In Part I of this series, They Just Don’t Understand Living Gluten Free (Identifying Types of Gluten-Full Friends and Family, I shared how frustrating it can be for those of us who are gluten free to deal with gluten-full friends and family members who don’t understand our gluten-free lifestyle. I categorized our friends and family, as shown below, because I feel that doing so really helps us to know where each person is coming from, so to speak, and helps us know how to respond appropriately … both in regard to our needs and theirs.
Types of Friends and Family
Ignorant, but Well Meaning
Supportive, but Not Quite “There”
Totally “Get It”
Refuse to “Get It” (or Deny They “Get It”)
photo credit: Flick :mrMark:
If Aunt Susie kindly offers you a gluten-full cookie, but you know that she is in the Ignorant, but Well Meaning category, you’re going to respond to her differently than you would Aunt Maggie who has baited you into arguments over your need for a gluten-free diet before, Oh, and Aunt Maggie just told you that she made the Chocolate Cake you used to love, but she knows that you “say” you can’t have it now, but “it’s there if you want some.”
Clearly, Aunt Maggie falls into the Refuse to “Get It” (or Deny They “Get It”) category. You’ll also have a different plan for dealing with each when either is hosting a family event.
Be sure to read Part I to get a full understanding of each category. Note that individuals may transition from categories as they both learn more and become more accepting. I think the examples of real-life situations shared in Part I will help you better understand the need for the strategies and tips that our contributing bloggers are offering today for Part II.
Hopefully, both posts will help you develop your own strategies for dealing with friends and family. I am so grateful to all these wonderful blogger friends for offering this heartfelt input and their valuable strategies! They’ve done such an excellent job that I’m going to let them do all the talking. Without further ado, and in no particular order, here they are.
Strategies for Dealing with Friends and Family
From Members of the Gluten-Free Community
~ Lillian (Lillian’s Test Kitchen)
“For me, different family and friends all require different strategies and it can be exhausting trying to keep track of it all. I used to feel bad about not feeling like I can eat at my sister’s house. But I don’t anymore. She has three kids and the whole house is like a gluten-bomb, so when I go to her house, I don’t eat anything. It’s just too risky. When I’m there helping her with the kids, I bring some carrot sticks from home, a protein shake, and spend a lot of time washing my hands. And I rewash the glasses before I drink from them.
I try to do this as subtly as possible as to not make her feel terrible. I know she tries, but she’s overwhelmed with the kids and she’s just not set up to have a safe space for me. She’ll try to have food for me every once in a while, but it’s just too scary and I can’t relax, so I eat dinner beforehand and bring a few snacks. I’m there to spend time with her and the kids, not to eat. Once I made that switch in my head, it’s been easier and I feel less resentful about it, although, no less cautious.
With my friends, I mostly invite them for dinner to my apartment. That solves a lot of problems.
I miss being able to just open the fridge at my mom’s house and eating something, but I can’t do that anymore. She doesn’t eat a lot of bread and cheese, but my dad does. So, when I go over there for dinner, I immediately get clean dish rags and clean dish towels, I wipe down all the surfaces, and check with my mom about what I can eat and what I can’t. She’s careful about preparing food for me so I know I can trust her, but I still stay vigilant during dinner to make sure that no one contaminates the dishes. To mitigate this, I’ve started dishing up my food before anyone else, which is totally understood and no one looks at me weird. I always take a bit more than I think I’m going to want, just in case I want seconds. Because once everyone sits down and starts eating, I probably won’t be able to take more safely. So, it’s not necessarily relaxing, but it’s very important to be with everyone, so I do it.
This is suuuper loaded. And hard to navigate. But it can be done.”
photo credit: Flickr notahipster
~ Stephanie (A Year of Slow Cooking and much more at stephanieodea.com. See all of Stephanie’s helpful books here.)
“Since we have a 7-year-old with Celiac, it’s a bit different for our family, but this is what I do each and every time we’re attending an event— birthday party, school party, dinner with friends, dinner with family.
