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I'm a Marketing/Advertising pro with 15 years experience in retail, restaurant & cpg industries.  Celiac Disease saved my family and has inspired me to be a student of gluten, an advocate for awareness and eager to help businesses that serve our growing market to DO GLUTEN-FREE RIGHT!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Can gluten and gluten-free eaters co-exist in a shared kitchen? I tried it.

A wonderful week long vacation with 22 family members is an annual tradition in my family. OBX is our favorite destination, a gorgeous location with houses big enough for our small army and always a dream kitchen stocked with every convenience.

We do it, all of us, every single year. Except last year. Last summer, my 1 ½ yr old Tommy was terribly ill and the only traveling we did was back and forth to the hospital. So no one went. That’s my family, all for one and one for all – or something like that.  

The day Tommy’s GI specialist confirmed my suspicion Celiac was the cause of his illness, I tore apart my kitchen. That gluten crap that we had so loved nearly killed my baby and it was no longer welcome in my house. Out went ALL the food, the toaster, the spatulas, frying pans, even the placemats. On that kitchen demo day, I informed my husband and the kids that they now lived in a Gluten Free Zone.  We had no idea that we would soon find out that Celiac wasn’t just Tommy’s disease, gluten was our archenemy. My gluten-loving mother made her home gluten free too, eating her morning bagel in the car, even ushering the guest arriving with a pie straight to the backyard. Needless to say, on my list of worries, getting glutened by cross-contamination at home (or at moms) has not been my concern.

Back to paradise. I admit I was nervous about vacation this year. My little family of 5 is exclusively gluten free and my 2 sisters are now gluten-intolerant-gluten-free (you know what I mean, order a hot dog and toss the roll to avoid the migraine or stomach churn). I talked menus for months, researched area supermarkets, family members began reading labels on snacks they planned to bring and new cookie sheets and a colander were packed. We were ready. And when we settled in, the fridge was stocked with healthy eats and the pantry was filled with gluten free treats. The poison, I mean non-gluten-free-food, was kept in a little cabinet on the opposite end of the kitchen.

And on day 1… we were sick. Not super sick. By now we all know our different reactions, and we were reacting.

I suspected the pots and pans could have traces…the hubby and I found a Walmart and picked up a griddle (my new favorite cooking method) a pot and a pan and a few utensils. My sister splurged on a few new knives and extra cutting boards.

On day 2 we feasted with ease, and on day 2….we were still reacting.  This wasn’t fun. 

On day 3 I was exhausted and in tears…. I had taken great care and too much time to prepare our food, I spent our vacation spending money on updating someone else’s kitchen and all I wanted to do was sleep. And I think the rest of the crowd was starting to think I had become the crazy-gluten-lady and surely insane.  None of us were super-sick like getting full-blown glutened but....

I looked 8 months pregnant in the little beach dress that was supposed to look cute (did I mention I dropped 35lbs of gluten-bloat this year)

I was irritable around my relatives, almost as irritable as the hubby was with me.

I was sad changing my Tommy’s diaper which had that trademark glutened scent (be thankful if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

Sad for my hubby that he spent the morning in the bathroom.

Mad at the hubby for sleeping away the rest of what would be the last sunny beach day.

Sad for my 7 yr old son whose mood swung up and down all day.

Even sadder when the cousins overreacted about the 2 year old needing a diaper change, when it was the big boy whose “I’ve-been-glutened-poopy-problems” were stinking up the room.

 Mad at the world when my beautiful little 6yr old girl emerged in her tankini, covered in her “looks-like-I’ve been-beaten” but really “I’ve-been-glutened” Black & Blues.

I cried that night. Not for us. For the others I’ve read about or tweeted with who struggle with celiac because their family doesn’t get it and their kitchens aren’t safe. My family GOT IT and it didn’t matter.

 And on Day 4, I took control.  Paper plates. Paper cups. Plastic knives, forks & spoons. Special GF sponges. Oh, and I took over the cooking.  Almost all of the cooking. And just about all of the rest of the food shopping. For 22 people.  Good cooking too – we are on vacation but I’m feeding an army kinda-food. Blueberry pancakes. Ribs & BBQ chicken (brand new grill thankfully). Taco salad. Filet de Beef. Rice. Roasted Potatoes. Two gluten free birthday cakes. And a LOT of fresh fruit. With the exception of an occasional donut spotting or slice of bread, we all ate gluten-free. And we ate well. Really well.  Oh, I squeezed in a little crabbing (man those 3 crabs we caught were good – I cooked them too) and a little jet skiing.

But mostly I cooked. Or shopped.  My family members were afraid, very afraid of coming near the kitchen and ask me for permission with everything they touched. 

And by the last day of vacation, we were all good. And I was exhausted. If only we had 1 more week.

What did I learn? A shared kitchen is hard. Really hard. Way harder than going gluten-free. Cross-contamination is ridiculously hard to avoid.

If you have to be gluten-free and have to share a kitchen with a gluten-eater or 22, here are some tips:

Step 1 - get a big kitchen if you can

Step 2- separate your FOOD

Shop like you are shopping for twins. Buy 2 of everything. One for you, one for everyone else.

Label it. Fancy labels are awesome. A sharpie works too.

Keep a dedicated gluten free space.  Designate a drawer in the fridge and a food cabinet all yours.

Keep your open package sealed shut. Use GF storage containers, bags or tape ‘em up.

In other words: Your butter is not their butter, make it clear. Invest in your own jars like peanut butter and mayo and sketch out some skull and cross bones or a simple DO NOT TOUCH message, wrap them in duct tape, then hide them really well.

Step 3: Separate EVERYTHING else in NECESSARY too (this step may require a second job, one at Williams -Sonoma would work well).
Use your own pots, pans, cookie sheets, colanders, utensils, cutting boards & potholders too.
Use your own dishes, knives, forks and spoons too.  It may seem radical but I suspect dishes or forks cleaned in an over-crowded or less-than-perfect dishwasher are an issue. If you must share a bowl or silverware, wash and clean everything meticulously. Or do as I did and go plastic. But the environmentalist in me says that’s a bad long-term plan.  Do be sure to use a dedicated sponge with a scrubber on the back (bonus points if you can find a way to label your sponge).  

Step 4: Take control of your food, or be sure that the person in control of the food knows what they are doing. Educate, educate, educate - resources are endless and this is essential. You can’t ever heal if you keep getting sick. 

Step 5: Man up. Be ready to deal with temptation. Sure a gluten free pizza is okay but Oh man a steaming hot “normal” pizza is tempting. Can’t you just hear that little devil on your shoulder saying “what would 1 bite hurt”  HA! I know better, I’d never. But I had to knock my husband over the head with a frying pan to keep him away from the Krispy Kremes. Fortunately, it was a new gf frying pan!