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How to Transition to a Gluten-free Life

The top 7 tips I wish I’d had.

Written by
Robyn Harrison
Published on
November 5, 2020
Time to read
8
mins

You’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease, a gluten intolerance, or been prescribed a gluten free diet. You might be thinking: “What do I do? Where do I start? How will I survive without donuts?”

Here are my top 7 tips for transitioning to a gluten-free life. These are the tips I wish I had when I was diagnosed with celiac disease.

Before I dive in, I just want to acknowledge that it's okay to feel all the feelings when going gluten-free. After I was diagnosed, I fell into the internet rabbit hole about all the foods I couldn't eat, cross contamination, and how gluten is everywhere. It was intense and overwhelming.

I've done it all: eaten something without reading a label, thought I'd be fine eating from a contaminated deep fryer, cried in a restaurant. I want to help you avoid the mistakes I made.

So here we go:

My Top 7 Tips:

TIP #1: De-gluten-ify your home

Your home is your safe haven in a gluten-filled world, so let's start there.

How you do this will depend on if you live alone, with roommates, or with your family.

If you live alone:

  • Purge your kitchen of gluten containing foods. Read the labels; you probably haven't done this in depth before.
  • You'll also need to purge anything which may be contaminated — things like jars of peanut butter or jam that might have breadcrumbs in them.
  • If items containing gluten are unopened, you now have gifts for your friends or family!
  • Give all your utensils, cutting boards, and pans a good scrub, especially things like wooden cutting boards or pasta strainers.

If you live with others:

  • Label items containing gluten to make sure you don't use them, and store them in a separate place. Painter's tape and a sharpie are your new best friends!

(Seriously, label things — because your boyfriend might forget that the leftover veggie burgers he brought home are made with breadcrumbs, put them in the freezer, and serve them to you six months later.)

  • You should also get a separate pasta strainer, cutting board (for bread), and any other items that get a lot of gluten traffic. (If you have sketchy roommates who don't thoroughly wash their dishes, it might be a good idea to grab an extra set of everything. Or move out.)

And no matter what, buy a new toaster. There's no way you can scrub the gluten out of that.

TIP #2 - Research (the boring part)

I won't go on and on about this because it's just common sense: do your research. No need to spend hours in the depths of the internet, just look at a few lists of all the grains you can and can't eat. It will help you know what to look out for, and avoid mistakes, when you're grocery shopping.

A quick list of gluten-containing grains:

Quick list of grains containing gluten: wheat, barley, rye, triticale, farina, spelt, kamut, wheat berries, farro, couscous

Most items will either list one of those ingredients on the label, or say "may contain wheat" or "contains wheat / barley / etc."

Here are a few of the things people often confuse:

Quick list of common confusions: gluten-free oats are safe, regular aren't; soy is safe, soy sauce isn't (except tamari); quinoa is safe, couscous isn't; buckwheat is, barley malt syrup isn't; vinegar is, malt vinegar isn't

Also, many "health food" breads are in the same aisle as gluten-free breads, so make sure if a bread is made of something like kamut or spelt, you don't mistake it for a gluten-free bread!

TIP #3 - Go on a gluten-free shopping spree!

Now that you've purged your cupboards, it's time to restock with everything gluten-free. You're probably feeling sad, so fill that void with food! Try lots of different products to find what you like.

Heads up! While gluten-free has come a long way in the past decade, a lot of the products in the grocery store will be disappointing. I personally feel like it’s part of the experience. You will eat great products, you will eat terrible products; you may laugh, you may cry.

My favourite gluten-free brands from the grocery store: Promise Gluten-free, Kinnickinick, Rummo, Chickapea, and Catelli

This is location-specific, but let me tell you about a few of my favourite grocery store items:

  1. Promise Gluten-free breads - especially the artisan loaves and brioche items
  2. Kinnikinick donuts - cinnamon sugar, maple glazed, chocolate dipped... I love them all! (Note: Gluten-free products dry out faster than gluten products because of their high rice and starch content. Please warm up store-bought bread and donuts, it makes them 1000% better.)
  3. Basically any gluten-free pasta — ones that are a blend of grains are always nice. You can also get pasta made of chickpeas or lentils, which tend to be higher in fibre and protein. Or anything from Italy. They know how to do it.

Pro tip: if you're diagnosed with celiac disease and live in Canada (not sure about other countries), you may be able to write those gluten-free items off at tax time. Make sure you save your receipts!