I always ask what the menu includes, and then decide whether or not there’s enough food for my little one to eat (hot dogs no bun, fruit salad, etc.) If a green salad is being served, I specifically ask if there will be croutons in it or those Chinese crunchy noodle things. Many times, just by asking I can get the host to see what I’m angling for and she decides not to toss the salad.
If she can’t eat the main dish I bring along our own version of what is being served. I also bring along our own cupcakes, cookies, etc. to school events or birthday parties. Then, at the party, I put our food on the birthday plates– and usually go out of my way to make sure our food has really good frosting, sprinkles, etc.
Most school events revolve around pizza or a pasta feed. I always bring our own. I’d also encourage any parents with children in school to talk to the school administrators, get to know the PTA, teachers, other parents— be friendly, and offer to bring treats for the whole class to enjoy. When there is a sign-up, I try my hardest to be the “main” sweet that is exciting for the kids, so then I can bring GF rice krispie treats, GF brownies, etc. If I’m a supplemental snack, then I’ll bring packaged cookies that are GF (we like the Trader Joe’s choc chip cookies and the kinnikinnick oreo cookies).
I have a freezer full of cupcakes, individually wrapped in ziplock bags. If there’s a party at school, I thaw then frost with tubbed frosting and add our own sprinkles. We use these cupcake holders.
We can usually figure out enough food to eat at potlucks, and I always bring a chili or main bean dish that I know she can fill up on if needed. Our taco soup is a big hit, and I make sure to feed her from the pot first before the spoon gets contaminated, and I always have snacks in my purse. I’m perfectly fine with the kids eating junk food when out of the house, so if she needs to eat a PayDay or Snickers to fill up, so be it.”
photo credit: Flickr ella novak
~ Katie (g-free kid and author of Mommy, What Is Celiac Disease?)
“My daughters and I (all gluten-free) have the attitude that most people mean well and are trying their best. For instance, my Dad, who has known I’ve been gluten-free for almost 5 years now (and that my girls are too) still offers us regular cookies, muffins and other treats when we are at his house. We just smile at each other (and sometimes laugh) and say, “We’d love to, but we can’t eat that.” Then he grimaces and says “oops” or something to let us know that he just plain forgot. In all honesty, it doesn’t bother us in the least. We know he’s just trying to show hospitality and that he genuinely forgot (in that particular moment) that we can’t eat things like that. On the other hand, he also finds and clips newspaper articles for me pertaining to the gluten-free diet, and will proudly show us when he finds a candy or food product labeled “gluten-free”.
We also have other friends and relatives that forget sometimes, but we don’t take it personally. We realize that even though it is a huge part of our daily lives, that other people may not even have thought twice about it since we were all diagnosed. Everyone has their own lives to lead and their own to-do lists to worry about, and we don’t expect people to cater to us and make our personal priorities their own.
On the other hand, people who we didn’t realize even knew we were gluten-free will bring a gluten-free dessert in for church coffee hour which is always a nice surprise. Whatever it is (as long as we can read a label, which people usually realize needs to be done) we eat it and express our enjoyment and gratitude for their thoughtfulness. There have been many times where the girls pretended to like something, knowing that it is the right thing to do when someone puts forth the effort.”
photo credit: Flickr UU-Jackson
~ Iris (The Daily Dietribe and co-author of The Essential Gluten-Free Baking Guide Part 1 and The Essential Gluten-Free Baking Guide Part 2)
“My #1 piece of advice is to be CONSISTENT and CLEAR. Let your friends and family know ahead of time what foods you absolutely cannot eat and what that means. Explain to them how food can be cross-contaminated and assure them that you are more than happy to bring your own food or a dish to share if that’s easier. In most situations, you’ll find that people really want to make you feel at home, and will go out of their way to make something you can eat. They just need clear guidelines for doing so.
