So many times I run into folks who have just been diagnosed with celiac's or have a loved one who they care for that now requires gluten free food and the reaction is always the same: What in the name of Hostess can I eat? It can be so frustrating and really overwhelming to think of re-training not only your brain but your taste buds to the new foods that you now must eat for safety's sake. However, mental attitudes are key in dealing with a chronic condition, so the first thing to do is take a deep breath, settle down, and realize it's not the end of the world. In fact, it may be the best thing that ever happened to you. So, on that note, here's a checklist of what you can do in the first few days after your visit to the Gastroenterologist's office to ease into your new lifestyle:
*First, commit to eating gluten free, every meal, every day. Never, ever consciously cheat on your body and eat wheat products because you are craving them. In about six weeks those cravings will go away and you'll forget all about the foods that are toxic to your body. There will be times when you will accidentally get some wheat and you'll be able to feel it, and that's okay because it's an accident. But if you are constantly cheating and eating foods that you know are harming you, you'll keep on craving them and never be able to fully heal or fully embrace a gluten free diet.
*Stop at the grocery store and pick up some fresh fruits and vegetables to snack on. Grab some Fudge Graham Zone bars, find a box of Fruity Pebbles or Chex, pick up a package of your favorite fresh protein to grill up (steak, chicken, turkey, fish or pork, whatever is your most favorite), a bag of potatoes, some eggs, good cheese, white or brown rice, some Fritos and some greek yogurt and remind yourself that there are plenty of calories in the world for you to survive on. It makes a big difference knowing there's something in the pantry to eat while you're figuring out your options. This is your 72-hour-survival kit, so to speak. It'll get you through the next step: the great pantry clean-out.
*The next step is two-fold and you can practice one while you do the other: Learn to read labels while you clean out your pantry. This is such an important skill. You have to read every. single. label. And you have to read it almost every time you shop, because manufacturers can change their ingredients at any time. For example, I was eating Corn Pops for about a year on my gluten free diet, thinking I was outsmarting the world by eating cereal from Wal Mart. I am in the habit of just skimming the labels before I put stuff in my basket. The last time I bought Corn Pops I noticed that they had added wheat starch to the ingredients. Lucky for me I didn't eat those again and get sick, because I just check the labels. If you are the only one eating gluten free, or you have only one child that will be eating gluten free and the rest of the family will still eat wheat products, create a shelf for your special gluten free foods that is dedicated to only safe, gluten free snacks and ingredients that other people won't just eat because it's there. This is the place to stash the gluten free cookies you like, the soups and marinades you use, crackers and pastas. If the whole family will be switching to gluten free eating, then your job will be bigger but you won't have to worry so much about what goes where. Lots of foods don't say gluten free on the packaging, but are gluten free anyway. You will get to know what ingredients to look for on labels that mean wheat is involved, but until you learn it by heart, print out a copy of this list and keep it on the inside of the door of your pantry or in your purse to check while you're out shopping.
*Go online and check out celiac.com and the Gluten Free Mall to see what information is available on celiac's disease and learn what products are out there, so you can look for them at your grocery store to try to save some money on shipping. Some of you may live nearby a health food store or a natural food store, or even have a local grocery store that will carry the gluten free products you like as well. But if you happen to live in a small town or can't get out and about to shop, learn to use the online sites as much as you can. I suggest buying one of an item to try and see if you like it before you purchase several packages. I have been stuck with fourteen boxes of Blueberry Buckwheat Muffin Mix and not been happy about it. Also search for sites that interest you, like gluten free recipes, where to eat gluten free fast food, or gluten free support groups, and add them to your favorites list so you can check them when you are feeling discouraged or in a slump with this whole eating gluten free lifestyle.
*Become aware of contamination. Wipe down your stand mixer to rid it of wheat contaminants that may be flying around, and do it after every time you use it with wheat flour. Most of us can't afford to have two stand mixers for two kinds of baking, so just be vigilant about cleaning it when you do use wheat flour in it. Don't forget to wash the bread knife after you slice the french bread with it, in case you use it for gluten free bread after. It's a good idea to use a separate cutting board if you can. Also, purchase a cheap toaster that you can dedicate to gluten free breads. After all the time and effort that goes into making or finding the bread you like to eat, don't contaminate it with crumbs from the toaster. Get in the habit of making gluten free pancakes or french toast on the griddle first before you add the wheat ones. Or use a separate, small pan-sized griddle on your stove top for gluten free items and the larger griddle for everyone else. Use separate spatulas for pancakes and separate spoons and colanders for pastas. Wash everything after you use it. (It seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised.) Think before you touch the food.
*Gear up for the grocery store. In another post I'll show you a grocery shopping list of my favorite products you can find in almost any store. Plan on this trip taking at least two hours. You are going to be reading a lot of labels and thinking a lot about meals and how to put them together. Don't go when you're in a hurry and don't go on an empty stomach. You will be amazed at how many things you will have to put back on the shelf this trip, and you'll get discouraged if you're hungry. Browse through the food categories on Off the Wheaten Path and see what recipes you want to try that week, and then make a list of ingredients you'll need. Plan on using more fruits and vegetables, potatoes, rice, and protein in your meals to ease your transition to eating every meal gluten free. The goal here is to find some substitutes for the favorites you already have. Later on, after you're comfortable with the diet and know how to use gluten free products, the goal can be to be adventurous and try new things. But for now, go with the intent to not starve. Stick to the easiest gluten free things you can think of: potatoes, rice, corn tortillas, frozen and fresh plain vegetables, meats from the butcher that are fresh and plain, canned and fresh fruit, eggs, cheese, hot dogs (check that label!), lunchmeat (ask the deli about additives) and nuts.
*Have an open mind. Listen to me and trust me even though you don't want to: in time, you will be completely comfortable with the way you eat. That's all there is to it. But it will take time. For a while you will be eating tuna fish on a rice cake until you decide which of the gluten free breads or mixes you like the best, and that's okay. Sometimes you might have to order a hamburger without a bun from a fast food restaurant and they will look at you funny, and that's okay, too. The point is, things will taste different and you will be thinking about food a lot, but it's not the end of the world. Focus on healing and how great you will feel when you can paint that room without taking a nap or how you'll use your time when you don't have a stomachache after dinner. Be creative when looking at menus in restaurants, and don't be afraid to ask questions about what ingredients are in dishes you didn't make yourself. Attempt to look on the bright side and most often, you'll be able to do it. There are more important things in the world than food, and that's coming from someone who loves food. I always used to have a little party in my head for myself when I found something gluten free that I liked to eat. It's like finding the lost piece of a puzzle or coming across a skirt from the Gap for $2.99 at the thrift store--with the tags on. Sometimes simple joys are the best joys!
I hope this has helped some of you out there who are struggling with your new diagnosis. Keep a look out for the grocery list post...it's coming soon.