss the menu, offer recipe ideas or if she needs a few ingredients (i.e., she doesn’t have to buy a package of GF flour, you can simply give her a cup of yours).
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 now no longer gluten-free. Ug!
Your friends will not understand things like cross contamination… but I know good friends are willing to 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.
(12) Special Occasions
Special occasions, like weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, can be difficult when you’re gluten-free.
If someone invited me to such a wonderful event, they are obviously in my close circle of friends. I usually ask my friend if it’s possible if their caterer can make me a gluten-free meal and if so, can I call him/her? If it turns out that the caterer is not able to accommodate me, I tell her it’s no big deal and that I’ll bring my own food… but she should not include me in her headcount. There is no need for her to pay for my meal if I can’t eat.
I have found approaching it this way very worthwhile. My friend, of course, wants me to eat. And the caterer, of course, wants to make as much money as possible. I almost always get a gluten-free meal.
The key is to approach your friend as soon as you get the invitation, this way she has plenty of time to communicate with her caterer. Never show up to a wedding and spring your special request on a caterer. Preparation is key!
If I go to a luncheon or conference that I have to pay for, you bet I’m going to ask for a gluten-free meal too. Again, I ask the organizers well in advance of the event if they can accommodate my request. If they can, great, if not, I ask for my money back. No need to pay a caterer for a meal and still have to bring my own food. That’s unfair! Again, I have found that almost always the caterer is happy to make me a meal and take my money!
I share my strategies, tips and gaffes in this article, How to Navigate Special Events When You’re Gluten-Free.
(13) 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 also prefer to stay in vacation rentals (search VRBO to find a good rental home) or hotel suites that have a kitchenette.
When I arrive at my destination, I 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.
(a) Cruising: If you plan on traveling by cruise ship, don’t miss my article, 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. I went from tears to very happy once I learned how to navigate meals properly.
(b) Flying: If you’re traveling internationally, you can request a gluten-free (or gluten-friendly) meal from the airline. You must do it well ahead of time (not when you get on the flight). Call the airline and make sure they note it on your flight information. I have received many GF meals on international flights.
(c) Visiting: I love trying new foods. I find myself quite nervous about eating in new places, but have also had a lot of fun seeking out safe restaurants around the world. So far, I have enjoyed amazing gluten-free food in London and Amsterdam, and despite a few troubles, even found a few great places in Paris. I have found gluten-free food in New York, Tel Aviv, Chicago, Denver, etc.
A great way to find places to eat in just about any city in the world is via Google and the Find Me Gluten-Free App. I also have found social media an amazing way to connect you with people around the world. Just post that you’re going to Chicago and are looking for some safe gluten-free restaurants to try, and I promise you will get a ton of ideas.
If you plan to travel, I highly recommend packing as many non-perishable snacks as you can. Read my comprehensive list of gluten-free snack ideas for ideas on what to pack. Also, Wild Zora makes these awesome freeze-dried to-go meals. I bring these with me for a warm meal in a pinch, and they make the perfect ski-day lunch too.
(15) Kissing, Sharing Beverages and Other Social Taboos
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. If they want a sip of your tea, you have to kindly say, “No, I can’t share because I’m gluten-free and you ate gluten.”
And hopefully by now you wouldn’t dare share lipsticks or lip balms with anyone. It’s not a good idea to do it anyway, but now you have a full-blown excuse to keep your lip products for your lips only.
You Got This
Remember, 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/is 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 a two hour power coaching session for anyone dealing with gluten disorders and who wants to feel better and accelerate healing in their lives.