The absolute worst thing you can do (and I know this from seeing other people do it) is to say you can’t eat something and then cave under the pressure of not wanting to inconvenience anyone. If you’re not consistent, your restrictions will not be taken seriously. It may take months for people to get it but eventually, they will just accept it as the norm.
Oh and one more thing! 🙂 if you’re enthusiastic about your diet, other people will be too! Share all the positive benefits you get from eating the way you do, talk about creative ways to cook, and bring a favorite dish to share that you know will be a crowd-pleaser. When people taste how good gluten-free can be, they will be more open to learning more about it and it will be easier for them to cook for you!”
photo credit: Flickr anthro_aya
~ Cheryl (Gluten Free Goodness; Registered Dietitian and much more … you can also find her at Harris Whole Health)
“I come from a Middle Eastern family, so many have a “feeding disorder”. We need to feed everyone, and get upset if we can’t! For people who I know do really want to help and accommodate me, I give very specific instructions, i.e. if they are grilling, please just leave one piece of chicken or fish plain, and grill it on foil, along with a foil-wrapped sweet potato. Or I give an easy-to-find brand name. That way, they aren’t scurrying around, they get to feed me, and I get to eat. Win/win/win.
I do have people in my life that don’t accommodate me for a variety of reasons and it is such an upsetting thing for me. I haven’t figured out the best way to relate to that yet, even after all these years.”
photo credit: Flickr batigolix
~ Heather (Gluten Free Cat)
“I’ve had the most success with calling the hostess ahead of time. I let her know how thankful I am that she invited me to her event but that I have challenging food allergy issues that might make eating at her home challenging. I offer to bring a dish to share with everyone. (This also ensures that I’ll have at least one 100% safe dish for me to eat.) And I also ask what is on the menu. Oftentimes, there are sides that are naturally gluten-free that I can enjoy.
I’ve also found that I can easily suggest a switch of products like changing flour tortillas to corn tortillas. We talk about cross-contamination during kitchen prep, and I have her save product labels so I can read them when I arrive as a double-check. No one wants to get sick when going to a friend’s home for dinner. But I’ve learned that it’s better to accept invitations and do the prep work than turn down invitations. Relationships are worth it.”
~ Amber (The Tasty Alternative; unfortunately this site is no longer active)
“When I know in advance that I’ll be involved in a food event that I (and my son) can’t take part in, I always bring my own food, and I believe this is pretty standard for those of us with alternative diets, food sensitivities or allergies. If it’s a gathering of friends, I don’t need to communicate our situation further than, “Please don’t worry about making anything special for us, I’ve got it covered.”
I don’t expect my friends to become gluten free/dairy free/sugar free bakers overnight. So I always check in with friends to let them know we’re good. If I don’t know the host(ess) very well, I take a moment and communicate via email (or phone) and share our food situation, what we will be bringing and why. I feel that providing this information decreases the confusion and/or irritation from not partaking in the food festivities. Party planning can be stressful, and so I feel this is a courtesy. Again, it acts as a buffer when meal time arrives. No surprises, everyone is in the know.
Now, taking this a step further, a situation may arise where the host(ess) or another person in attendance may project frustration or irritation toward you. In these cases, it’s important to practice good relaxation and coping skills, and have someone you can check in afterward and process your feelings.
Recently, I had a very aggravating and emotional encounter with a father at a birthday party. Long story short, my husband was out of town so I took my daughter to her birthday party and stayed there with Ethan. I really like the mother (of the birthday girl), and we are becoming fast friends, but only met the father twice (and briefly). I brought food for Ethan and me, and some dessert (like always) and let her know in advance, but she didn’t share this with the father. When it came time for lunch, he kept asking me if I wanted the food, over and over, and why not and OH MY GOD YOU CAN’T EAT WHAT, and WHY!? Then it was time for cupcakes and he asked me (I’m not kidding) about 3 times if I wanted cupcakes, and they are so good, are you sure, etc. It was miserable.
