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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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    I’m 28 (almost 29) and have had celiac’s for about a year and a half now and I react to both gluten and dairy. I’ve become extremely sensitive (especially after cutting dairy out), I even got sick for a couple hours today after being in a small room for 5 minutes at work today where they were holding a pizza party (pizza was EVERYWHERE).  If I was faced with this situation, as I think some people have said similar things already, I would probably say “oh no! This has some ingredients with gluten and dairy in it, I’m so sorry I know you went through so much effort so that I wouldn’t have to bring my own food. I should have been more specific about my needs for cooking without cross-contamination too, I know it’s such a pain and seems kind of silly but I get sick from very little contact with gluten or dairy. Thank you so much for trying to make a meal for me, I really appreciate it and I’m sorry for not really explaining it well before I came. Do you mind if I run to the store really quick to grab something I might be able to eat? Is there anything you need me to grab? Next time I can just bring some food so that you don’t have to worry about it!” I’d probably try to say something along those lines, acknowledge that they tried their best,  mention how you know what a pain it is to avoid everything and how crazy it is that there’s hidden gluten and dairy EVERYWHERE and how crazy it is that I’m so sensitive, and then offer a quick solution so that I won’t be awkwardly standing around without food and starving to death. At first I used to suck it up & put my best foot forward and eat the food they had bought/made me (it was especially hard with my dad), but I can’t do that any more. I just feel so ill that it’s not worth it. 

    I went to a 4th of July party a couple weeks ago and brought chips & regular Oreos to share, and brought my own gluten-free/DF Oreos & chips & kept them in a separate bag away from everyone’s food, & I brought my own hot dogs & ketchup and asked if I could borrow the hostess’ microwave and a bowl so that I could heat up my hot dogs and she was completely fine with it. I didn’t make a big show out of it, just casually asked as if it was the most normal thing in the world. She knows about my Celiacs and is nice so that helps a lot. I was able to eat along with everyone else and didn’t feel awkward or out of place.

    You kind of have to think about it like you’re a baby but you’re also your own mom. Imagine you’re a mom prepping your kid/baby that has food allergies for a trip and have to pack them a food bag so that they won’t be sad and hungry or sick, except you’re the kid/baby :). Someone has to take care of you, and since you know yourself and your needs best, it has to be you! 

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    My daughter has been taught to not expect anything gluten free. We have always brought our own food, extra snacks, bars. We are also always accommodating to anyone who has dietary habits or allergies. So my daughter and I have to be a bit blunt with a touch of sugar. There is no big production. She and I learned to simply tell people that she cannot eat it, but thank you very much. That's it. I always tell people not to apologize, if after we read the ingredients and find that she can't eat it. 

    But we really haven't run into anyone that knows us or getting to know us, that has ever been offended or terribly oblivious to Celiac Disease, allergies, or intolerance being a real thing. Our family and friends listen. They are always asking if something is okay, sending us pics of ingredients, asking us to bring something. 

    Like everyone here we bring food, don't expect, and stop interacting with the ones who just can't wrap their heads around it. It is for survival. 

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    I'm six month's into a gluten free diet (Celiac) at the age of 67. A real life changer for me at this age. Well established friends and a history of eating out and socializing at other homes. I am finding that talking about my disease ahead of time and educating my family and friends has helped a great deal. No one so far has had any issue with the fact that I can't eat most of what is being served. Everyone has been helpful in suggesting gluten free places to meet up and eat. And when the conversation comes up, I just explain what I can eat and what I can't eat and why.

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    I was diagnosed as a celiac in my early 50's after being symtIomatic for more than 20 years. As an RN I was aware of celiac disease but did not have much knowledge about a gluten free diet.  I guess I was one of the lucky ones as my friends, co-workers and family all would ask me can you eat whatever they were serving.  I do still have some issues due to the fact my celiac is reactive and gluten free helps but the damage that has been done is the biggest problem I have.

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    I can’t address the topic properly because I’d never find myself in that situation. I always say I’ll eat ahead or take my own food to friends’ houses or restaurants = no stress. I agree most people and restaurants are delighted not to have to worry. 

    But hypothetically, I would just tell the hostess that it’s my bad for not explaining beforehand how complicated contamination is and ask for some fruit or raw veggies I can wash and eat. When I stay at a colleague’s home when I’m working in her city I wash her plates, cups and cutlery before I use it and I put everything on paper towels on her counter. Even she worries about all the crumbs lying around and when she bakes she’s concerned the flour in the air will contaminate my food but I keep everything in foil or cling wrap or Tupperware in her fridge until I eat it. My other friend I stay with is well aware and eats a lot of gluten-free food with me! 

    I also like microwave dinners so I will ask a host if she has a microwave and would she mind me bringing my own dish. I’ve never had anyone be offended. Most of my friends and family are great about it and surprise me too with unopened bags of chips and dips and cookies etc. 

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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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