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  • Jean Duane PhD
    Jean Duane PhD

    Surmounting Social Situations Encountered by those with Celiac Disease and/or Food Allergies

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      Journal of Gluten Sensitivity Summer 2018 Issue


    Caption: Image: CC--Christian Scheja

    Celiac.com 07/13/2018 - I went to a friend’s home for dinner.  A few days before, she called and asked me what I could eat.  I asked her what she was planning to make, and she said she was grilling meats with side dishes.  I said, “Great.  Please just grill a piece of chicken for me with salt and pepper, and I’ll be happy to bring a side.” She said, “No need to bring a side.  I’ve got this.” When I arrived, she greeted me and said, “I spent all day cooking tonight’s dinner so you can eat it. Hey would you just check this salad dressing to see if it is OK for you?” I looked at the ingredients and it contained gluten and dairy, both of which I cannot eat.  Then I glanced around the kitchen and saw evidence of wheat cross-contamination, including buns being toasted on the grill, and gluten-containing barbeque sauce spilling on the grill where my “clean” chicken was cooking. She had other guests to tend to, and I couldn’t offer instruction or read the ingredients of everything she used in the meal. 

    At social gatherings, I’ve been challenged too by those who ask if I am really “allergic,” or just eating gluten free as a “fad.” I’ve been told many times by hosts and hostesses that, “a little won’t hurt you,” or “everything in moderation,” or “if it is made with loving hands, it is good for you to eat.”  Of course, all of this is bunk for those with food allergies or celiac disease.  A little bit may kill us, and whether made with loving hands or not, it will certainly make us sick. 

    Those of us with food allergies and/or celiac disease walk a tightrope with friends and relatives. The old rules of etiquette just don’t work anymore.  We don’t want to insult anybody, we don’t want to be isolated, and we also don’t want to risk our health by eating foods that may contain ingredients we cannot tolerate.  So what do we do? 

    Etiquette books advise us to eat what is put in front of us when we are guests in someone’s home. They caution us at all costs not to insult our hostess. Rather, we are instructed to compliment the hostess on her good cooking, flavor combinations, and food choices.  But when foods are prepared in a cross-contaminated environment with ingredients we are allergic to, we cannot follow the old social constructs that do not serve us.  We need to work together to rewrite the rules, so that we can be included in social gatherings without fear of cross-contamination, and without offending anyone.

    Let’s figure out how to surmount these social situations together.  

    Each edition of this column will present a scenario, and together, we’ll determine appropriate, polite, and most importantly, safe ways to navigate this tricky gluten-free/food allergies lifestyle in a graceful way.  If someone disagrees with our new behavior patterns, we can refer them to this column and say, “Here are the new rules for those of us with food allergies or celiac disease.”  When we are guests in someone’s home, we can give them links to this column so they understand the plight we are faced with, bite after bite. Perhaps this will help those of us living with us to understand, be more compassionate, and accepting of our adaptations to keep ourselves safe. 

    This column will present a scenario such as the one above, and ask that you comment on how you would navigate it. Let’s talk about it. Let’s share ideas.  Using the example above, here’s the scenario for this issue:

    What would you do?
    Your kind-hearted friend invites you to dinner and insists on cooking for you.  You arrive and the first thing she says is, “I’ve spent all day making this for you. Oh, I bought this salad dressing for you, but you might want to read the ingredients first.”  You do, and it contains malt vinegar.  You look around the kitchen and notice evidence of cross-contamination in the rest of the meal.  What do you do? 

    Please comment below and feel free to share the tricky scenarios that you’ve encountered too.  Let’s discuss how to surmount these social situations.  What would you do?


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    All of my friends and family have been fairly educated about celiac and the dangers of CC. When I’m invited to someone’s house, I explain right then that I will be bringing my own food to eat and ask if  it would be okay to use the microwave if needed. I have never had anyone feel I was disrespectful. The only person I trust is my sister as long as it is just a few of us. She allows me to be the backseat driver, so to speak. If she is having a large group, I bring my own food. 

