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Should the Entire Family be Gluten-Free?

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2004 edition of's Journal of Gluten-Sensitivity. 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.

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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. welcomes your comments below (registration is NOT required).

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6 Responses:

Gloria Brown
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said this on
11 Apr 2010 6:33:11 PM PST
The primary reason for people living together with one who has celiac is to safeguard that individual's health. When gluten is permitted into shared living space, the celiac eventually experiences damage from trace gluten and in the end emotional ties become as irreversibly damaged as does the disease from contamination.

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said this on
12 Apr 2010 2:19:40 PM PST
My daughter (who is 11) was diagnosed 3 years ago. We did not go gluten free as a family for all the reasons Dana lists above. She needed to get used to the fact that the world will not revolve around her diet, and get used to bringing something with her when we eat at a restaurant that doesn't have anything safe for her. I do bake almost everything gluten free, and we eat all of our pasta gluten free, but I also have bread, bagels, crackers, etc. mingling in our kitchen.

You have to be careful, clean constantly, and wash your hands all the time, but it can done, and done successfully - all of her follow up trips to the specialist and her bloodwork confirm that she is doing wonderfully. It has taught her to rely on herself to learn how to read the ingredients for foods at school and camp. To me it was the best way to go to make her ready for the reality of socializing as a teen and an adult with friends who aren't on her diet.

Andrea Kelly
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said this on
07 Sep 2012 3:27:42 AM PST
My 8 year old daughter was diagnosed 6 months ago. We did not go completely gluten-free in the household but we are very careful with her and separate utensils and pans etc. She just got results from her follow up blood work and found that she is still getting gluten in her diet. Although her levels came down significantly it is very discouraging that she is still somehow getting contaminated. Now I'm wondering if we do need to go gluten-free in the household.

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said this on
13 Apr 2010 8:39:57 AM PST
It's just my husband and me right now, and when I had to go gluten-free, I told him I wouldn't be cooking two separate meals. Two years later, my cooking has improved ten-fold from when I ate gluten, and he is very happy. He does have have bread and tortillas to make lunches, and a few gluten-filled snacks. But he is very careful, and cleans up afterward. And of course, when we eat out, he eats whatever he chooses.

However, I recently had a friend visit with her young daughter. She brought some Goldfish crackers as a snack. Watching this toddler eat, get crumbs everywhere, put her hands in her mouth and then touch everything, put the remote control in her mouth, etc. nearly gave me a heart attack. I felt I had to decontaminate my house when she left. I told my husband when we have kids, and they are that tiny, the house will be 100% gluten-free and he wholeheartedly agreed.

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said this on
17 Nov 2010 7:49:48 PM PST
To tell you the truth, for the past 6 months, we as a family have all been almost gluten free in support of our young son. We feel this has helped him accept having celiac disease and needing to eat differently than some people, but he isn't weird because mommy and daddy eat like him too.
And beside, who doesn't mind losing 10 pounds over the last two months. Yes, that is me. Good side benefit. A few more details of our discovery of our son's disease on our blog.

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said this on
07 Mar 2011 4:21:40 PM PST
There are four of us in our family: two celiacs and two "gluten eaters." However, since I prepare the food and I am the one who has to wash my hands 1,000 times if I prepare glutenous foods and g-free foods, I mainly serve gluten-free food. (When I tried to have us eat that way, my hands were so red and chapped from washing them all the time!) To me, it's just not worth the risk of me getting sick. I can totally relate to the comment above about a toddler. I have a three year old, and she leaves crumbs EVERYWHERE. I would much rather know that those are g-free crumbs! Now, when I do hot dogs or hamburgers, I do have wheat rolls for my husband and daughter, but I have my husband serve them and then he washes my daughter's hands as soon as we're done eating. I like doing that for them every now and then...but I couldn't live with the tension of having to clean every single crumb up like that all the time.

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My daughter dropped from TTG's of 50 to 18 in two months gluten-free. Keep up the good work!

Ok tessa! Point taken and I will remember that too.

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Having had a horrid time with a sore tongue recently, I can pass on a bit of advice from one consultant. It is good to ensure that one's ferritin is up to at least 40 to deal with sore areas in the mouth. Might be worth getting a blood test. Also, B12 is another one to watch.

I would trust the label over what some customer rep said on the phone but consider calling back and talk to a supervisor. I looked up the product and confirmed there was no gluten. I can not imagine gluten being added. The rep might think ?stuffed? is the same as ?stuffing? as in turkey. ? ...