You’ve been sick for so many years you can’t even remember what it’s like to feel good anymore. You test and test and finally (finally!) your doctor comes back with a solid result – you’re gluten intolerant. No drugs are required: all you have to do is eat this ‘gluten free’ diet and you’ll heal, feel better, and have your future ahead of you. You skip back home, happy as a clam, and announce your diagnosis and new lifestyle to your family, only to watch their faces fall. The first question they’re asking: “Do I have to do this, too, just because you do?”
You know they love you – more than Oreos – but at this moment it sure feels like Oreos are getting all the love. It throws you into a tailspin – I don’t know, you think. Do you??
The more you learn about gluten, and where it’s found, and how cross contamination can be involved in cooking pots, the more you get concerned. But you also love your glutenoid family, and it does seem a bit harsh to cut Oreos completely out of their lives. What do you do??
The decision whether to have an entirely gluten-free household or a shared household is an important one. I’ve been in the gluten free community for 10 years. I know people whose homes are completely gluten free, and people who live in shared environments. What you decide to do to keep yourself healthy is an extremely personal choice, and a very important one. No single answer is the right one – you and your family must put together a plan that works for you.
So where do you start? Your best bet for long term compliance with a gluten free diet is to make sure that it is as easy, affordable, and emotionally safe as possible.
You will want to consider the following items:
What Percentage Of People In My Family Will Need This Diet?
In our house, three out of four must be gluten free, so it just makes more sense to have everyone eat the same thing. If you’ve got a family of ten, however, and only one is gluten free, the costs and considerations could be different.
When more people in the house have to be gluten free than don’t, or when the numbers are about the same, I have found that it is almost always better from a financial, emotional, and health standpoint to convert the whole house over to gluten free.
How Much Will It Cost Me To Have Two Of Everything Rather Than One?
When I first started this diet, I tried making gluten pasta for my husband and gluten free for myself. Besides the extra pans, the careful labeling of which was which, and all the other crazy-making at meal time, one day, while stirring the spaghetti, I realized that to ‘save’ money on not feeding everyone gluten free, I was actually spending more – how?
Well if I served everyone gluten free spaghetti, meat sauce, and salad, the cost for the meal would be about $8. Instead, by making two types of spaghetti, I was actually spending $10, and making more work for myself.
Never assume that just because gluten free is expensive, it’s more affordable to have two versions. I always tell people to look at the overall cost of the meal/party.
If you plan on eating a lot of gfree specialty items, making the same thing for everyone can be expensive: For instance gluten free pretzels and Ktoos cookies are scads and scads more expensive than their gluten containing counterparts.
From scratch and ‘from mix’ items, however, tend to work out to be more cost efficient if you’re making one thing everyone can eat. For instance, think about a birthday cake – if you try to have a gluten free and gluten version of the dish, you actually end up spending a considerable amount more on the total cost ($15 on average vs $9 on average) than if you’d just served everyone the same thing.
Additional costs you’ll need to consider: Can you afford to buy dedicated pans, cleaning rags, dishtowels, utensils, toasters, and other items for your shared environment? These items really add up, and while you may be able to segregate and decontaminate many of these items, the cost must be considered in advance for things that can’t be de-contaminated (such as a toaster).
How Much Of A Hassle Will It Be To Keep A Shared Environment?
Cooking for a family/crowd is always a bit labor intensive. You will need to decide if making ‘two’ of everything – and to spend the time cleaning up properly so that no cross contamination occurs – is worth it.
There is also a time element involved in decontaminating your pots, utensils, rags, and countertops. Is soaking everything in a weak bleach solution going to irritate you? How about labeling leftovers? An extra 10 minutes a night of prep and cleanup time adds up to about 5 hours of extra work each month.
Especially if you’re the chief cook and bottlewasher of the house, you’re going to want to decide if the extra work is worth it.
How Will I Prevent Cross Contamination?
Another item in your evaluation should be how capable, and willing not only you but also your family members will be to make sure that proper procedures are followed. If your teenager thinks it’s too much of a hassle to remember which toaster is for gluten free bread (or just wants to make twice the toast in half the time), you might find yourself in trouble, and not know why.
Preventing cross contamination is both knowledge and labor intensive, and you will need to understand and commit fully to doing what is required of you (and your loved ones) if sharing an environment is something you decide on.
Additionally, if it is your child who needs to be gluten free, and you are trying to teach chores, you need to consider how they are going to be able to clean up gluten containing items, since you are trying to teach them they should not be in contact with gluten at all.
How Is Eating Separately Going To Affect Me/My Child?
While you may have no problem eating differently than other members of the family, if the gluten free person in your house is a child or teenager, you may also want to consider the emotional ramifications of how they’ll feel always having to eat differently, and ‘not being allowed to’ touch, eat, etc, the things the rest of your family and extended family will be eating.
You’ll also want to realize that there will be emotional responses to potlucks and parties held at your house, if you tell relatives and friends they cannot bring their famous casserole to the next event. We have had this discussion and it’s a tough one – is holding the line something you are able to do graciously?
You will also have to consider the emotional ramifications for those who do not medically need the gluten free diet – having a shared environment means that you and your glutenoid family will have to constantly monitor and correct for any potential health hazards. And while it is true that if your family members are not detail oriented or inclined to be team players, your own resentments would build if you or a loved one get sick because they didn’t do what they should, it is also true that your family members may deeply resent being forced to ‘do without’ because of your health concerns – especially if they are willing/able to prevent contamination properly and if financial considerations are not an issue.
Which Is Easier: High Vigilence/Low Sacrifice or Low Vigilence/High Sacrifice?
In the end you alone know whether you and your family members will be able to do what it takes to succesfully live in a shared environment without getting sick. If you think that any member of your family is likely to sabotage your efforts through selfishness or lack of diligence, the safest route for you is to convert your whole house over to a safe environment, even though this means that they will have to have their Oreos at a friend’s house.
If, however, you feel safe and know you can trust your family members to protect you, and if there are financial considerations, you must all be willing to be constantly on the top of your game.
In the end, this decision is going to look different for you than for every other house that’s gluten free – and that’s okay! Some people have a completely shared environment and separate menus, some keep a generally gluten free environment, but allow gluteny snack food items, and yet others maintain a completely gluten free environment 24/7. You may even find you rotate between methods. Whatever works for you emotionally and financially without getting you sick, is going to be what you stick with in the end. And really what’s important is that you’re healthy.