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Gluten-Free? Awkward!

02/06/2015 04:20 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

Going gluten-free can feel clumsy enough without the added pressure of managing social situations. But unless you never go out, you go out sometimes (I know... the clarity with which I see things is unprecedented). And if you have celiac disease, those "sometimes" when you go out, you'll always be gluten-free. Even on holidays. And at parties and dinners. Still when receiving gifts, and when offered free samples...

1) Holidays
Holidays can be tough on anyone who has food restrictions. Generally holidays are times full of family, friends, and "fun foods," as my cousin called them at our last gathering, declining zucchini slices in favor of cornbread. The cornbread was gluten-free, as was everything else on the menu since I cooked it all myself. There is no "cheat day" for celiacs, so our "fun foods" still need to be gluten-free.

However, unless the host is gluten-free, usually the meal plan for holidays is not. The selection of "fun foods" and gluten-free foods show no signs of overlapping, and the shrimp cocktail appetizer becomes your entire meal. Even if you reminded the host in advance of your gluten-free needs.

How do you avoid a holiday like this? First, define what a "fun food" is to you. Is it an apple pie? Then bring a gluten-free apple pie with you to share with the rest of the guests. In my experience, if guests have a choice between a gluten-free dessert and a "regular" dessert, they'll choose the regular, so you won't have to fight for a piece of the gluten-free.

Even if all you eat is shrimp and gluten-free apple pie, that "fun food" pie will probably make it feel more like a holiday. And you won't feel strange sitting at a table full of food you can't eat, the host won't feel strange not having any food for you to eat, and the guests won't feel strange sitting near you with their plates full of variety as you nurse your apparent shrimp-only diet.

2) Parties
Last week I attended a family gathering. But it wasn't my family gathering, it was a friend's family gathering -- a friend who was raised in an entirely different culture. It was one of those gatherings where you want to lay low, fit in by not standing out, and therefore make a good impression.

Being gluten-free makes that difficult. We informed the matriarch/cook about my gluten-free dietary restriction in advance and offered to bring something so she wouldn't have to go out of her way to cook something gluten-free. We were assured there would be something for me to eat (shrimp cocktail, I ventured to guess).

But shortly after we arrived I realized that "gluten-free" had been mistaken for "vegetarian." No problem. I would just need to make sure that whatever vegetarian foods I did eat were also gluten-free.

But my hesitation to fill my plate without asking what the ingredients were didn't go over well. Between the language barrier, the culture barrier, and constantly turning down offers for pasta and sandwiches, I was certain that I looked skeptical and picky. The barrage of "try this," and "I cooked it myself" hit me all night.

Luckily, there are many different ways (and languages) in which to say "no thank you," and my constant refusal will be gone and forgotten much sooner than my stomach pains would have been if I'd indulged. I found that a refusal with a smile and a compliment on whatever I could eat was welcome (but also led to more food offerings).

3) Dinners
Dinner -- or breakfast, brunch, or lunch -- with friends, colleagues, and dates can be a strange source of awkwardness for celiacs. Unlike holidays and parties, where you may be a guest in someone else's home and not in control of what's being cooked, at restaurants you do have control. You can talk to the chef or waiter, and usually they are happy to accommodate a gluten-free meal by making a few minor tweaks. But is your gluten-free request a red flag to the people around you?

I was chatting with a friend the other day who knows about my medical requirements for eating gluten-free. He told me that if he's on a date with a girl and she says she's gluten-free, it's a deal breaker.

What? What if she has celiac disease? And if she doesn't, who really cares if she is or isn't gluten-free? Now, I can understand if he was dating a girl who constantly pushed him to eat gluten-free when he doesn't want/need to. That could get annoying. But a deal breaker just by saying "I'm gluten-free"?

Then I started thinking about celiacs having dinners with non-gluten-free clients. Do the clients think the same way when someone at the table orders gluten-free? Is it, perhaps subconsciously, an actual deal breaker?

The fact that it shouldn't be something that we feel the need to hide doesn't mean it isn't. The gluten-free diet has a bad reputation, and the gluten-free treatment is lumped together with it. The business of celiac disease has many layers indeed. It's a good thing the ordering and gluten-free revelation happens at the beginning of a meal -- you then have the next hour or so charm your clients.

4) Receiving Gifts
It's Valentine's Day. Your significant other is trying really hard to get up to speed with this new gluten-free diet of yours. This year, instead of cupcakes, you get chocolates. Seems safe, right? You may regret ripping into four of those innocuous-looking little morsels at once because of more than just pounds on the scale.

If they were manufactured on equipment that processes wheat, there may indeed have been cross-contamination. You look for the disclaimer on the label that confirms this is the case. Do you A) disclose that you can't indulge in those lovely, edible symbols of fondness, or B) do you let your beloved find them in the cabinet months later, untouched?

Either way seems pretty undesirable, but I've found that not being able to eat them (option A) is less insulting than not wanting to eat them (option B), so even though option A is disappointing for both sides, here's a secret: It's the thought that counts.

5) Free Samples
I was in a store recently where freshly baked brownies were chopped up into free-sample-sized pieces and put on the counter. Small store+cold day+hot brownies does not usually mean customers will back away from the counter, which is what I did.

As I moved empty-handed in the opposite direction as the rest of the shoppers, I was aware of those who found it strange that I would walk away from free samples. After all, they're "free." (The reason for the quotations, while I'm sure you could guess it, is another topic entirely and had no impact on my gluten-driven decision to avoid them.) Plus, it's "just a small bite."

In these situations, I find that a simple refusal rather than an explanation is best. No one really cares if you don't eat the free sample, and they're not listening to why you're not. They're not even really talking to you when they tell you "it's a free sample." They're saying it out loud, partially to themselves out of excitement, partially wanting to share that excitement and knowledge of free food with the apparently unknowing, brownie-less passerby (you).

There are many social situations in which you might find it awkward to have dietary restrictions. But in my experience, feeling awkward has a lot to do with external pressures, or your perception of how you are viewed. And when it comes to being gluten-free, I'm only concerned with my health.

Copyright © 2015 Celia Kaye
All Rights Reserved

Celia Kaye is the name under which writer-filmmaker Kaitlin Puccio pens articles about her experience with gluten sensitivity. Kaitlin has written a forthcoming children's book on Celiac and gluten sensitivity for the Celia Kaye lifestyle brand, and has been a contributor to MindBodyGreen.com. Follow her on Twitter, like her on Facebook, and visit her at CeliaKaye.com.

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