19 Nov 2014

Written by Jane Trygar

Despite being diagnosed with celiac disease for over 10 years, certain family members still feel the need to be vocal about their disdain for my gluten-free lifestyle. Most of my family is pretty supportive. Some of my family members have celiac disease and other dietary issues, and we do a pretty good job taking care of each other. Still, if I dare say anything about my diagnosis, a new recipe, or even the family business, I run the risk of hearing, “There she goes again preachin’ the celiac!”

But you can’t blame them for not fully comprehending something as misunderstood and misdiagnosed as celiac disease.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Not judging the ignorance of others does not mean caving and politely “taking the bread crumbs off” when your Auntie insists on serving you a helping of homemade mac’n’cheese. It doesn’t mean compromising your health in the name of ‘going with the flow’.

I repeat, don’t risk your health in the name of ‘being polite’ or ‘keeping the peace’. Momentary awkwardness is a small price to pay to keep yourself out of the bathroom for the rest of the evening.

Here are some ways I’ve learned to stay safe and play it cool at family gatherings. May this gluten-free guide to family gatherings help you deal with the well-meaning clueless, the ones in the know,  those who won’t give you a break and everyone in between.

Talk to your host or hostess ahead of time. Take some time to educate the family member hosting the get together about celiac disease, and the dangers faced by cross-contamination. Offer to come early and help prepare the meal if necessary (but be sure to bring your own utensils, bowls and pans).

Make sure people understand the consequences. If anyone tries to tell you “a little bit won’t kill you” or “just take a little bite”, let them know the severity of your symptoms. The threat of sending a loved one doubled-over to the restroom with painful cramping, gas, or worse will stop them from pressuring you further.

Bring your best recipes. The key to staying sane and not ‘cheating’ when you’re surrounded by homemade comfort food is bringing gluten-free recipes you love. Now is not the time to hastily try something new. You want tried and true, mouth watering, wake up craving it gluten-free favorites. When people see you chomping down on your gluten-free goodies with a huge smile on your face, they’ll be more likely to leave you to it. If you’re moping in the corner nibbling a carrot stick, they may choose to tease or offer you gluten-y alternatives to ‘cheer you up’.

Grab your food first. If you choose to lay your gluten-free food out as part of a spread, be sure to grab your plate (with an extra helping for seconds!) before anyone else does. This will help prevent cross-contamination from unknowing gluten-eating double-dippers.

Rehearse your answers. Go over what you’re going to say if someone starts giving you grief because you won’t eat the food they brought.

Band together. If you have other relatives with celiac disease (and you very well may, considering the disease is genetic), support one another. You can cook dishes to bring together, and help each other laugh it off when your curmudgeonly uncle makes a snide comment.

Don’t take it personally. I’d say there’s a good to excellent chance that your family members love you very much. Their issue with your diet likely stems from two things that have absolutely nothing to do with you: fear of change and fear of the unknown. To some, it’s uncomfortable being confronted with celiac disease and not knowing what it is. Others may not be sure how the disease will change you, and that makes them anxious. Know this, and don’t take their comments personally.

We’d love to hear your stories of the first family gathering you spent gluten-free. Was it a nightmare or an absolute delight? What have you learned from your experience that could help others?

(P.S. For suggestions for others in the gluten-free blogosphere, check out this post on Gluten-Free Easily: They Just Don’t Understand Part II – Strategies for Dealing with Gluten-Full Friends and Family.)

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