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    I thought I would add to this, as I have experienced all of these tough situations, including my dear neighbor who told me she spent 2 days preparing for my meal... no pressure there!! And of course I got very sick after the dinner. 

    I now take my restricted (yet absolutely awesome) diet and share it with my friends. I offer to bring a side dish, or a Celiac friendly version of what they are preparing and share it. I have introduced my friends and family to some amazing dishes. They can still prepare what they want, but everyone is welcome to sample what I have. It always seems to make the situation a little bit more tolerable.

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    I would ask if I could come early to help prepare the meal.  It's a win-win.  You understand what is being prepared and can intervene when it counts and your friend gets some help in the kitchen, no doubt needed for a large gathering.

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    I have celiac disease, and like most, frequently find myself in these situations. I should note that I don't have a strong physical reaction to cross-contamination, and generally don't notice when I've accidentally eaten small amounts of gluten (although I'm fully aware of the damage that this can still cause, and therefore still follow a strictly gluten-free diet). This changes the equation a bit when it comes to social situations, as the apparent risk for making a mistake is not immediate distress. I generally ask the host what is on the menu (in advance if possible), and question them about specific ingredients if an item is suspicious. It's probably completely transparent, but I try to cloak my prying questions about each menu item as genuine curiosity in the preparation of the dishes. If bottles or bags are left out, I like to sneak a peek at the ingredients list to confirm.  If something is questionable, I simply don't eat it. Although it took them time to learn, most friends and family whom I eat with are now aware of my restrictions, and will check items with me before serving. I make it clear to them that I appreciate it when they ask, and they are usually happy to be able to accommodate. For simple things like gluten-free buns and gluten-free beer/cider, I like offering to bring my own rather than burden them with always stocking specialty gluten-free foods. Perhaps I'm in the minority on this, but at social events, I simply don't worry about cross-contamination unless it is egregious. I know this is a luxury that some people who are very sensitive can't tolerate, but I've decided that for me, it's a risk I'm willing to take to avoid the burden of scrutinizing kitchens and trying to explain the concept of cross-contamination. It makes me feel a bit more normal to be able to say "Sure, I can eat that!" rather than asking what knife was used to cut it or what plate it was prepared on. I've come to believe that the most disruptive part of celiac disease is the angst that comes with managing the disease in social situations like this, and I cherish those moments in which I can eat something that's prepared for me without making a scene, even if I'm risking some inflammation.

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    Etiquette here is tricky, because each one in the situation is expected not to offend the other. Physical health trumps hurt feelings, but it is worthwhile to find a kind way to tell the host that what is being served will cause damage. After a couple of these experiences (including a Thanksgiving dinner where the only thing I could eat was the turkey, and I brought that myself!), my response to all such invitations is something along the lines of: “I never expect anyone to cook for me — it’s just too hard to do. Please let me bring my own so you don’t have to worry about it. I’m just looking forward to spending some time with you/the group/the family.” If I meet resistance, I add, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but this is very serious. If a mistake is made, I can be sick for up to three days and not be able to leave the house. The risk for me is just too high.” If the host is insistent, I will compromise with a warning that I still might not be able to eat what has been prepared, and then proceed with a litany of cautions about ingredients and cross-contamination risks. Then I bring my own food, discreetly, just in case I run into the situation which started this whole conversation. 

