How My Entire Family Thrives After Going Gluten-Free

Photo by Clique Images / Stocksy

When one person in the family has to deal with a food allergy, usually the entire family does, too. Mbg spoke with Zach Livingston from Columbus, OH, to find out how he and his family thrive after going completely gluten-free when he was diagnosed with celiac disease. Below, he shares his story and how they make it work.

This year, we finally hosted Thanksgiving at our house for the first time. Everyone came over. We did the turkey, and my wife Katie made a green bean casserole and baked a pie with puff pastry, our favorite. We thoroughly enjoyed every dish, and not a crumb in the entire feast had gluten in it.

I’ve been medically gluten-free going on 10 years now, after getting diagnosed with celiac disease as a junior in college in 2009. The gluten-free lifestyle hadn’t taken off yet, so it took a year-long process of elimination to figure out what in my diet kept making me sick. Shortly after I’d narrowed the problem down to dairy, I remember ordering a pizza with no cheese on it, and I’d never been so sick before in my life. It was full-on wheat that caused the reaction.

I began a gluten-free diet after that, which made me feel better and even eliminated the migraines I was experiencing. Over the years, I’ve learned how sensitive I am to wheat, barley, and rye—cross-contamination, for example, is real and is easily enough to make me sick.

So ever since Katie and I got married, our house has been completely gluten-free. To avoid having to cook two separate meals, my wife—who grew up in a family that is very much gluten-based—now eats gluten-free, and of course, so does our three-year-old daughter. But since the gluten-free lifestyle and food options have gone mainstream in the past eight to ten years—my daughter, for instance, eats chicken nuggets just like any other kid—the challenges that an entirely gluten-free family face on a daily basis aren’t so crazy.

Re-learning the basics

Photo by Schar Foods / Contributor

In the beginning, though, my wife had to re-learn how to cook. She needed to reform habits and master new techniques, like how to make pizza dough or cook with different types of gluten-free flour. I remember there was a real learning curve the first two years we were married, but now, she’s a pro at it. She’s learned how to make her favorite foods with gluten-free ingredients, and to her, it still tastes the same. That pie she baked for Thanksgiving? She baked it with gluten-free puff pastry from Schär, the makers of certified gluten-free bread, pasta, snacks, baking ingredients, and ready-made meals.

There was a real learning curve the first two years we were married.

Katie’s family, too, had no idea what to make for me seven years ago when I was brought into the fold. Get togethers and holiday dinners like Thanksgiving were harder because of that. But now, these dinners are no big deal. It’s taken a few years, but it’s been fun to see this transformation take place, and we’ve gotten it down pat by now.

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No missing out

I work from home, so every morning I’ll make a breakfast sandwich on a ciabatta roll from Schär. For lunch, I’ll usually make a flatbread or a sandwich with deli-style sourdough bread. I’m a bigger guy, and these slices make a big sandwich, like a New York-style reuben. Then when everyone’s home for dinner, we’ll do anything from tacos to soup.

When it comes to grocery shopping, we can find a gluten-free counterpart to basically anything out there. If we can’t find what we’re looking for at our local store, we’ll find it online. One of the foods I’ve found is the most similar to its gluten-full version are Schär’s table crackers. They’re crisp with a touch of salt, and if we’re just doing soup for dinner, the table cracker really adds to the meal.

If we can’t find what we’re looking for at our local store, we’ll find it online.

Optimizing our kitchen

In our kitchen, everything is gluten-free—down to the appliances to eliminate all possibilities for cross-contamination. We have a gluten-free toaster. So, if my brother and his wife come over and they want toast, they know not to use that toaster but to broil their bread in the oven or heat it up in a pan on the stovetop instead. One crumb in the toaster is a bad day if it gets in my system. My family understands it’s not really worth the risk.

I consider our knives a gluten-free appliance as well. And we also have separate shelf space, so if for some reason, we’d have gluten come into the house, it’ll go onto that one shelf in the cabinet away from our gluten-free stuff.

One crumb in the toaster is a bad day if it gets in my system. My family understands it’s not really worth the risk.

Honestly, very rarely does gluten even enter the house for parties or if we’re entertaining. But if and when we do, we’ll do a deep clean of the counters to make sure there’s no risk for cross-contamination. As long as my food doesn’t come into contact with it or I ingest it, I’m okay.

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Dealing with the challenges

Years ago when you went to the grocery store, food labels didn’t call out allergens, and the term “gluten-free” had a negative stigma around it. But thanks to labeling laws, if something has wheat in it, it’s called out. The flip side is that this lifestyle is also growing in popularity, and lots of companies are trying to play into the gluten-free fad.

So I always take a look at the back of the product—even if something says it’s gluten-free on the front, it can say it contains barley on the back. Simply put: For me, if it has wheat in it, it’s not going in my body. I go as far as checking if a food has been manufactured on the same equipment that also produces wheat, barley, or rye. Depending on what the product is, I usually won’t buy it. But it’s up to my discretion.

People don’t take into consideration how serious cross-contamination could be.

People don’t take into consideration how serious cross-contamination could be. Gluten is a food allergy. Some people joke about it, but it’s still a big misconception in my opinion. Gluten-free means gluten-free, and it shouldn’t matter if customers are celiac or just sensitive. If a restaurant server gives a notification that a dish should be gluten-free, the cook needs to change the knife and the gloves. Sometimes people don’t do that because it might add a little more time to the order.

That’s something we’re battling in this country, and it makes travel and dining out challenging sometimes. In our household, though, fortunately it’s a different story.

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