Coeliac disease and summer food – 8 ways to make BBQs, buffets and picnics less stressful

I adore summer – sunshine on my face, beautiful gardens, strawberries-that-taste-like strawberries-should… and, until a couple of years ago, summer meals where everyone brings something to share.

Coeliac disease has taken away some of my enjoyment of barbecues, picnics and buffet teas. They should be gloriously chilled out affairs, but they make me quite anxious now, worrying about what’s in everything and whether someone pulled off a bit of deliciously crummy baguette directly over the meat plate.

I was at a lovely family picnic last weekend where there was lots of delicious gluten-free food – yippee! The only problem was the bread and pasta lurking at the edges, ready to spread it’s gluteny crumbs all over the rest of the food. I grabbed a plateful at the beginning and then found myself watching the table like a hawk as forks and breadsticks got dipped in the different dishes, “Note to self, can’t eat any more of that… or that… oh, or that.” Ultimately I decided it was safest not to eat anything else as the risk of cross- contamination was high.

It was no-one else’s fault – it’s just unfortunate that I have to take this level of care when I’m trying to relax with friends and family. When you have a dietary requirement, you are well-drilled on the pitfalls of accidentally consuming something that will make you ill. It becomes subconscious. But if you’re not living with an allergy, intolerance or disease like coeliac day-to-day, those precautions just aren’t part of your psyche. It’s much more difficult to avoid doing things that might cross-contaminate if it doesn’t directly affect your guts!

However, I will defiantly pick up my plastic cutlery and ice pack and refuse to have my summer food joy stolen! I’m learning that there are certain scenarios you can plan for and steps you can take to make these lovely events less daunting.

Here are some ways you can make shared food events less stressful with coeliac disease (or any allergy, intolerance or other dietary need).

  1. Host – do the food on your terms. Sometimes I’ll offer to host a barbecue because it’s actually much more relaxing for me to be in control of the kitchen, what goes on the grill and how the table is arranged. I request people only bring GF meat (no cheapo sausages here!) so I know all the meat is safe.
  2. Plan ‘safe’ treats in. If I’ve found an event particularly tricky food-wise, sometimes it takes the sting of disappointment off to do something else a bit special and foody – like going for a picnic with my family that will be just our food or making an epic GF cake.
  3. Skip the queue – get in there first. Ah, I hate this one but it’s necessary. “Do you mind if I go first just to make sure everything is gluten-free?” might sound a bit over-the-top, but politeness is much less important than avoiding the risk of being ‘glutened’. Some people might not understand, but that really isn’t your concern. The toddlers can wait to shove their wheaty hands in the crisp bowl!
  4. Check, check, check. Never assume any food is safe. I know it’s obvious, but I can get carried away by the delicious steaky fumes and think, “It’ll be fine!” I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes it’s not.
  5. Take the opportunity to educate. Sometimes these moments can spark a decent conversation about why I have to avoid gluten – what coeliac disease is (an autoimmune condition, not an allergy!), what it does to me physically and the long-term damage that gluten exposure can cause. It not only helps others understand why you are being a bit ‘extra’, it will help out people with coeliac they come across in the future. And on more than one occasion, those conversations have prompted people to get checked for coeliac disease as they start to recognise some tell-tale symptoms.
  6. Keep non-safe foods separate. This sounds obvious, but if the setting is right you could ask bread etc to be kept down one end of the table to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Obviously that’s not always possible, but it’s worth doing when it is.
  7. Bring your own or eat before you arrive. I have a big barbecue coming up at a friend’s house. There will be lots of people and everyone will be bringing. I thought about it the other day and decided I wouldn’t go, before realising I can just go for the booze! I’ll eat something first so I won’t be craving burgers too much! If I’m not sure what an event will be like, I’ll pop some snacks in my bag so I have something to munch on if there is nothing safe to eat.
  8. Don’t be embarrassed. One of the things I find hardest is explaining to people why I’m being fussy/ not eating/ diving at the buffet before the kids get a chance to get involved. I just want to blend in! But there’s absolutely no shame in having a medical need. You’re not on a fad diet and you’re not being selfish. Eating properly is equivalent to medication, and noone would want to deprive you of taking drugs you needed to keep you well. You’re putting people out for good reason – in my experience, most people would prefer I come with my dietary needs than not come at all.

So there we have it – any other tips gratefully received. Once more unto the picnic, dear friends…

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