What angered me was the way he looked at me and the way he reacted, he was clearly offended and apathetic to our obvious sensitivities. I nearly made myself sick from the anxiety (and nearly cried). It was not a pleasant experience. Luckily this scenario doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it sure stings!
photo credit: Flickr csullens
My advice to anyone who may encounter a rather apathetic or insensitive individual at a gathering is to:
- Expect this might happen and have a script memorized (explaining your situation in a clear, kind manner) – this allows you to clearly express yourself, even if you are feeling upset;
- Set good boundaries. It’s okay to excuse yourself from a negative conversation – this is your right so feel empowered to do so (and, really, you just can’t argue with ignorance);
- BREATHE! Take a moment, go into a bathroom or a quiet place, and take a few deep, healing breaths. Have some positive visuals, mantras, do a few jumping jacks, anything you can to guide your thoughts back to a safe, healthy place and combat the anxiety; and finally,
- Have a go-to person to talk with and process feelings.
These encounters can be difficult and we need to share them, process them, and move on. It’s an opportunity to identify our triggers, our emotional self, and our strengths. We can’t control the behavior of others, but we can certainly control our thoughts and behavior. Those of us living in the world of alternative diets juggle not only the obvious tangible change but the emotional and physiological change that comes with it. It can be done, and we will be better, more empathetic and mindful people because of it!”)
~ Kristin (Slightly Irritating & Inconvenient; Registered Holistic Nutritionist)
“I personally receive a lot of flak from family especially, since they’re not afraid to verbalize their opinions. I find that explaining how gluten damages your body (regardless of how much) when you’re being pressured by grandma to have a piece of pie for dessert is beneficial… even if you have to remind grandma every time you come for a visit!
Perhaps a stop by your local allergen-friendly bakery en route to grandma’s to pick up dessert next time might be in order! Bringing dessert for everyone can solve the great pie dilemma (without making a point of you having your own “special pie”), but that still leaves the meal beforehand. Offer to host Thanksgiving dinner at your house this fall! Show them that gluten-free doesn’t have to taste like school glue.
Allergies can be perceived as a weakness, but educating people on how you’re healing your body puts your journey toward health in a positive light. If that’s a no-go, arrive early and see if you can help prepare some of the dishes. If pork chops with cream of mushroom soup must be on the menu, offer to bring soup made at home instead of it coming out of a not-so-gluten-free can. Bring a veggie platter if nothing else, but remember that unless you want to be hiding out in the kitchen prepping for years to come, education is key.”
photo credit: Flickr cizauskas
~ Maggie (She Let Them Eat Cake)
“I have thought long and hard about this topic since my husband and I have been living with his celiac diagnosis for almost 8 years. Things got a little more complicated when our then 3-year old son was diagnosed with gluten, dairy, and egg sensitivities. I’ve learned that having a positive attitude is a huge help for my family when it comes to dealing with gluten-full friends and family.
Here are my top five strategies for dealing with gluten-full friends and family:
- Bring your own food, and bring a little extra to share. People are always interested in what we’re eating so I like to bring extra so they can try our food too. Also, it doesn’t leave my kids feeling like they’re the only ones eating gluten-free crackers or goodies. Most of my family (including extended) now eats gluten-free crackers all the time! I don’t even have to worry about bringing them anymore.
- Model, model, model! Everyone is always watching you (especially your kids) so I make healthy and allergy-friendly food choices too. And I’m always happy to talk about our lifestyle, provided they’re interested and asking.
- Give what you want to get. This is my motto for life and I think it really applies to dealing with gluten-full family and friends. I want respect for my parenting and my family’s food choices, so I make sure I give other people respect for their food choices. Also, if someone makes a comment under their breath (usually about my poor deprived kids because they can’t eat whatever), I choose to ignore it. That comment is only coming from a place of fear of the unknown and fear of change. I would never comment like that and I know I have made the right decision for my family.
