Should the entire family be gluten-free?

By Danna Van Noy

The last reason I cite in this blog against a having the entire family be gluten-free is probably the most compelling one, and is the primary reason I didn’t have our entire family go GF when Ty was diagnosed: it’s not reality.

In the more-than-three-decades that I’ve been involved in the wonderful world of “gluten freedom,” one of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently is whether or not the entire family should be gluten-free.  And having “been-there, done-that,” I understand the thinking.  It’s simpler, for one, making one meal instead of a few … but for another, it makes the person who “has” to be gluten-free feel more part of the “norm.”  But there are a bunch of other considerations to be weighed.

I’m going to answer this in a way that may not be satisfying, because there’s no definitive right or wrong here.  If you’re dealing with a child who is on the gluten-free diet because of celiac disease or other health issues, the situation is a little different than if you’re dealing with an adult.  Let’s go through some pros and cons (regardless of age).

Pros: It’s easier when the whole family is gluten-free, because you’re making only one version of every meal, as opposed to two or three.  There is less risk of contaminating safe foods because there aren’t any “unsafe” foods in the house.  Preparation is easier, and there’s no need for the “gob drop” (if you don’t know what this is, please read one of my books!) or any other tricky food-preparation maneuvers.  Finally, from a psychological standpoint, you avoid having some people feel ostracized when their food is made separately and they’re eating different foods from the rest of the family.

Cons: It’s more expensive and sometimes more labor-intensive for everyone to eat specialty foods (Try not to be a “saver.”  Sometimes, after spending $3 each for sugar ice cream cones, I’d find myself guarding them like a hawk.  I found myself accumulating several boxes of untouched stale cones).  Feeding the whole family homemade gluten-free bread at nearly $7 per loaf, when 3 out of 4 family members could be eating a commercial brand, has an impact on the family’s time and finances.

More important, forcing the entire family to be gluten-free because of one person’s dietary restrictions can put a strain on relationships.  Sometimes this works in both directions.  In my family, for instance, my daughter would likely have resented being forced to be on a 100% gluten-free diet (we were pretty close to that anyway, mostly because it’s healthier) just because that’s how her brother Tyler eats.  Interestingly, though, it works the other way too.  Tyler didn’t want his sister to be deprived of a bagel, nor did he resent her for being able to eat one (especially because the gluten-free bagels you can buy are so good these days!).  Resentment is almost inevitable at some level if family members are forced to give up their favorite foods for one member of the family––at least when kids are involved.

The last reason against “making” the family be entirely gluten-free is probably the most compelling one, and is the primary reason I never forced my whole family to be gluten-free: it’s not reality.  Again, this is more important when a child in the family has the restricted diet, because the reality is that this world is filled with gluten, and most people on this planet eat it––lots of it.  Children need to learn how to handle the fact that for the rest of their lives, they’ll be surrounded by people eating gluten.  If that makes them feel bad, sad, or mad, that’s okay.  What better place to learn to deal with those unpleasant emotions than in the loving environment of their own home?  They may be more tempted to cheat because the food is in their home and others are eating it; again, there may be no better place to deal with temptation and learn to resist it than in the loving environment of their own home.

The compromise: In no way am I advocating someone waving a Krispy Kreme donut in your face singing, “Nah-nee-nah-nee-nah-nee…you can’t eat this” in an effort to build character.  With the excellent gluten-free products available today, it’s easier than ever to compromise by eating “relatively” gluten-free.  Try to buy salad dressings, condiments, spices, and other foods and ingredients that are gluten-free when you can.  For foods like pasta, bread, and pizza, you can make two varieties, one of which of course is gluten-free and prepared carefully to avoid contamination.

Cost aside, I don’t see any reason to bake “regular” cookies and baked goods anymore.  The gluten-free mixes and products off the shelf are so incredible that lots of people prefer them to “the real deal.”  They’re easy enough that the kids can make them themselves, and when they were younger, it was a psychological upper for my gluten-free son when his sister and friends couldn’t get enough of “his kind” of cookies.

You’ll probably find that because it’s easier to make one meal than two, you’ll gravitate toward gluten-free menus.  With good menu planning, and a kitchen well-stocked with gluten-free condiments and ingredients, it’s likely that your entire family will inadvertently become mostly gluten-free without realizing it, and without the resentment that might have developed if the issue had been forced.

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