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    Guest Karen10yearCeliac

    Posted

    Going back to the question at hand, what would I do about the issues stated upon arrival at a friends house for a meal and notice cross contamination?  Number one, I agree 100% with the above comments about bringing your own food.  To me, it is better to announce that ahead of time and bring a dish that is gluten free to share.  I have never had anyone be offended by that.  That said, I always ask if the hostess would mind if I remove my portion (or bring it that way) before anyone else to avoid CC.  I have learned to never depend on someone else to look out for me.  That includes friends, family, and restaurants.  Well meaning people in your life still do not live your pain.  They do not live your fear and anxiety when you eat something you shouldn't.  My husband is the only one that I know has my back, but I still check all ingredients before I eat something prepared outside my home that he might purchase.  Living with Celiac Disease can be very isolating, but going home from a party and suffering for days with the pain, shut down of your digestive system, and brain fog is totally not worth it.  Bring your food, and again, your wine! :-)

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    Hello everyone,

    Brand new to the whole disease - just got diagnosed with DH approximately 2 months ago.  I'll be facing the 'I can't eat your food' issue with my inlaws before too long.  There's absolutely no way they will be able to prepare anything gluten free - I know that kitchen well.  :)  In this case, I'm not saying anything about my diagnosis and will bring my own food and drinks.  The cat will come out of the bag at Thanksgiving and after that I'll have to deal with the methods to keep my father-in-law from attempting to make me special dishes.  

    In the instance posited here, I would smile and thank the hostess profusely for the kind offer, but I'd stop it before it got started.  I'd cheerfully tell her that there's no way to assure the lab-quality prep areas and methods in a kitchen or home that's not gluten free without near total sterilization and that's not reasonable for her.  Then I'd give perhaps two examples such as, 20ppm of tiny grains of wheat in the counter surface or cutting board, or touching rolls/passing crumbly bread over another dish/etc, that could cause enough contamination to be dangerous to me.  As someone implied, no lecturing, just  a couple of examples to make it clear that I'm not being 'ridiculous'.  

    Since I have DH, I'm a bit lucky in this respect.  I had an outbreak on my face - right under the eye on the apple of my cheek.  Most people back off on the 'a little won't hurt' or 'I'm sure it's not that bad' when I explain that I could have permanent effects on my face from their attempt to get me to eat something.

    I do think we've been conditioned to do things at our expense rather than possibly offend someone or hurt their feelings.  This is a time where a firm refusal is warranted and I would hope a good friend/person would understand that this is not a social game - it's someone's health and life.

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    I was diagnosed in 2016 with Coeliac Disease, and I know well the frustrations of eating away from home. Even going to the spa was a challenge, as they often offer snacks and drinks whilst having services such as manicures. Sadly, I found that gluten is in many cosmetic items too - and I am sensitive to some of them (especially barley extract, which serves as an antioxidant). 

    Helping relatives and friends understand my needs is a challenge in some cases. Many have responded well and respect my decisions regarding what to eat - and what not to eat. Some no longer question me, and that's a great relief! Others are not so understanding - or kind. There are even those who all but ridicule me - but I no longer hang out with those folks. ?

    Initially, I ate all my meals and snacks at home - where I had scoured the kitchen of anything gluten-contaminated including cookware. My kitchen is a safe zone, and I feel incredibly proud of myself and my husband, who has lovingly joined me in the gluten-free lifestyle. (He eats gluten-containing foods when out on his own, but always washes up on return. So sweet! ♥️)

    I've had a couple of run-ins with recalcitrant staff at restaurants, and am chagrined to tell you that I once (on my first post-diagnosis foray into eating out) actually slammed a whole plate of food down on the table, breaking it into smithereens. I then, without saying a word, left. Whilst I am NOT proud of that, it taught me something: I MATTER TO MYSELF, and my needs matter. Businesses who cater to customers ought to sort that too - and DO BETTER. (NOTE: I wrote a letter to the manager of said restaurant, enclosing a check for the bill - plus more to cover the cost of the plate and some for the waiter's possible concern. I am happy to report that I received a very nice response - and the check has gone uncashed for all this time. To boot, the restaurant now offers a gluten-free menu - and an area of the kitchen has been devoted to "allergy-free" cooking. Whilst I take no credit for that, I imagine that my outburst helped in some way to highlight the issues.)