- Let it (them) go. This is one I’m always working on (ie letting go of negative comments or judgments from others). I whisper it to myself all the time and it makes me feel so much better. If someone is judging me or my family, I simply let it go and refuse to worry about it or dwell on it. It has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them.
- Surround yourself with positive people. Truthfully, I have never encountered many problems and I believe it’s because I have a positive attitude about the kind of people I want in my life and in my family’s lives. Sure, I encounter people who are negative or unsupportive, but I definitely don’t seek them out. What often happens is after letting these people go, they come back to me because they’re looking for advice or more information about living a gluten-free lifestyle.
I think this quote is perfect to close with – “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi
~ Debi (Hunter’s Lyonesse)
“I have been blessed with family and friends who, for the most part, will take the time to understand why I can’t have gluten or dairy and what happens to me if I do. They ask question after question after question because they want to understand why some things we were all raised to believe were good for us can make me so sick and not them. I take these questions as an invitation to educate and do so wholeheartedly.
There are some who still don’t really understand, so going out to eat or over to their home is worrisome to me. I limit those situations with them. It’s easier for me and for them.
My family was very accommodating when it came to meals when I was home last month. I did have a condo to prepare my own meals just in case and I kept snacks with me. A lot of relatives were bringing food in for us and if I wanted it, I had to ask before dishing it out. Some of the grandmas cook like I do. They just throw stuff in without measuring. And sometimes they can’t remember everything. I was asking one of them what was in her stew and this was her first encounter with my diet. She looked at me a little incredulous, so I clarified and told her what I couldn’t have. Then she broke down what made her broth. Beef flavor was one of the ingredients, which seemed like it wouldn’t be good for me, so I passed. I had to tell another grandma I couldn’t have her dish she brought one night because it had shoyu (soy sauce). She was upset that she brought something I couldn’t have, even though she didn’t know beforehand that I couldn’t have it.
I haven’t had the experience of someone close to me telling me, “Just have a bite, it won’t hurt.” like some of you have. I hope I never have that moment. But, if I do, I will let the person know that it is not okay to have “just a bite,” nor is it okay to try to pressure me or anyone else into having something that causes sickness. If it is someone I’m close to and it hinders our relationship, I will at least know that I asserted myself and my health.”
~ Deanna (The Mommy Bowl)
“I feel blessed that most of my friends and family are either in the “get it” camp or at least try to get it. That being said, any time someone that doesn’t have a food intolerance is trying to feed someone that does, there are bound to be missteps. I try to take it all in stride. If I’m going to a party with food, I always offer to bring something along that’s safe for me to eat. If it’s not appropriate to bring my own food, I’ll eat beforehand. If I find myself unexpectedly in a situation with no safe food, I remind myself that no one ever died from skipping one meal. I also try not to make a big deal about it, but I do try to educate friends. Last night a friend sad, “I’m sorry you won’t be able to eat the guacamole – it has sour cream in it.” I laughed and said, “that’s okay, I couldn’t eat it anyway, because the chips that were dipped in it have wheat in them!” We got to laugh, and my friends were reminded that cross-contamination is an issue for me. (Of course, these are good friends that I know well and wouldn’t be offended.)
Mostly, I try to remember – food is fuel. We need it to live and those of us with intolerances need the right food to live well. But, friendship and family are far more important in the long run. I’d rather be hungry among friends, than full and lonely—because that’s a much harder hunger to feed.
Photo credit: Flickr jlastras
And here’s a terrific post from Heidi (Adventures of a Gluten-Free Mom) on How to Talk to Friends and Family About Your Child’s Dietary Needs Without Scaring Them Off. (This post is part of the KISS series for Celiac Awareness Month over at The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness blog.) When you can share the information on your child’s (or your) special dietary needs without completely scaring everyone, it’s for everyone’s benefit.
Please share some of your own strategies with us and perhaps even situations that you still find challenging; some of us may be able to offer specific suggestions to you.
Originally published May 10, 2012; updated October 12, 2021.