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How to Survive Your First Gluten-Free Holiday
By Shirley Braden of gluten free easily

1. Formulate a basic plan on what you will eat.
Most families eat exactly the same dishes for holiday events year after year. Oh, sure, maybe Aunt Sally decided to make that new pumpkin trifle that she saw in the latest issue of Southern Living, but for the most part it’s the same dishes that grace the table over and over again---e.g., turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, Susie’s crab casserole, Jacquie’s corn pudding, Mom’s deviled eggs. So think about whether or not those dishes are naturally gluten free and/or consider if you trust your family to adapt them to be gluten free for you. My sister uses crumbled gluten-free bread (i.e., Ener-G Tapioca Loaf) or Van’s gluten-free waffles in place of gluten-full bread to make her crab casserole gluten free. I’ve been gluten free for over 8 years, so Susie has had lots of training in making dishes gluten free for me; I trust her and her casserole. I can’t say the same for every family member or their dishes though, even if the dish itself is naturally gluten free because that person might have a gluten-laden kitchen. Many of your family’s holiday dishes are safe or can be made safe for you to eat, though.

2. Eat at home first.
That means “just a little bit” before you head out the door IF you are a guest at someone else’s home and have no idea what will be served. For example, if you’re meeting your boyfriend’s family for the first time at their home for the holidays, you’ve probably inquired about what is being served, but haven’t “drilled” and really your boyfriend has no idea. Eating a little at home before you leave (or having a gluten-free snack option handy) is not a bad idea. Just eat enough or carry enough with you so that you won’t feel famished if all you end up eating is salad.

3. Eat first at the event.
That means be first in line or first to be served. I’ve shared this advice before on gfe, but I can’t stress this tip enough. It’s not about making sure that you get a helping of that aforementioned crab casserole or a piece of the crustless pumpkin pie (or maybe the crustless coconut one) that you brought yourself. This strategy is about ensuring that you eat before the food gets cross contaminated. And let’s be clear about this statement … if you are sharing gluten-free and gluten-full foods at the same gathering, the gluten-free dishes will almost certainly get cross contaminated. If you take even a moment to watch folks serve themselves, you’ll see what I mean. Sometimes the serving utensils get shared between dishes. So your gluten-free wild rice stuffing suddenly has a glob of regular stuffing in it; that act of “glutening” cannot be undone. Even when all the foods have their own serving utensils, the simple act of another person putting their food on their plate may well contaminate the food that is gluten-free. Case in point: Cousin Mary takes a piece of turkey. As she places it on her plate, the end of the serving fork touches her gluten-full gravy-topped mashed potatoes. The turkey serving utensil is now contaminated and when Mary places it back on the turkey plate, the turkey under it becomes contaminated. When you follow Mary and use the same serving utensil to get your own turkey, your turkey will also be contaminated with gluten. So eating first is critical to eating safely.

4. Try to ensure a “force field” around the gluten-free food.
Place your gluten-free food away from gluten-full food. If that is not possible, at least place your dish so that is behind other dishes or not in the “line of fire.” You want to ensure that crumbs from gluten-full dishes will not drop on your food as dishes are being pushed together/rearranged before the serving even begins or later when folks are serving themselves.

5. Be observant.
If you can’t eat first for some reason, like arriving late from your long distance travel, pay attention to how others are serving themselves. You want to see if food has already been cross contaminated. Did you just see your brother Ben take the butter knife and spread butter directly on his roll? Then that butter is off limits to you. There’s no point in yelling at Ben (Ben doesn’t get it … yet … you’ll educate him over time at other family events), but you do need to keep yourself safe.

6. Be patient and reasonable in your expectations with yourself and others.
If you are hosting, do not try to make every entrée, side dish, dessert, etc. for the Absolute Best Thanksgiving/Hanukkah/Christmas Ever! That’s a different kind of recipe---a recipe for disaster. Focus on simple dishes that you know you can make gluten free successfully. Dishes that folks will love though. Turkey Breast in the Slow Cooker (traditional or special). Easy cornbread. If you don’t want to make stuffing this year (even easy surprise tortilla chip stuffing) and you are allowing others in attendance to help out and bring gluten-full foods, let someone else bring the stuffing. Just be sure it is placed away from the gluten-free foods. If you are attending a non-gluten-free event, you must know that the host is unlikely to understand exactly what 100% gluten free means. Remember how little you knew when you were first diagnosed. Educate, but gently. Put yourself in their shoes and hopefully, they’ll try to do the same and will feed you well and safely.

7. Remember that it’s only one meal, one day.
If there aren’t many options, you truly will not starve to death if your friends and family don’t “get it” this year. Next year will be better. Throughout the year, you can show your family and friends how you eat gluten-free and how to feed you safely. That leads to …

8. Make a list of what worked for you this year and what you’d like to do differently next year.
This list will be neither good, nor bad, just an opportunity to improve your future holiday events. Consider it a Holiday “Lessons Learned.” You can save this information in a document file on your computer or as a memo on your smart phone, keep a holiday page in a special section of your planner, or perhaps---if you’re hosting a holiday event next year---tuck a handwritten list in those serving items that you only bring out for the holidays (e.g., in the heirloom gravy bowl or the crystal egg nog pitcher).

9. Remember that this is your first gluten-free holiday; there will be many more wonderful ones to come!
Your first gluten-free holiday seems the most challenging. These events will get better and better as you learn what to eat, how to prevent cross-contamination and ensure your safety, and how to make easy and terrific gluten-free dishes, and your family and friends learn the same.
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