    What I do today is this: I don't eat when I'm not sure about the ingredients, and make no apologies. I explain when asked - only. I manage my health and my happiness at no cost to anyone else. If someone is uncomfortable with that, it's on them because I am more than willing to share information, and I NEVER disparage anyone for preparing food or eating as they choose. It's none of my business unless I am involved in the preparations - in which case, I am always careful to inquire about special needs and am diligent in applying due caution. HEALTH AND WELL-BEING ARE PRIMARY.

    Thank you for this article and discussion. I truly appreciate all that each person is doing for themselves and others. KINDNESS RULES. Be well!

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    My number one rule on accepting invitations to other people’s homes is to say that I would LOVE to come and enjoy the company, but that I must provide my own food. I also explain that I know this is uncomfortable for some people and give them the opportunity to opt out if my bringing “outside food” would interrupt the event in some way. If they agree to this condition, no one is put out making food I won’t be able to eat and I feel confident bringing my own food to the event. 

    A note to non-celiacs reading this - the kindest expression of food hospitality I ever received was showing up to a home where I would be spending a few days to find new utensils, a new knife and a new pan along with meats, veggies and fruits all in individual packages in a separate part of the fridge. Now that was amazing. And after I left they host had a few nice new things for their kitchen. 

     

     

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    On 7/13/2018 at 9:57 PM, Guest Meal Planning Mastermind said:

    I've been glutened by well-meaning family members and friends. I have celiac disease and other allergies, and my son has different allergies than I do. Oh yeah, and my husband is a vegetarian. Whenever we are invited somewhere, I just tell the hostess that we will bring our own food. It's awkward, and I'm probably making people feel bad and/or uncomfortable, but it's honestly the best thing I've come up with. Because my son's and my allergies are so different, no one can truly comprehend the meal planning wizardry it takes to feed us all the same (or at least similar) meals regularly. I just bear that burden myself, and tell others that we just want to see them and that they shouldn't worry about feeding us.

    I agree I do same I and my children have different allergies so it's the only way I can keep us all straight and safe although people think ur nuts we r not sick so I'm good:)

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    I am a pretty social person so I do find myself in this situation quite a bit. People always offer to make gluten free or ask what I would like and I VERY POLITELY say to them that it's very complicated as I have other allergies as well (corn for example which is in many gluten-free substitutes) and that while I REALLY APPRECIATE their offer I would never ask them to try to accommodate because it's just such a pain.  Then I will usually say something like "to make life easier, how about I help out an bring a salad?"  I will often bring a substantial side and/or large salad that I know I can eat along with a big bottle of wine and I've never heard complaints about it. But I do always communicate what I plan to bring and play it off like "this will just make your life easier" anyways!    Then I always know there is something safe for me and the host sees it as me trying to help out. 

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    Guest ourallergickids

    Posted

    I always offer to bring safe food for my kiddo. the biggest problem I face is social situations where my children feel left out. they feel a bit punished because they can't have a doughnut at church or other celebrations & functions. I would love to see comment on how to help my children when faced with unplanned "treats" at social functions. We recently found out that one is CELIAC and the other is very dairy allergic. 

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  • About Me

    Dr. Jean Duane is a social scientist currently focused on researching the social aspects of food/gluten sensitivities and celiac disease. Her company, Alternative Cook, LLC produces instructional DVDs (Chocolate, Mexican, Italian and Kids' Meals), video streams (alternativecook.comBake Deliciously! Gluten and Dairy Free Cookbook and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Gluten Free Cooking Cookbook. She shows how to cook without gluten, dairy and other food-allergens. Prior to becoming a social scientist, Dr. Duane produced several spots for Comcast's Video on Demand, made television appearances on PBS and was a featured speaker at two International Association for Culinary Professionals' Conferences and at the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America's International Conference. She developed recipes for Betty Crocker Gluten Free Cooking Cookbook, for Beautiful Sweets bakery and was featured in Better Homes and Gardens special Christmas Cookies. Dr. Jean Duane is a certified chef, has an MBA, and a PhD. A researcher, cooking instructor, speaker, and magazine writer, she won Kiplinger's "Dream in You" contest in 2006.

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