TIP #4 - Find your go-to recipes

Making delicious food at home in your (now) gluten safe kitchen is going to make you feel better and less restricted. I basically forget that I have celiac when I'm cooking at home.

Maybe you already have some recipes that will be easy to make gluten-free: win! Now it's time to expand your repertoire. Search the internet or order a cookbook or two. Find both comfort foods and healthy, nourishing options. Obviously, food is subjective, but some of my favorites are:

TIP #5 - Bake (or learn how to bake!)

Yes, you can go to a gluten-free bakery, but that will get very expensive very fast. For example, my local gluten-free bakery charges $51 for a dozen chocolate cupcakes and $33 for a dozen chocolate chip cookies.

By contrast, a dozen of my cookies costs about $4.50. That means you spend over 7x more at a bakery than when you bake at home.

(To be clear, I love bakeries but they're a once-in-a-while treat; I'd be broke if I bought all of my baked goods from them.)

Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies by Robyn's Gluten-free Baking Courses
Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies from my Gluten-free Baking Essentials Course

Baking at home saves money and results in the tastiest gluten-free goodies. After all, the best way to experience that fresh-from-the-oven taste is to bake them fresh in your oven. Also, there is something so satisfying about baking from scratch!

If you're not a baker, or you are but you want to learn how to bake gluten-free, check out my baking courses.

TIP #6 – Find Restaurants

When you're gluten-free, restaurants can either be totally fine, or a horror show. I have a whole blog post planned for how to navigate restaurants (stay tuned!) but the most important thing is to research your local restaurants.

Doing your research means that:

  1. If you're going out with friends, you can suggest places that you can actually eat at.
  2. If you're hungry and don't have time to cook, you don't have to try to navigate menu after menu looking for something to eat.

This is especially important if you get hangry (like me). Four years into this gluten-free thing, I know where in my city I can go if I need something to eat.

What to look for in a restaurant? Let's go from best to worst:

BEST – Your best option is going to be a gluten-free restaurant or a restaurant that does certified gluten-free. Honestly, these places are few and far between. If you live in a small town, they probably don't exist.

NEXT BEST – Some restaurants will have a separate gluten-free menu, which is always exciting because it shows that they actually know what gluten-free means. However, unless you are in a strictly gluten-free restaurant, you still need to ask if they are using a dedicated gluten-free fryer, grill, or toaster, because if you're celiac, that's a no-go. (I've been to several restaurants with gluten-free menus that specify deep-fried items are gluten-free when they're actually fried in the same fryer as everything else.)

MOST COMMON – Many restaurants nowadays have "GF" marked on menu items. This is helpful, but you must still ask about the fryer, grill, or toaster and let the server know that you're celiac or have a gluten intolerance.

THE WORST – If they don't know what you're talking about when you say gluten-free — run!

Bottom line is: find a few go-to places so that you never have to deal with the stress of finding good options last minute.

TIP #7 – Find your people

This is one tip that I wish I had earlier. Find your gluten-free kindred spirits. Sounds super lame but what I mean is: don't try to do this solo.

Poke around on the Celiac Foundation or Celiac Association websites to find local events, reach out to anyone in your life who also has to eat a gluten-free diet, and follow local gluten-free people on Instagram. (Seriously, Instagram is one of the the best ways to find out about local events or new restaurants.)

My favourite gluten-free community event has been such a huge game changer for me that it's worth mentioning (especially for any of you who are in Toronto or nearby): Gluten-free Garage.

Photo courtesy Gluten-free Garage

It's an annual event with over 75 local gluten-free vendors (all giving out free samples — I love a good sample). Gluten-free Garage helped me find so many of my go-to restaurants, cafes, and grocery store products. I'm not kidding, I put it in my calendar a year before it happens; it's like Celiac Christmas.

Besides community events, find the people in your life who will go on this journey with you. They don't have to be gluten-free, they just have to be patient enough to help you find the good stuff, and be there with you to laugh at the bad stuff. (Or be a shoulder to cry on at the bad stuff!)

There you have it! My top 7 tips for transitioning to a gluten-free life. If you found these tips helpful, send me a note. I'd love to hear from you.

Robyn Harrison

Robyn is a home baker based in Toronto, Canada. She comes from several generations of award-winning bakers. After her celiac diagnosis in 2016, and her doctor's advice to “Say good-bye to bread!”, her gluten-free journey began. She is the founder of Robyn's Gluten-free Baking Courses and Robyn's Gluten-free Living. Her mission is to raise the bar for gluten-free baking; “good enough” is no longer good enough.