This article originally appeared in the Spring 2004 edition of Celiac.com's Journal of Gluten-Sensitivity.
Celiac.com 04/05/2010 - In the 13 years I’ve been involved in the wonderful world of “gluten freedom,” one of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently is whether or not the entire family should be gluten-free. For parents who have kids on the gluten-free diet, this seems to be a natural instinct––if Johnny can’t eat gluten, none of us will. But I’m not sure that having the entire family go gluten-free is the best thing––unless, of course, it’s for health reasons (I, for example, choose a gluten-free diet because I believe it’s healthier). This is one of those questions that has no correct or incorrect answer, so I’ll share with you, for what it’s worth, my personal perspective on the issue.
Pros: It’s easier when the whole family is gluten-free, because you’re making only one version of every meal, as opposed to two or three. There is less risk of contaminating safe foods because there aren’t any “unsafe” foods in the house. Preparation is easier, and there’s no need for the gob drop or any other tricky food-preparation maneuvers. Finally, from a psychological standpoint, you avoid having some people feel ostracized when their food is made separately and they’re eating different foods from the rest of the family.
Cons: It’s more expensive and sometimes more labor-intensive for everyone to eat specialty foods (Try not to be a “saver.” Sometimes, after spending $3 each for sugar ice cream cones, I’ll find myself guarding them like a hawk. I’ve accumulated several boxes of untouched stale cones now). Feeding the whole family home-made gluten-free bread at nearly five dollars per loaf, when three out of four family members could be eating a commercial brand, has an impact on the family’s time and finances.
More important, especially if children are involved, forcing the entire family to be gluten-free because of one person’s dietary restrictions can put a strain on relationships. Sometimes this works in both directions. In my family, for instance, my daughter would resent being forced to be on a 100 percent gluten-free diet (we’re pretty close to that anyway) just because that’s how her brother Tyler eats. Interestingly, though, it works the other way too. Tyler doesn’t want his sister to be deprived of a bagel, nor does he resent her for being able to eat one (especially because the gluten-free bagels we buy over the Internet are so good these days!). Resentment is almost inevitable at some level if family members are forced to give up their favorite foods for one member of the family––at least when kids are involved.
The last reason against a gluten-free family is probably the most compelling one, and is the primary reason I haven’t forced my whole family to be gluten-free: it’s not reality. Again, this is more important when a child in the family has the restricted diet, because the reality is that this world is filled with gluten, and most people on this planet eat it––lots of it. These children need to learn how to handle the fact that for the rest of their lives, they’ll be surrounded by people eating gluten. If that makes them feel bad, sad, or mad, that’s okay. What better place to learn to deal with those unpleasant emotions than in the loving environment of their own home? They may be more tempted to cheat because the food is in their home and others are eating it; again, there may be no better place to deal with temptation and learn to resist it than in the loving environment of their own home.
The compromise: In no way am I advocating someone waving a Krispy Kreme donut in your face singing, “Nah-nee-nah-nee-nah-nee…you can’t eat this” in an effort to build character. With the excellent gluten-free products available today, it’s easier than ever to compromise by eating relatively gluten-free. Try to buy salad dressings, condiments, spices, and other foods and ingredients that are gluten-free when you can. For foods like pasta, bread, and pizza, you can make two varieties, one of which of course is gluten-free and prepared carefully to avoid contamination.
Cost aside, I don’t see any reason to bake “regular” cookies and baked goods anymore. The gluten-free mixes are so incredible that my kids and their friends prefer them to “the real deal.” They’re easy enough that the kids can make them themselves, and it’s a psychological upper for my gluten-free son when his sister and friends can’t get enough of “his kind” of cookies.
You’ll probably find that because it’s easier to make one meal than two, you’ll gravitate toward gluten-free menus. With good menu planning, and a kitchen well-stocked with gluten-free condiments and ingredients, it’s likely that your entire family will inadvertently become mostly gluten-free without realizing it, and without the resentment that might have developed if the issue had been forced.
If your family does end up mostly gluten-free, or if you eliminate gluten completely, remember that anyone who is going to be tested for celiac disease (and all family members should be) must be eating gluten for at least several weeks prior to doing any tests for celiac disease.